BMW M1 – Bavaria’s true super sports car of the 70s

BMW M1

When BMW chose the term 1 Series in 2004 to introduce the first compact class, the number 1 was deliberately intended to be small in distinction to the saloons. Add the letter M and the small number becomes the biggest hit of its time, succeeding in 1978 with the BMW M1.
The M1 goes back to the prototype BMW Turbo (E25), which the then chief designer Paul Bracq was still designing. A futuristic vehicle with gullwing doors and a turbocharged four-cylinder mid-engine. At that time, the Turbo was not planned as a production vehicle, but as a design study and technology carrier. At this time, Paul Bracq and BMW simply want to show themselves, the public and also the competition what is possible and where the journey can go.

THE M STANDS FOR MOTORSPORT

The M1 owes the fact that the bold design study became a production car to motorsport. Touring car racing was particularly popular in the 1970s. Due to the closer proximity to the public, the races at the Nürburgring, Le Mans and the other famous race tracks sometimes attract a much larger audience than the formula series.

BMW is also quite successful at this time. With the “Batmobile”, the 3.0 CSL, they take numerous (class) victories. For such an ambitious racing team and a proud brand, however, the aim cannot be to just win the class, but to reach the top of the overall podium at Le Mans and elsewhere.

On the way there, there is only one obstacle, which is called homologation. In order to be able to use a car in motorsport at that time, you have to build 1,000 identical production cars and their weight has to be the same as the weight of the racing cars.

The last point in particular is the big sticking point for the BMW cars of the time. They are all rather comfortably designed and therefore heavy and hardly competitive with the lighter cars of the competitors. So a car has to be made that is designed for the race track and then converted for the road, not the other way round.

The team led by BMW Motorsport Director Jochen Neerpasch therefore made representations to the board of directors and put forward their concerns. As is always the case with ambitious goals, there is a danger that the high-ups will dismiss such a project as costly showmanship for the gallery and the idea will peter out before it gains momentum. But Neerpasch’s ears are open and he gets his “go” for the continuation of Project E26, as it is called in development.

It is agreed to compete in the GT category, which simplifies the homologation rules. Instead of 1,000 cars, only 400 have to be built in the first year.

BMW M1 – PRODUCTION WITH OBSTACLES

Motorsport GmbH is appointed to oversee development and production. A year after confirmation with the BMW board, a contract is signed with Lamborghini for the production of the M1. A total of 800 units are to be built in Sant’Agata Bolognese in Italy. 400 units in the first year to obtain homologation, then about one more M1 per day in the following year.

Lamborghini delivers the first prototype just six months after signing the contract. Compared to the E25 turbo prototype four years earlier, the E26 presents itself more matter-of-factly. Giorgio Giugiaro’s Italdesign design studio took up the general design language, but translated it a little more into reality. Among other things, the gullwing doors fall victim to this.

However, the collaboration with Lamborghini is not under a good star. Within 18 months of the first prototype, production of the series vehicle is to begin. Due to Lamborghini’s acute payment difficulties, BMW is forced to terminate the contract and find an alternative production route in a hurry.

As is often the case with things born of necessity, the production route was then not quite so simple. The bodywork is manufactured by Italdesign in Turin, the marriage with the engine and drivetrain takes place at Baur in Stuttgart. Final acceptance and delivery finally take place at Motorsport GmbH in Munich.

UNCOMPROMISINGLY SPORTY ON ALL LEVELS

Even the sober figures on the drive and the body make impressive reading. The flat, less than 114 cm high body sits crouched on a lattice frame. Untypical of BMW, the regulations on lamp height in the USA mean that folding headlights have to be built into the flat, aerodynamic bonnet.

The interior can also be described as businesslike and sporty. The pedals are slightly offset to the right because of the wide frame, but otherwise the interior feels quite comfortable for a sports car. The crisp ZF five-speed gearbox feels good in the hand and the instruments are very tidy. Some parts are already familiar from the rest of the BMW portfolio, so not every switch has to be newly developed.

