Cars developed this way are in ultra-exclusive rarified air, but the M1’s development was so fraught with problems that it was never allowed to go racing.
However, the car’s fundamentals were spectacular, from its beautiful Giugiaro design to its powerful BMW M88 straight-six, to its Lamborghini-Dallara racing chassis. It received nearly universal acclaim — as quick as the 12-cylinder Ferrari 512 BB and the Lamborghini Countach, but civilized and docile to drive.
The difficulties in getting production ramped up were mostly the fault of Lamborghini, which went bankrupt during the development after misappropriating funds received both from BMW for the M1 and from the U.S. government to develop an off-road military vehicle, and then being sued for copying another company’s work.
BMW was able to break into the factory overnight and retrieve its parts and tooling, and moved production elsewhere. But the car was never produced in enough numbers to participate in FIA Group 4 and FIA Group 5 racing — the classes for which it was conceived.
As a race car first and foremost, it is the purest expression of any car created by BMW Motorsport GmbH — and its impact has trickled down into every car M puts its badge on today. Which is, to say, the majority of cars that BMW produces.
Its backstory was a disaster, but the M1 itself is one of the most incredible cars of its time.
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Hagerty Video Transcript
The “M” in BMW M used to stand for Motorsport. Today, M makes sport packages for front-wheel drive 2-Series Grand Corollas (gasp!) and it’s this car’s fault. You thought the quickest way to burn cash was to go racing? No! The fastest way to bankrupt yourself is to spend a fortune developing
A race car that’s not allowed to go racing. The M1 may look like a road car but it’s not. This is a race car and on the automotive hierarchy of financial disasters, the M1 is certainly among,
Well, the prettiest. But it fell out of the tragedy tree and hit every branch on the way down: a multiple contract recession, bankruptcy, receivership, intellectual property theft, misappropriation of funds, bribery, chlamydia, and a midnight raid to steal a bunch of cars
Out of a warehouse while everyone was distracted by an auto show. Chlamydia? BMW’s M is a very different thing now than it was at the beginning. The biggest difference being that Motorsport had nothing to do with cars that could be driven on the road. Motorsports. That’s it. Done. M was founded in 1972 at the instigation of Bob Lutz who
We now know as the granddaddy of countless enthusiast cars. Maximum Bob was BMW’s head of sales and marketing and was a big fan of using racing as a way of building an automotive brand’s reputation. Many BMWs went racing but much of it wasn’t officially sanctioned and there was no central
Organization to manage all of it. Lutz fixed this by approaching an ex-Le Mans racer named Jochen Neerspach and they created a racing subsidiary — not a department within BMW, and that is a key point. BMW’s Motorsport company would be called BMW Motorsport company…
With limited liability. Oh my God those clever Germans, they’re so creative! M’s first order of business would be to officially support racing endeavors and the results came quickly with Motorsport, and therefore BMW, winning both the manufacturer and drivers titles
In the 1973 European Touring Car Championship using the 3.0 CSL. Things were looking good, but making a competitive race car out of the big, fat CSL was costing a fortune. So Motorsports started to consider building a purpose-built racing car from the ground up. Would it be a Group
4 racer to compete against extensively modified production cars? …or an insane Group 5 touring car to compete against purpose-built race cars like the Porsche 935? …or would it be a Formula One car? …Or perhaps all three!? Motorsport realized that touring car races based on roadgoing
Cars the public could buy could actually pull in more viewers than Formula One — when Formula One drivers were involved in those touring car races. So it would be a collab! …and Motorsport could kill 3 birds with just one engine: BMW would make a V-8 for Formula One for other teams to race,
And then it would take that V8 and put it in sports cars and touring cars for Motorsports to race and then to maximize the marketing impact of all of that Motorsport activity. They would take the touring car and make a road car out of it and sell that directly to the public.
