The 1978 BMW M1 should have been simply a road-legal version of a racing car, but it was so much more rounded and accomplished than that.
More than any other mass-market(1) automobile manufacturer, BMW has built its reputation on producing dynamically accomplished cars, designed to appeal to keen drivers above all else. It is a moot point as to whether the vast majority of BMW drivers have the skills and talent to exploit such cars to their maximum potential, but many are surely flattered by the inference that they might be so endowed.
BMW’s performance cars have been, until relatively recently, traditional front-engined and RWD(2) in layout. By separating the steered and driven wheels, such cars offer a pure driving experience, uncorrupted by the torque-steer that affects powerful FWD models. That RWD can be more of a handful in extreme conditions than FWD(3) merely adds to its allure for the driving enthusiast.
One area of the performance car arena that was previously unexploited by BMW was the mid-engined supercar. In 1972, Jochen Neerpasch was appointed head of BMW Motorsport GmbH, the company’s newly formed motor racing subsidiary. Neerpasch wanted to design and build a car to challenge Porsche in what was then known as the Procar Group Four motor racing series. In order to be eligible to compete, the cars had to be homologated. This required that a minimum number of roadgoing versions had to be built and sold to the general public. In this case, that number was 400.
BMW’s expertise was in mass-production, not hand-building small numbers of highly specialised cars, so it commissioned Lamborghini to design, test and build a suitable car, which would carry the name M1(4). Renowned chassis engineer Gianpaolo Dallara was brought into the project as he had the expertise in how to get the best out of the excellent but complex Pirelli P7 tyres that had been specified. The M1 would feature a spaceframe chassis constructed from square-section steel tube. Dallara and Lamborghini test driver Stanislao Sterzel worked together on development and testing of the M1 at the Nardò Ring test track.
The M1’s engine was specially developed by BMW Motorsport using the production unit from the 635CSi coupé as a starting point. It was a 3,453cc chain-driven DOHC in-line six-cylinder unit with a cast-iron block and an alloy 24-valve cylinder head. The engine was fitted with Kugelfischer-Bosch fuel injection and a contactless Magneti-Marelli electronic distributor(5). Transmission was via a five-speed ZF transaxle gearbox driving the rear wheels.
Giorgio Giugiaro’s Italdesign was chosen to style the body for the M1. The inspiration for the new design was the BMW Turbo, a concept car styled by Paul Bracq, BMW’s Chief Designer, and unveiled in 1972. The Turbo was a gull-wing door sports car with a heavy emphasis on safety. It featured anti-lock brakes, radar distance control and lateral acceleration sensors, and was powered by a 2-litre turbocharged engine from the BMW 2002.
The M1’s body was constructed from unstressed GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) panels with a horizontal join at bumper level, which created an indented feature line around the perimeter of the car. The concept’s gull-wing doors were replaced with conventional items and its louvred panels aft of the doors were replaced with rear side windows featuring BMW’s signature Hofmeister kink in their trailing edges.
One detail from the concept was carried over unaltered. This was the nose treatment, with pop-up headlamps above a slim horizontal slot bisected by a pair of rectangular kidneys, a stylised minimalist version of the traditional BMW grille. Fittings from BMW’s production cars were used where appropriate, such as the exterior door handles, the rather blocky if practical door mirrors, and the tail light units from the E24-generation 6 Series coupé.
Six prototype cars were built and transported to Munich for evaluation, but Lamborghini’s fragile and overstretched finances were to cause a major interruption to the project. When it was revealed that a £1.1m loan to Lamborghini from the Italian Government to provide working capital for the M1 project had been spent elsewhere, BMW cancelled the contract and swooped on Lamborghini’s Sant’ Agata works to seize design drawings and tooling for the car.
The project was salvaged by an ingenious if highly convoluted build process. Italdesign agreed to take over assembly of the GRP body at its Turin works(6), which was expanded to accommodate the M1, from parts manufactured by a company called Resina, based in Modena. A company called Marchese, based in Bologna, assumed responsibility for fabricating the chassis. Body and chassis would then be shipped to the Baur(7) works in Stuttgart, where the M1 was assembled and trimmed, then shipped to BMW Motorsport in Munich for final tuning and testing.
