German Automaker’s Sports Car: BMW M1 History & Reviews

BMW M1 Sports Car

BMW M1 History

Originally makers of aircraft and aircraft engines, BMW were formed from the merger of two separate German car companies to meet the demand for airplanes occasioned by World War I. Their first car was, strangely, an Austin Seven built under license in Germany as the Dixi by Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, incorporated into BMW in the early twenties. From this they progressed to sports touring cars and developed a fine reputation.

At the end of World War II the partition of Germany left them starting virtually from scratch and they produced some odd vehicles until Paul Hahnemann set them back to work building a new four-door sporting sedan with a lightweight four-cylinder ohc engine. From then on the company had continued as a leader in this field, with Alex von Falkenhausen’s super-efficient engines a major factor.

Using motorsport as a sales tool is commonplace for the industry, and BMW have been no exception. With a model range exclusively of fast tourers, the company obviously appeared in relevant races and during the sixties and early seventies featured heavily in the European Touring Car Championship. While continually demanding and competitive, this kind of racing is far from glamorous, and to most people German cars in racing meant only one thing – an endless procession of Porsches. The Group 5 BMW CSL developed around 1000hp in turbo form but was less reliable than without it; although they kept Porsche on their toes they still couldn’t break the hold of the smaller cars. Clearly BMW needed a smaller and lighter vehicle of their own, a two-seat wedge which would allow that 1000hp to be used.

They had, in 1972, shown such a car around Europe; a bright orange mid-engined gull wing which had never been intended for production. However, it provided a platform, a base to work from, and around this was designed the M (for Motorsport) 1. In order to qualify for Group 5 racing – and the Ml was never intended to be anything more than a completely shameless homologation exercise – 400 of the cars had to be built, and this in itself created problems. They had to be built in two versions; a road car had to be available since there was no chance that race requirements would use 400 units and less chance that a road car would need the full 1000hp.

BMW M1 Features & Reviews

BMW M1 built on a space frame chassis, the body was styled by Ital design in fiberglass, with conventional doors, and the driver sat well forward, ahead of the 3423cc straight-six engine which had four valves per cylinder in an alloy head. Road cars had chain-driven overhead camshafts and timed injection, delivering 280hp at 6500 rpm, which was enough to give a 0-60mph time or 5.4 seconds, 0-125 in 20.9 seconds with the top speed of 160mph. The car was simply a detuned racer on road, something which BMW made no attempt to hide – in fact the sales brochure went to considerable pains to point it out. The main difference between road and track power plants was that the race engine have gear-drive to the cams and slide-throttle injection. Dry-sump lubrication was common to road and race cars, as were four-wheel ventilated disks, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent coil-and-wishbone suspension; while a ZF five-speed gearbox was chosen. This box appears in large numbers of supercars from different makers, generally because it’s the only one which can handle the huge power outputs – in this case a rewarding 470hp at 9000rpm without the benefit of turbocharging.

But the BMW factory was by no means geared to the production of low-volume cars, still less the handbuilt care which would have to go into anything as finely tuned and balanced as the Ml. So they looked around for someone to build it for them. The search led, not unnaturally, to Italy, where the construction of such cars is relatively commonplace. Eventually a deal was struck with Feruccio Lamborghini’s underworked factory, badly hit by the recession.

That this was a mistake soon became apparent. Lamborghini’s cash shortage was so acute that subcontractors and suppliers were witholding vital materials and parts, afraid that they would never be paid. Without them Lamborghini were stuck in the vicious circle which precedes collapse, unable to build the cars and thus unable to get the money to pay their suppliers. They went bust in 1978, two years after the Ml project had got under way, and having built precious few prototypes. Without the 400 production models needed to qualify for Group 5 BMW were now stuck with a handful of exceedingly expensive cars, and in order to satisfy management they had to come up with something to justify their existence.

The solution they arrived at was the Procar series, which was designed by BMW and FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association), originally to put the top five Formula One qualifiers into a 24-car grid composed entirely of M1s immediately prior to each of the F1 Grands Prix. Drivers’ sponsorship contracts put paid to that idea, but a way round it was eventually found at great cost and the series went ahead. Six of the 470hp cars were built by BMW themselves at Munich, and the rest of the 24-car grid was built by Osella of Italy and Project Four in Britain.

It was an eight-round series and winners included Elio de Angelis, Nelson Piquet, Jacques Lafitte, Hans stuck and eventual series winner Niki Lauda. And production of the road cars was now in the hands of coachbuilders Baur, who were making them at a very slow rate. So slow, in fact, that by 1980 there were still nowhere near the 400 needed for homologation into Group 5, leaving BMW to sponsor yet another expensive ‘stopgap’ Procar series, which was a close-fought battle between Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet.

It was the last year that the Procars were fielded. BMW were in any case turning towards straight Formula One involvement, and even though they eventually made a total of 399 road cars and 50 race cars, they never really launched their planned assault on Group 5. Some were built in Switzerland by Peter Sauber and did quite well – an M1 won the Nurburg-ring 1000kms in 1981 – but the intention to put the 1000hp turbo Group 5 cars into contention came to nothing. But in private hands the race cars have done rather better and lasted somewhat longer – an Ml took Class B at the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours.

The road cars continue to be esteemed collectors’ items – as would almost anything which was limited to a numbered build of 399 units – although not purely for their rarity. Like other BMW products the BMW M1 are an excellent piece of machinery – and even though it is a detuned racer it makes none of the compromises which owners of, say, road going GT40s or Lola T70s are forced to live with. Although the cockpit is small it is not cramped, but like many mid-engined two-seaters legroom for the six-foot-and-over driver is negligible. The interior trim and dash covering are far from spartan, although the instrumentation, with 170mph speedo and tachometer running up to the 9000rpm racing maximum, is totally functional. So also are the standard electric windows, air-conditioning and radio, although they too are unusual features on a race-bred car like this.

And yet despite its civility, despite the tractability which allows it to pull smoothly and cleanly at town pace, it is a race car and will jump from standstill to 125mph in 21 seconds. It will cruise quietly and effort-lessly at 120mph all day, and will consistently do so at a much lower level of overall engine noise than is common to mid-engine cars, especially the really fast ones.

The M1 continues to be raced successfully and continues as a highly desirable road car, although rarity and price ensure that it will remain nothing but a dream for all but 449 people.