Hagerty Video: The BMW M1: a Race Car That Couldn’t Go Racing — Jason Cammisa Revelations Ep. 29

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Posted: 2023-03-09 16:00:18
Author: Hagerty
The E26-chassis BMW M1 — the first car ever from a new subsidiary of BMW, creatively called “BMW Motorsport” — is one of few cars ever produced that started out as a race car and then was developed into a road car solely for homologation purposes.

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.