Driving the BMW M1
A Star-Crossed Supercar That Sparked the M Division Into Life
There's a BMW M1 waiting for me when I get home. Bathed in the early evening light, this wedge of Giugiaro-styled supercar on extraordinary Campagnolo wheels is such an improbable sight in my driveway that I quickly take a picture and announce its presence on Twitter.
Within seconds, my phone is besieged by text messages, each ping from someone who has seen the shot and just wants to talk about the BMW M1. It's the best and most enthusiastic reaction to any car I've driven all year. But why?
In the Beginning
In its day, the M1 was a troubled supercar. Not an XJ220 basket case I'll grant, but painfully conceived and slowly delivered. The midengine Bimmer was the brainchild of BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch in the mid-1970s, and its true purpose was to teach Porsche some manners in Group 5 racing.
In 1977, though, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) changed the rules, and BMW would not be allowed to run a Group 5-spec M1 racecar until it built 400 road-going cars for homologation.
A few of these cars would be built to Group 4 racing regulations and eventually compete in a one-make, IROC-style race series called Procar. These cars would have a normally aspirated, inline six-cylinder developed from the engine used in the famed 3.0 CSL coupe and producing around 470 horsepower, whereas the eventual full-on Group 5 racecar would use twin turbochargers and make over 800 hp.
Of course, to hit that 400-unit threshold, BMW would also need to build a couple hundred more M1s detuned for street use to sell to private customers. That's the origin of the car in my driveway.
How They Made It
It didn't take BMW long to determine that it had neither the expertise nor the space to build a proper midengine, rear-drive supercar. So where better to turn for help than Italy?
Giugiaro's ItalDesign would style it. Trasformazione Italiane Resine would make its fiberglass body panels, Marchesi of Modena its tube frame. And the whole lot would be turned over to none other than Lamborghini, which would put it all together alongside the Countach, as well as do the testing and development work. Overall specification aside, BMW's contribution would be the twin-cam, 24-valve version of its M88 inline six-cylinder engine displacing 3,453cc and delivering 277 hp at 6,500 rpm in its civilian state of tune.
Then, Lamborghini got itself into financial strife, and BMW lost confidence and pulled the plug. But rather than killing the M1 outright, the automaker handed over the assembly to Baur, a coachbuilder in Stuttgart that had built BMW prototypes in the past, and took on the development work itself. Production finally started, late, in 1978.
How It Ended
After three years, with only a measly 453 units to show for its efforts, BMW canned the M1. It was never officially exported to the United States — so even though it was priced at 100,000 deutschmarks in 1978 (less than $50,000 at the time), anyone who got their hands on a gray-market import in America was looking at a six-figure car.
Although the street cars were rare and coveted, the BMW M1 racecars didn't exactly set the world on fire. Neerpasch had hoped the Procar series would pump up publicity for the M1 project, as the Group 4-spec cars were driven at support races in European rounds of the Formula 1 championship by none other than F1 drivers themselves. But the series only ran for two seasons, in 1979 and '80, with Niki Lauda winning the title the first year, and Nelson Piquet in the second. The Procar M1s had their share of engine problems, and few of the F1 drivers took them seriously, often treating them like glorified bumper cars — a distraction from what they were really trying to achieve.
As for the Group 5 M1s, some were built by March Engineering and raced in 1981 but not by the BMW factory team, which had lost heart and interest in the project. Lacking BMW's development resources, the March M1 was underpowered for its class and proved less than a match for the Porsche 935. It claimed the Nürburgring 1,000km as its only major motorsport victory in the hands of Piquet and Hans-Joachim Stuck.
In 1982 the rules of sports car racing were rewritten again, and the short-lived era of the M1, which had promised so much but delivered so little, was over.
Forget History. We're Taking the Wheel
Today the BMW M1 is just a car, and its complicated past is not my concern. What matters now is that it's early morning, and the M1 and I are due for a run through the mountains.
I lean in, twist the key and hear it fire at once as the Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection metes out the right ratio of fuel to air to each of six throttles for this cold morning. Were this a late-'70s Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer or Countach you'd still be juggling throttles and chokes as you tried, manually, to brew a blend acceptable to their monstrous battalions of carburetors.
From the driver seat, you discover an interior BMW never would have sanctioned in its conventional cars. The packaging constraints forced by a short, 101-inch wheelbase and an engine mounted longitudinally in the middle of the car crowd the driver into the M1's nose. Headroom is very restricted and legroom not much better. The pedals are displaced so far to the center of the car that the clutch pedal is actually to the right of the steering column. It sounds terrible, but all midengine cars of the era were like this — Ferrari and Lambo drivers didn't have it any better.