Bam! Maximum Impact! BMW chose Lamborghini to carry out the development and Engineering of the car itself strange on the surface because Lamborghini didn’t make race cars, only road cars, but Lamborghini had Giampaolo Dallara, who was, don’t forget, a race car designer first and foremost, having brought mid-engine race car
Design to the road for the first time ever with the Miura. And so BMW signed a contract with Lamborghini to develop the German company’s new flagship:the mid-engined E26 BMW 9-series and then BMW immediately canceled the contract, because they realized the Formula One engine would
Be too expensive and the car would be too heavy. See, FIA regulations pegged the minimum weight of the touring car based on the road going version. Big, heavy luxurious cars like a 9-series would wind up becoming big, heavy, uncompetitive race cars. Cars that are BMWs needed to be luxurious
But cars that were made by a new company called BMW Motorsport company didn’t, and so BMW signed a new contract with a Lamborghini for the E26/1: a square-section tubular steel, space-framed, mid-engine, fiberglass-bodied race car that used the 24-valve straight-6 from the CSL Touring Cars.
There would be three versions: a Group 4 race car that makes 470 horsepower a Group 5 race car that makes an outrageous 850 turbocharged horsepower, and then of course the road car, which unlike almost every other car ever made, would be created out of the race car and not the other way around.
The race cars would be painted white with M’s now trademark three color livery — and I bet you didn’t know where that came from. See, shortly after its formation, M was working on a sponsorship deal with Texaco, so it took the blue and white from the BMW logo (themselves taken
From the Bavarian flag) and it combined them with a stripe in Texaco red. Red white and blue aren’t exactly Germanic so they overlapped the Bavarian blue and Texaco red to make the third color, Purple! The Texaco sponsorship deal fell through, but the M colors remain to this day. The M1’s
Looks came from a 1972 concept car called the Turbo designed in-house at BMW by Paul Bracq. BMW then hired Giorgetto Giugiaro to develop the Turbo into a car that could actually be produced. He had his work cut out for him especially in concealing the tall engine. See in other applications, BMW’s
Engines were slanted over at 30 degrees. That put the exhaust directly underneath the cylinder head and under sustained racing conditions, the heat cooked the head. So for the M1, BMW took the M88 engine and mounted it perfectly vertically. That’s tall, and it was up to Giugiaro to hide
That and make the whole thing look pretty. And I think he did a pretty spectacular job don’t you? Just six months after signing the contract Lamborghini completed its engineering work on the E26 and to the complete satisfaction of BMW’s board. Now all the car needed was a name:
The street car couldn’t be called the BMW 935i because that implied luxury car flagship, and the number 935 was taken by the Porsche 935, which was the reigning racing car champion of the world. And besides, this was not a BMW, it was a Motorsport car and Motorsport’s first car so… M1.
I think I just figured out how they named this thing Motorsports first car… M… 1. M three weeks later, BMW terminated the contract with Lamborghini again — this time because suppliers wouldn’t work with Lamborghini because Lamborghini was out of money. Lamborghini was out
Of money for the most amazing reason imaginable: it had misappropriated funds from both the E26 project and a loan from the Italian government given so that it could develop an off-road vehicle for the U.S military. In the process of doing that, it copied another company’s work,
Got caught, got sued, had to throw it all out and start over wasting even more money! For the record, the original stolen work eventually became the HUMMWV. Lamborghini’s actual own work became the LM002 and I am completely off on a tangent that’s a whole ‘nother
Episode. But to make things worse, Lamborghini had possession of the parts, prototypes, and tooling for the M1, and its striking workers wouldn’t release any of it to BMW. So BMW did exactly what anyone would do: they showed up in the middle of the night
With a bunch of trucks broke into the Lamborghini factory and stole back all of their stuff [Music] I am required by international law to point out that BMW was the rightful owner and stole nothing but merely reclaimed its own property. Whatever. Next up: a scramble to pick up the pieces and get
The M1 into production. To keep the engineering side going, BMW hired Ital Engineering, formed by a bunch of ex-Lamborghini engineers who had been working on the car before the bankruptcy. A company called TIR made the fiberglass body, another named Marchese made the enormously
Strong 428 pound tubular frame. ItalDesign, Giugiaro’s company, agreed to help too, sourcing and assembling the entire interior. And then German coach Builder Baur installed the BMW engine and ZF transaxle when it all finally arrived in Stuttgart of all places.
