Ultimate driving machines - BMW E26 M1, E12 M535i, E28 M5, E24 M635CSi and E30 M3 EVO II
The first generation of M-cars set the standard for those that followed, says James Page as he tries five of BMW's landmark models. Photography James Mann. BMW’s Motorsport division was on a roll during the 1980s, notching up successes in Touring Car racing, rallying and Formula 1. This competition programme was the extension of a process that had started in the early ’70s, but it took until the following decade for the German manufacturer to fully reap the rewards by extending the influence of its ‘M’ group and sprinkling that magic across more of its road-.car range. The result was a stunning generation of performance models that would make the M"badge - and all of its connotations - instantly recognisable to enthusiast and layman alike.
But we need to rewind slightly, to 1978, to find the first car that bore the famous letter in its name. The idea behind the M1 was simple: BMW wanted to beat Porsche in sports-car racing, so it designed a Group 4/5 racer from which a road car would be derived. This would be built by the Motorsport division, and 400 were needed for homologation. The theory was that it was more cost-effective to turn a racing car into a road car than vice versa.
Giugiaro designed the glassfibre body, which was made in Turin by ItalDesign. That was then sent to Baur, which fitted it to the tubular space- frame. Final assembly was carried out in Munich. This complex procedure was forced upon BMW: Lamborghini was supposed to build the car but, at that point, the cash-strapped Italian firm was struggling to make its own cars, let alone anyone else’s, so BMW wisely pulled out of the deal.
Giugiaro blended supercar looks with fine visibility. Below: Bavarian parts-bin-special cabin; dry-sump 'six' sounds fantastic; 'spinning' Campagnolo alloys are unique to M1.
By the time that it had produced the 400 cars necessary, sports-car racing had moved on. Most people now remember the M1 from the Procar series that ran alongside Grands Prix in 1978 and ’79 - an inspired marketing ploy to boost the model’s profile while production lumbered along in the background.
The M1 didn’t achieve the on-track success for which BMW was hoping, but there was little wrong with it as a road car. The mid-mounted M88 straight-six would form the backbone of the M range for the next decade. It was based on the bottom end of the 635CSi engine but with a dry sump, and it benefited from a twin-cam, 24-valve cylinder head to produce 277bhp.
Clockwise, from top: E12 isn't as quick as the other ‘sixes' here, yet little could touch it in period; superbly poised handling; Recaros hold you firmly; stylish Alpina 'cotton-reel' alloys.
Here was a model handicapped by none of the usual flaws explained away as character.
Despite the low roofline, getting into the black and slightly claustrophobic cabin is easy. The reclined driving position suffers from having pedals that are offset to the right, but there are no histrionics involved with starting it or moving away, no heaving at the wheel or struggling with a heavy clutch. It’s a little like an early Honda NSX. Here was a mainstream manufacturer that dared to take on the established supercar-makers with a model that was handicapped by none of the compromises that were explained away elsewhere as ‘character’.
Elegant lines of E24 are only subtly different for M635CSi, with front air dam and rear spoiler; cabin is much like the M5; multi-spoke 16in Alpina rims are a later fitment.
Certainly, the performance is delivered so efficiently that you start to wish that there was more of it. Not that it’s slow, sprinting to 100mph in 13 secs. The Porsche 911 turbo was quicker, but not by much, and it didn’t deliver the addictive howl of the BMW. The M1 corners more securely, too, exhibiting a surprisingly friendly demeanour. Paul Frere said of the handling that: ‘It has no rival anywhere.’ Motor described it as: ‘Agile and well balanced in slow corners, rock-steady on sweeping curves... A worthy addition to the ranks of the world’s truly great cars.’
So, despite the limited way in which the M1 fulfilled its original brief, the road car had shown what the M division - run by Jochen Neerpasch -was capable of. He decided to direct that expertise at BMW’s existing range, even though he’d left by the time that the E12 M535i appeared.
While the M1 was very much a product of ‘Motorsport GmBH’, the new project would be a joint effort between it and BMW’s mainstream arm. Taking the mechanical components of the 635CSi and fitting them to a body that was 150lb lighter would create a formidable supersaloon and give the ageing E12 a last hurrah. Changes to the Bertone styling were minimal but did a subtle job of hinting at the performance on offer. The glassfibre dam at the front channelled air to the oil cooler and brakes, while a rubber spoiler (deleted on our featured example) was added to the bootlid to help high-speed stability.
There was a special interior, too, in the shape of Recaro sports seats and a chunky leather- trimmed wheel. It’s an intriguing cabin, blending 1970s wood with the altogether more ’80s diet of black plastic, plus a level of build quality and refinement that could be younger still. Those seats are excellent, pinching you in all the right places and offering plenty of lateral support.
On the move, it’s difficult to tell whether or not the steering has any assistance, such is the amount of feel on offer. There is more roll than in the later cars but it handles smartly, with the instant throttle response enabling you to adjust the E12’s attitude with ease. The engine was based on a wet-sump version of the M1’s block but with a single-cam head. If its straight-line performance feels a tad lacking, that is only in relation to the blistering pace of the other cars here - it still storms to 60mph in just over 7 secs. The acceleration is helped by the close-ratio gearbox, which gives a short fifth by more- modern standards - 70mph equates to 3100rpm.