Similarly, the M1's drab black cockpit looks little better than a kit car through our 21st-century lenses, but such was the standard for late-'70s supercars. A Ferrari interior might have distracted you with dramatic details like an open-gate shifter, but nobody worried about having a soft-touch dash back then.
Shockingly Easy To Drive
Yet this 34-year-old supercar is as easy to get in and operate as a new BMW 328i. If you know how to drive, you can drive an M1.
Mind you, the ZF five-speed manual gearbox has a dogleg 1st gear, so 1st, 3rd and 5th are all in the lower plane. Only reverse gear proves difficult to engage in my car. And I'm not even out of the driveway before I appreciate the M1's visibility — the sight lines are as good as any midengine car I can recall.
On the road, I can't shake the feeling that the BMW M1 is too easy to drive. In spite of its exotic specification, it's quiet, with a bizarrely compliant ride, and it ambles along in a high gear at next to no revs without protest. Were its interior not so useless, you'd be convinced you were in a low-slung 7 Series.
It's 30 Years Young
But once some temperature has been registered in the oil (all M1s were dry-sumped, by the way, so the inline-6 engine could be mounted low and upright in the chassis), I give the M1 more throttle and its personality starts to change.
It's no Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation, but when you load up the car's double-wishbone suspension and run the inline-6 at higher rpm, you won't miss the signs. The engine note, smooth but indistinct so far, becomes clear and hard. Unpolluted by power assist, the precise rack-and-pinion steering slowly fills with life. A car that had felt slack now feels poised, ready for action. The only thing to do is go faster.
This is a leap of faith because you're asking a car that's over 30 years old to perform as if it were new — something I might ask of a Porsche 911 from this era, but certainly not a brutish Countach or Ferrari Boxer. Yet, the midengine M1 feels light and trustworthy, and it likes to change direction.
A Multidimensional Supercar
By modern standards, it's not superbly quick. When new, the inline-6 was only rated at 243 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Figure on getting to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, with an aerodynamically restricted top speed of just 161 mph (the Procar M1 would top 190). It's still fast enough to earn your undivided attention, though, not least because of the howl of the race-bred motor.
Back in the '70s, some critics panned this inline-6 because it shared its basic architecture with the engines in BMW sedans and had half as many cylinders as the Italian supercars. But when you actually drive an M1, you realize this engine is pure class, piling on the power in layers from idle to almost 7,000 rpm.
But this isn't why I love the BMW M1. Nor is it the slow but precise gearbox or the unexpectedly powerful brakes. It's the way the car feels in your hands. Despite being sired in Germany and Italy to more parents than a Labradoodle, the M1 behaves like the purest thoroughbred.
Grip levels are not massive. The rear tires measure just 225/50R16 (with skinnier 205/55R16s up front) and look as if they belong on a Mazda 3 or something, but they're perfectly in keeping with the car's less-is-more character. The sensation when you feel the M1 flow into gorgeous neutrality would feel entirely alien in a heavier, modern supercar with huge tires, adaptive suspension and a full complement of electronic safety aids.
Driving an M1 with the wheel constantly squirming in your hands, trimming the car's attitude to an approaching corner with tiny movements of your foot soon becomes a natural state. In this regard, the BMW M1 is closer to a Caterham than a modern supercar. And it is breathtaking, sublime fun.
The Spark Behind the M Division
Only once you've tasted this side of the BMW M1 does everything else fall into place. What makes this car so astonishingly good, even by 2012 standards, is that it can be a focused driver's car in one moment and, the very next, turn back into a midengine, two-seat luxury car. Plus, the racecar-spec fuel tank is so big (nearly 31 gallons), I could literally drive from England to the South of France between fills.
"It's a normal car," Neerpasch once told a reporter. "It's just normal at a higher speed than other cars."
And although it was a failure as a commercial project, the BMW M1 is a pearl, technically the best supercar of its era if not the fastest or most beautiful. It also gave rise to BMW's Motorsport division, which has since rolled out some pretty memorable M3s and M5s. But the company has never dreamed as big since the M1.
Now rumors are swirling that BMW will resurrect this enigmatic nameplate. And with Audi and Mercedes-Benz both in the two-seat supercar game and Porsche not far behind, you have to think the executives in Munich are at least talking about building another M1.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.