It had a lot of BMW badges on it but this was not a BMW! This was a BMW Motorsport. Look, it says it right there: BMW Motorsport. Or over their BMW Motorsport GmbH München, West Germany. The engine made 277 horsepower from an independent-throttle-body 3.5- liter,
Dry-sump straight-six that meant serious speed in a car that weighed just 3 100 pounds. It was just as quick as the 12-cylinder rockets from Lamborghini and Ferrari: the Countach and 512BB. Road tests were full of praise for everything — from its performance to its civilized nature,
Which is all the more impressive given this was designed primarily as a race car. But ironically, it’s in racing where the real problems were: FIA homologation rules required BMW build 400 of these for the street. Until that happens, there would be no racing. Unfortunately, BMW’s revised scattered
Production plan meant they could only build 200 a year. That meant that for two full years, BMW was stuck trying to sell a road version of a race car that wasn’t allowed to go racing. The interim solution was to create an entirely new racing series just for the M1 — and I mean
Literally just for the M1. Single-marque racing series are tiresome but this one had a twist: ProCar, as the series was called, would happen at Formula One races, and it would pit privateer touring-car drivers against Formula One drivers. Now that’s a collab! At each of eight races per
Season, the top five Formula One drivers from Friday’s practice would race Factory-owned M1s against privateers racing their own M1s. And to make sure everybody took it seriously, the prize money flowed like champagne. M even paid a bonus for every lap that a privateer
Led a Formula One driver — and you thought Squid Games was Bloody! The Group 4 cars used the same engine as the street car, with just a bunch of tiny tweaks — and they made 470 horsepower
At a screaming 9000 RPM. With just 2200 pounds to deal with, they hit 60 in four seconds they were perfectly reliable — remember the M1 had been engineered to withstand the stresses of 850 turbocharged horsepower for group 5 racing which never happened. And one of the reasons why
Was that the streetgoing M1 was a really hard sell. It might have been quiet inside at speed, but it was still designed to be a race car and that meant things like no power steering. Like many mid-engined Italian supercars, the front wheel is where your body wants to be,
And so the steering wheel is seriously offset to the right and at a diagonal. And yet the pedals are so much further offset that even the clutch pedal is to the right of the steering column. This thing is crooked… just like the Italians who engineered it! It was also very very expensive:
BMW originally intended to sell the M1 for 100,000 Deutsche marks, which was Countach money. But thanks ironically to Lamborghini’s Financial Fiasco, production got way more expensive. So the price bumped to 113,000 until BMW couldn’t sell them and had to Discount the M1 to 90 grand.
And even then BMW was only ever able to sell 399 road cars. That’s half as many as it wanted to, and a quarter as many as it intended to produce when it thought of this as a 935i flagship.
In other words, the M1 was — despite its good looks, its supercar provenance, its spectacular performance, good build quality, and universal praise — a failure. After shoehorning this same engine into the 5-series just for Scheiße und Giggles, M’s next big project was the E30 M3,
Which became the winningest touring car ever — and yet was an incredibly hard sell to buyers. From here on out you can trace The Descent of M from truly a Motorsports subsidiary to the street car department that today puts its badges on every car that BMW makes. The reason why is simple:
People don’t actually want to drive a race car on the road. What the people want is cars with a hint of Motorsport… and all it takes is some extra power here, a spoiler over there, and a couple M Badges… and then people open their wallets and pay through the nose for
Nothing more than a glorified sport package! It’s brilliant! Don’t forget: BMW isn’t in business to make cars. BMW is in business to make money. And even though the only car that Motorsport ever built from the ground up was a financial disaster, Motorsport’s actual Motorsport activity elevated
The letter M to such astronomical Heights that the money still rains down from it today. [Music] Finally! There’s that bribe money I’ve been waiting for.