The chassis is quite comfortable for a sports car in this class. The all-round view, especially to the rear, could of course be better, but that is really an expected and justifiable limitation. Besides, the M1 is not made for parking in the city centre, but for the motorway, the racetrack of the little man.

And that’s where the inline six-cylinder M88 engine, mounted transversely behind the driver, really comes into its own. In pure numbers: 3.5 litres displacement, two overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, mechanical Kugelfischer injection system with single throttle valves, 204 kW/277 hp at 6600 rpm, 330 Nm torque at 5000 rpm, top speed 262 km/h. For Jürgen Lewandowski, this was the most expensive six-cylinder engine available at the time, as he wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 1979.

In the years that followed, the M88 engine formed the basis for two more BMW sports cars. Fitted with electronic fuel injection, it was used in the M635 CSI (E24) in 1983 and in the first M5 (E28S), with output rising to 210 kW/286 hp.

THE PROCAR CHAMPIONSHIP WITH THE BMW M1

With its performance and sporty appearance, the M1 thus becomes a veritable “exotic car for everyday use on the road”, as Jürgen Lewandowski aptly describes it.

Its real home, however, remains the race track. Since BMW is unable to produce 400 units for homologation within a year due to changes in the production process, they are faced with the problem of having to build a car for two years without being able to do “real” motorsport.

But necessity is the mother of invention, as we all know, so the motorsport team comes up with a trick, the foundation of their own racing series, the BMW M1 Procar Championship.

For Jochen Neerpasch, the Procar series is a “unique racing series that no longer exists today and probably never will again”. The races take place on Saturdays as part of European Formula 1 weekends. The top five Formula 1 drivers from Friday practice will compete against 20 to 25 of the best touring car drivers.

BMW has to spend a lot of money on prize money for the series. On the side of the organisers Formula 1 and FIA, it is up to Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley to also do some convincing to get drivers and teams to take part in this additional series as part of Formula 1.

1980 BMW M1 weiß (11)

Apart from the Ferrari and Renault teams, both of which see the M1 publicity in competition with their own road cars, all the other teams are open to the Procar idea. The drivers are fond of the racing series anyway and of winning an M1 as a prize for the champion. “I must say the Formula 1 drivers had fun. It was a competition afterwards in Friday practice to be in the top five if possible to be able to drive Procar. That was a very interesting situation,” says the father of the M1 Jochen Neerpasch, not without pride about this time.

For the spectators, the racing series is highly exciting and interesting anyway. The best drivers from formula racing and touring cars compete in identical vehicles. In 1979 and 1980, the Procar series is held. Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet are the two overall winners of those years, who can look forward to a BMW M1 and a cash prize. The runners-up received a 528i, the third a 323i. After the end of the second season, the M1 achieves homologation and can also participate in other racing events.

However, BMW’s involvement in Formula 1 then shifts the priorities. Development money then flows into the new Formula 1 engine, “the further development of the M1 was neglected,” as Neerpasch candidly admits with some regret in his voice.

So what is the first thing that remains in the memory of the M1? The dream car image of the 80s, the Procar series, the Art Cars (more on this from page 20)? Maybe in the end it’s simply the appearance when you see this rare wedge on the road.

In the seventies, the M1 is the kind of car that big and small turn heads for. Today, strictly speaking, it is no different. A fact that is also reflected in the market prices. Back then, it cost DM 100,000 when new; today, for the few treasures available on the market, the journey starts at around EUR 500,000.


BMW M1 | TECHNICAL DATA

Series E26
Construction period 1978-1981
Displacement 3,453 ccm³
Power 204 kW/277 hp
Top speed 162 mph (262 km/h)
Length 4,359 mm
Width 1,824 mm
Height 1,138 mm
Weight 1.300 kg
Number of units 460
Original price 1979 113,000 DM


BOOK TIP

Jochen Neerpasch, Jürgen Lewandowski: BMW M1: The Story, Delius Klasing 2008, ISBN-10: 3768825124 / ISBN-13: 9783768825122

BMW M1 Jochen Neerpasch Buch


Photos BMW AG

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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