The M535i carried a premium of £3000 over the 528i when it was new, putting it into the same bracket as the (considerably slower) Mercedes 280SE and much higher up the scale than the Saab 99 Turbo and Ford Granada 2.8i - the latter an alternative offered by the press of the time but which now seems incongruous as a rival. As Autocar put it: ‘If performance be your main criteria then the M535i stands alone and unequalled.’
The E28 had replaced the E12 in ’81, but not until February ’85 was the M5 announced. This was no homologation model, either - as press and PR chief Michael Schimpke explained: “It was built in order to show what BMW could do.”
In the beginning
The M1 was the original car to carry the designation, but the CSL was first out of the M division. In early'72, BMW's number two Bob Lutz poached Jochen Neerpasch from Ford and tasked him with setting up a new competition arm of the firm, which had withdrawn from motor sport at the end of 1970. Lutz recognised the engineering and marketing benefits that racing would bring.
Neerpasch - frustrated by Ford's big- company inertia - insisted that BMW Motorsport be a separate entity, enabling it to have the necessary flexibility and speed of operation. Along with a successful F2 engine programme, its first project was to put the 3.0 CS on par with the Capri.
The work focused on making it lighter via extensive use of aluminium and, later, creating a distinctive aerodynamic package. "It wasn't an easy decision," says Neerpasch, "because we had to make 1000 road cars to homologate it in a short time. We also had to engineer the racing car, not only for ourselves but for the private teams, too!'
They managed it, delivering the European Touring Car Championship in '73-awin that Neerpasch credits with forming the basis for the Motorsport group. Having gained acceptance from the parent company, it could develop in directions that would lead to the M1 and BMW's existing road cars.
What BMW could do was make one of the best sports saloons of all time. Not that you’d know from looking at it. In some ways, it is moreaggressive than the E12. There is black trim where there was chrome, the air-dam houses ‘long-range driving lamps’, and the side skirts and rear spoiler help to distinguish it from the common-or-garden 5. There are BBS alloys, too.
Yet this is a long way from being your typically gregarious 1980s performance machine. In the same issue of Motor Sport in which the M5 was road-tested, there is an assessment of the new Sierra Cosworth. Okay, the Ford needed its bodywork enhancements in order to homologate the aerodynamics for racing, but you would be hard-pressed to find two more disparate approaches to the goal of a 150mph tin-top.
The BMW was aimed at a different sort of buyer, though. It was more than twice the price, at the equivalent of about £80,000 in today’s money, and the quality shows. The doors shut with a ‘thunk’ and the interior is an obvious step forward from the E12. The seats are less sculpted than in its predecessor but still offer a good deal of support, and there are more toys to play with - including a trip computer through which you can scroll via the column-mounted stalk.
From top: M1-derived M88 'six', but running electronic injection; cabin plusher than its E12 predecessor; Q-car exterior gives few clues to its brutal-yet- refined performance.
Although the BMW E28 used the same door and roof pressings as the E12, it featured a morestreamlined shape in the quest for better fuel economy, and the basic shell weighed about 100kg less. This is worth bearing in mind, because into that shell BMW dropped the M1-based 24-valve ‘six’ that - thanks to Bosch Motronic - produced 286bhp rather than the 277bhp on Kugelfischer injection, although that was apparently a conservative rating. The suspension was lowered on stiffer springs, and the anti-roll bars and brakes were uprated.
The result is a beautifully poised machine. It turns in crisply, and the ride is firm without being too harsh. While it is possibly one of the easiest cars that I’ve ever driven to get sideways, there is plenty of warning that it’s breaking away - it drifts rather than snaps - and it is easily corrected via the sublime steering.
As it surges towards its 6900rpm redline, the twin-cam engine feels smoother and less mechanical than the 12-valve version in the E12. It sounds glorious, too, and the performance is immense without being intimidating. This is where it really scores over later M5s. The E39, for example, used a V8 and is altogether bigger. It was hugely entertaining, but the finesse and subtlety had gone. The E28, on the other hand, strikes the perfect balance between speed and usability. To borrow a quote from another of the decade’s stars, Ferris Bueller: “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
For those who felt the need to combine performance with a little more style, there was always the M635CSi. By the time it appeared in 1983, the 6 Series was the best part of a decade old. Based on the 5 Series floorpan, it had taken over from the E9 CS and CSL, continuing that car’s motor-sport success via the 635CSi.
The fact that the ‘standard’ CSi was proving to be such a good flagship probably explains why it took the Munich firm so long to get around to making an M version, but there was always the feeling that the chassis could handle more power. So, BMW rustled up some more M88 engines and once again employed a limited-slip differential plus uprated dampers and firmer springs.
It may be a two-door coupe, but the M635 is not small. The sleek styling helps to disguise itsbulk and, unlike the E28, there is the odd bit of shiny metal on show with the doorhandles and glass surrounds. It’s still a long way from being ostentatious and there is little to suggest that this isn’t ‘just’ a 635CSi. You have to assume that BMW viewed with some disdain the sort of individual who would rather announce their arrival in a flurry of Guards Red and whale-tail.
