For such a legend, the BMW M1 sure was one hell of a failure. Designed to take the racing world by storm, it ended up getting lost in the changing tides of the era, only to disappear after three short years. But what a failure it was; as Car and Driver put it in 1981, “The M1 might have been the right car at the wrong time, but every driver deserves a turn at the wheel of what is probably the best fast car ever built.”
Big things were happening at BMW in the early ’70s. On the strength of its Neue Klasse cars like the 2002, the company was gaining ground in the luxury market, and making a name for itself in the motorsports world. In 1972, BMW had transformed its 3.0 CS coupe into the outrageous CSL, also known as the German Batmobile, and proceeded to wreak havoc on racetracks across Europe. Modifications were done in-house by engineer Jochen Neerpasch, who created the company’s Motorsport division.
As Motorsport was working on the CSL, chief designer Paul Bracq was putting the finishing touches on the E25 Turbo Concept, a radical wedge-shaped concept with gull-wing doors and a mid-mounted 276-horsepower turbocharged inline-four from a 2002. The E25 was a smash, and the company realized that its rakish silhouette and mid-engine layout would form a strong basis for Group 4 racing, a high-profile class featuring production cars like the Ford GT40, Ferrari Daytona 365 GTB/4, Porsche 911, and De Tomaso Pantera. The plan was to produce 400 examples of the car and go racing by 1977. It wasn’t going to happen.
The year before the 3.0 CSL and E25, Lamborghini had debuted its avant-garde Countach concept at the Geneva Motor Show. In its eight-year existence, the company had done a noble job keeping pace with Ferrari’s GT cars, and its mid-engined Miura had all but kick-started the supercar segment, yet the company was virtually nonexistent in motorsports. BMW loved what it had seen in the Countach and, once its racing program was given the green light, enlisted the Italian automaker to help engineer and build 400 examples of its car. But in 1973, the fuel crisis hit, Lamborghini’s sales evaporated, and as the company’s R&D budget deteriorated, the car kept getting pushed back. As Car and Driver put it in its 1981 post-mortem:
Lamborghini’s financial problems postponed the start of production beyond the original 1977 deadline, so BMW Motorsports hastily created the racing 320i for Group 5 competition. Although the M1 was formally announced soon after (January 1978), Lamborghini’s imminent bankruptcy finally forced BMW to cancel its contract on April 20, 1978. Under a new plan, Marchese would build the car’s tube frame, TIR would mold the fiberglass, and then Ital Design would mate the two and install the interior. The cars would then be shipped from Italy to Stuttgart, where Baur, long a builder of BMW production prototypes, would install the BMW hardware. BMW Motorsports would do the final preparation in Munich—in fact, the car would carry a BMW Motorsports manufacturing plate.
With this cobbled-together plan in place, the car finally began to take shape. The E25’s lines were simplified and smoothed by famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, and the Motorsport division, now operating with new facilities, a workforce of 160, and a $2.5 million annual budget (just under $10 million today), was putting the final touches on the car’s drivetrain. Loosely based on the 3.0 CSL’s race-proven 3.5-liter straight-six, the car’s M88 engine produced an impressive 272 horsepower; plenty to take the 2,800-pound car from zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds, on to a top speed of 161 miles per hour. Again, from Car and Driver:
A similar race-converted-to-street strategy was used for the M1’s chassis. The basic underpinnings—unequal-length control arms, gas shocks, and anti-sway bars front and rear—were laid out for the Group 4, 470-hp, gumball-slick version of the car. When BMW’s engineers made it streetable, they didn’t have to worry about handling and stability—they had it in spades. They could concentrate on adding comfort and refinement.
With the car unlike anything else BMW was building at the time, it would become the first car to wear the Motorsport division badge. From then on, it was known simply as the M1.
In 1978, the M1 was a year overdue, and the company announced that it would be launching a one-make championship series to support Formula One called the Procar BMW M1 Championship. It was to be the M1’s highest-profile entry into the racing world; in the six years since development began, Group 4 had been restructured, and the success of cars like the Porsche 917 meant manufacturers were moving away from homologation specials and back toward prototypes. By the time the M1 finally launched in 1979, the car was without a purpose, and BMW wasn’t happy.
Procar ran in 1979 and 1980, with Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet winning respectively. But its competition success was fleeting. A long-planned turbo for the M88 engine never materialized, and high-profile DNFs at Watkins Glen and Le Mans ensured that the M1 would never set the racing world alight like it was supposed to. BMW gutted the Motorsport division, slashing its budged 75% and sending Neerpasch packing. With its new 3-Series sedan beginning to create an international sensation and establish the brand as an international luxury contender, the company panicked; after all, it wasn’t that long ago when the company bet the farm on the ultra-expensive 507 roadster instead of building something more attainable, a move that drove the company to the brink of bankruptcy. In 1981, after just 453 cars were built (399 of them being street-legal), M1 production came to an end.
The M1 was never a just-barely street-legal racer like the Lancia Stratos or Ford GT40, or a frustrated road car like the Miura; it fell somewhere in between, and that’s what made it great. Even during production, its performance numbers allowed it to run circles around most Ferraris and Porsches, and with U.S. federalized grey-market cars selling for upwards of $115,000 (over $330,000 today), it was one of the most expensive supercars in the world. Car and Driver’s Csaba Csere said: “When you drive around in a BMW M1, you’d better know everything there is to know about the car. At every stop you’ll be besieged by open-mouthed car freaks, drawn like moths to a flame by the legendary Bavarian ultracar.”
In a few months, the final M1 will have rolled off the assembly line 35 years ago. Yet unlike its competitors, the car has never really fallen out of style. It has no outrageous wings and vents a lá Lamborghini, or ridiculous side strakes like a Ferrari. Instead, the almost surgically clean Giugiaro design has aged beautifully, and the spartan Teutonic interior is so restrained that it still looks as inviting as ever. What’s more, it was as well-built, reliable, and comfortable as any BMW of the era, making it arguably the most dependable supercar in the world at the time. As a result, its values are rising at a rate more in line with classic Ferraris and Porsches than other BMWs. To date, the sales record for an M1 is $845,000, though that could seem like a bargain in a few years.
The BMW M1 was an unbelievably expensive, time-consuming project that was a failure on the racetrack, and couldn’t make it three years in production. It’s also the first of BMW’s M-cars, one of the best-driving cars of its era, and impossibly beautiful. History isn’t always kind to cars that miss the mark. But the M1 didn’t exactly miss the mark; it hit an entirely different one instead.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.