After the protracted development process, the M1 was finally launched in 1978. Car Magazine’s then reporter, Steve Cropley, had to wait until the summer of 1980 to test drive the car. His findings were reported in the August issue. The M1 confounded Cropley’s expectations. Most road-going cars built for homologation purposes are thinly disguised competition machines, with comfort and refinement very low on the list of priorities. The M1, however, was remarkably free of both mechanical and wind noise at speed, the ride was excellent, and the engine was described as “silken”. The unassisted rack and pinion steering was heavy at parking speeds, with just 2.35 turns from lock to lock, and the turning circle was “decidedly inconvenient” at 13m (42.7ft). However, it had great feedback and was very stable at high speeds.
The normally aspirated engine delivered maximum power of 277bhp (207kW). Its great strength was “its wide band of power delivery, its smoothness and its unobtrusive nature”. That said, the claimed top speed of 160mph(8) (258km/h) seemed optimistic: “You’d need to over-rev the engine and find the right piece of road” to have a chance of achieving this, and 150mph (242km/h) seemed more realistic. The claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 5.8 seconds.
The brakes were highly effective, providing “the progressiveness and bite that racing drivers of a decade ago could only dream about”. The gearchange was good when used with concentration but “could do with more precision and better gate definition”. Handling and grip were both exceptionally good, with “practically no sign of body-roll and tyre distortion”.
The interior was “a dark and claustrophobic place”, however. A flat vertical panel contained two main and four supplementary instruments. Two of the latter, the voltmeter and oil pressure gauge, were completely obscured by the thick wheel rim. Cropley, at 6’2” (188cm) tall, had to adopt a “knees-high” seating position to keep his head free of the roof lining. The car was well equipped with air-conditioning, electric windows and electrically adjustable mirrors. Trim materials were “more durable than sumptuous”.
Overall, the M1’s most impressive feature was its refinement. “No other car of the mid-engined layout, or M1’s performance potential, even goes near it in its ability to suppress noise or deal softly and quietly with the most bone-jarring combinations of bumps”. The car seemed almost too well rounded for its primary purpose as a racer. “The tools are too good for the tradesmen. Pearls before swine, I say”.
This was indeed high praise for the BMW M1. A total of 453 cars were built between 1978 and 1981. The required 400(9) were road-going examples, with 53 built for motorsport. Most of these were raced in a one-make competition established by BMW Motorsport, the Procar BMW M1 Championship. This competition was organised to stimulate sales of the M1 and ran for only two seasons. Austrian Nicki Lauda won the inaugural championship in 1979, while Brazilian Nelson Piquet won the second in 1980.
Today, the M1 is a highly prized classic and asking prices are typically in excess of £500,000(10) which is US$700k or €585k at current exchange rates. That is roughly five times what the M1 cost new in 1979. It was BMW’s first mid-engined car and the company would not make another until it launched the i8 plug-in hybrid in 2014.
(1) By mass-market, I mean a manufacturer that produces a range of different models and does not specialise solely or mainly in sports cars.
(2) BMW launched its first 4WD saloon car in 1985, the 325i Allroad and now offers its X-Drive 4WD system on the majority of its models.
(3) FWD cars, when pushed too hard into a bend, tend to understeer, which is relatively easily controlled by lifting off the accelerator. RWD cars under the same conditions (depending on layout and suspension geometry) can snap into more difficult to control oversteer.
(4) This was a simple contraction of Motorsport One.
(5) An early iteration of electronic ignition.
(6) Unlike other Italian carrozzieri, Italdesign had no manufacturing facilities and the BMW M1 remains the only model it assembled.
(7) Which also built the Opel-based Bitter CD Coupé.
(8) Matching the M1’s most obvious competitor, the Porsche 911 Turbo (930 series).
(9) Or 399, according to some accounts.
(10) Although, at the time of writing, I came across one example in dark blue for the bargain price of £335k.