It driftsrather than snaps, and is easily corrected via the sublime powersteering.
BMW viewed with disdain the sort of individual who arrived in a flurry of guards red.
Everything inside Simon Turnbull’s cherished M635 seems familiar if you’ve just stepped out of an E28 (one period criticism was that the extra cost didn’t seem to translate to a particularly special cabin) and most items move around electronically. It is marginally more luxurious, with leather trim and the same high-quality build. One road-tester commented on the complicated trip computer - ‘some readouts demand up to seven depressions of the stalk’ - and of the graphic equaliser. What they would have made of BMW’s current iDrive system is anyone’s guess.
The biggest difference from the saloons, of course, is that the heavily sculpted rear seats are for occasional use only. This is not an M-car in which your whole family can experience the fun of opposite-lock exits from roundabouts. Instead, this was the choice of the well-heeled couple who wanted to escape for the weekend in comfort. Spirited driving will push the fuel consumption towards single-figures, mind you, so they would have made plenty of stops en route.
While it may lack the final ounce of finesse demonstrated by the M5, the coupe is still a fine machine, handling tidily and offering an impressive turn of pace. In performance terms, only the Porsche 928 is a serious rival among its contemporaries - and, when new, the BMW’s price put it firmly in that territory, slightly less than the 928 but more than a Ferrari Mondial. It was quicker than the Italian car to 60mph, and significantly faster than a Jaguar XJ-S; then again, it cost nearly £10,000 more.
From top: dash focused on driver; it feels every inch the racer, but you have to work the feisty twin-cam - M Power colours in engine bay of Evo II; signature cross-spokes and spoiler.
In terms of its reason for being, the E30 M3 is the most direct descendent of the M1. Unlike the M535i, M635i and M5, it too was built so that BMW could go motor racing. Of all these cars, Martin Hickford’s immaculate Evo II is by far the most at home on a track even if, after a day spent with the six-cylinder models, the performance is initially underwhelming.
Everything inside is just-so, however. The driving position is perfect, with the pedals dead ahead and a beautifully ergonomic dashboard. There are the same toys as in the others, plus excellent seats. The biggest difference becomes obvious when you turn the key. When BMW got serious about making the M3 the racing replacement for the 635CSi, it quickly decided on a ‘four’. Engine guru Paul Rosche argued that the ‘six’ would be too big and heavy and, besides, BMW had been doing very nicely with its line of F2 four-pots. This was hardly new territory.
So it was that the M3 appeared in 1985 with a 2302cc ‘four’. Even though the Evo II features 220bhp - up from 200bhp thanks to new cams, pistons and air intake, a lightened flywheel and a Bosch Motronic chip - that figure isn’t produced until 6750rpm. If you plant your foot at low revs in the six-cylinder cars, you surge forwards. In the M3 not much happens, and you sit there wondering how to mask your disappointment.
From 5000rpm until the 7000rpm redline, however, the engine undergoes a transformation in terms of noise and shove. Suddenly the M3 feels like the little Touring Car racer that it really is. It corners absolutely flat and has loads of grip, although when it finally breaks free it does so with far more aggression than in the other cars. While you tend to arrive at your destination with whiter knuckles and wider eyes than in the M5, that focused nature is the M3’s main appeal.
The demands of motor sport led to continuous development. The Evo arrived in 1987 and carried aerodynamic improvements in the shape of a front spoiler and a double-element rear wing. As well as the hike to 220bhp, the Evo II had a taller final drive, additional spoilers and an extra lip on the rear wing, plus thinner glass and a lighter bootlid. In 1989 came a batch of 600 Sport Evolutions with a 2467cc, 238bhp version of the four-pot, plus adjustable spoilers.
All that effort was worth it. In ’87, BMW was pipped to the manufacturer’s title in the World Touring Car Championship by Ford, but won the drivers’ crown. An M3 took the European Touring Car Championship, too, plus five other national titles. The following year, the M3 again won the ETCC and narrowly missed out on a remarkable double by finishing as runner-up in the European Rally Championship. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Motorsport division grew fourfold in the second half of the 1980s.
In the years that followed, however, the M-badge was seen on more road cars and fewer racers. The Super Touring regulations spelled the end of the M3 in saloon-car racing, and BMW had long since pulled out of Formula-1. The company won at Le Mans in 1999, though, and returned to Grand Prix racing in 2000, only to withdraw again at the end of 2009.
The tie-in between motor sport and road cars may no longer be as close as it once was, but the legacy of that first generation - when a small ‘M’ said it all - lives on. As Automobile magazine concluded after testing the M635CSi: - It’s nice to know that badge engineering to BMW stands for truth, justice and the Bavarian way.
Thanks to Munich Legends: munichlegends. co.uk; Rockingham Circuit: rockingham.co.uk; TT Transportation: tttransportation.co.uk; BMW Car Club: bmwcarciubgb.co.uk
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