BMW M1 E26 debut of this exciting Giugiaro styled mid-engined coupe at Paris Show in October 1978. Sales started early 1979 and homologation into FIA Group 4 (400 off) should be near. Engine M88/1 is four valves per cylinder R6 (277bhp DIN) version of the production M90 of 3.5-litre unit seen in the 635CSi E24, 735i E23, 535i E12 and original M5 E28 use M88/3 version of this engine.
Written by Bob BMW Monday, 14 September 2015 01:30
Where the M1 differs from most mid-engined cars past and present is from the earliest design stages - the car was conceived as long ago as 1972 - BMW were mindful that it should be capable, indeed fundamentally right, for development as a racer. At the same time engineering and management were agreed that in roadgoing form the M1 was to be as refined as possible, and equally important, have BMW's usual high standard of trim and build quality. Performance and grip would be relatively easy to find, in such a car.
Left: Styling is restrained and aerodynamically stable. Rubber faced bumpers are integral with lower front and rear body panel. Air exist the engine bay via slats and louvered in tall section.
Certainly the M1 represents a tremendous commitment by BMW, who after two years' production say they are now three-quarters of the way to building the necessary 400 cars for homologation into FIA Group 4. In the meantime M1s tuned to the full 450 bhp Group 4 specification regularly appear in BMW's image-building Pro Car races that accompany most Grands Prix.
The car was not born without drama. Readers may recall the failure of the original deal between BMW and Lamborghini who were to produce the cars. This caused a long production setback. Yet interestingly much of the car is still produced in Italy; Marchesi make the multi-tubular chassis (panelled where necessary for weather protection and additional strength) and suspension parts. The glass fibre body panels - 10 in all - are moulded by Transformazione Italians Resina. The body-chassis units are then delivered to Stuttgart-based body builders Baur, who fit the engines, transaxles and trim. Finally the completed cars go to BMW Motorsport for tuning, checks, and road testing.
The M1 follows the classic inline engine layout (rather than the more compact though less ideal from a handling standpoint engine-over-gear-box arrangement favoured by Ferrari).
The M1 wheelbase measures 101 in. – 2 ½ in. more than 512BB Boxer's, yet the M1 is an inch shorter overall at 172in. Both are 72in. wide.
Giugaiaro's ItalDesign were responsible for body design (the panels are entirely unstressed) and the pleasantly restrained styling. While the drag coefficient is nothing special, "around 0.4", BMW also say that in practice the centre of pressure, and therefore the car's aerodynamic balance, remains virtually constant throughout the car's speed range, without needing any aerodynamic devices other than the small wrap-round front spoiler.
Colour page: A wrap around bib spoiler is used at the front. Air scoops forward of the screen supply interior. BMW grille is retained.
Internal airflow also deserves a mention. Cooling air is collected at the front in the normal way and ducted out via louvres in the front lid. Induction air is collected Esprit-like through slots at the rear of the nearside quarterlight recess (on the road version its opposite number simply dumps air into the engine bay) and in turn all engine bay air flows upwards through a slotted engine bay cover panel and out to atmosphere via the slatted rear body section. Scoops immediately in front of the screen supply the heating and ventilation system.
Above: Fortunately little delving has to be done in normal use! An integral cleaner/collector box renders inlet trumpets invisible. The tuned length exhaust system can be seen sprouting from the right hand side of the head and distributor from the back the exhaust camshaft. Half the slatted engine cover is attached to the tail section. The "fixed" hah removes with four turn screws.
Mechanically the only similarities between the M1's four valves per cylinder 3.5-litre (3,453cc) engine and the "production” SOHC six are the siamesed bore block, 93.4mm bore and 84.0mm stroke. A stronger crankshaft, longer rods, and of course different pistons are used, and to satisfy the requirements of an oil system capable of working under high g forces (and to get a low engine line) dry sump lubrication is employed. Chain driven overhead camshafts operate four valves per cylinder set in a pent-roof combustion chamber. The cylinder head is of the "built-up" type with a separate cam carrier - like a Ford BDA.
Kugelfischer/Bosch fuel injection supplies six separate ram pipes. The ignition is a Magneti Marelli electronic system. On a moderate 9.0 to 1 compression ratio, power and torque outputs for these "handbuilt" units are quoted as 277 bhp at 6,500 rpm and 239 lb. ft. at 5,000 rpm. The drive is transmitted through a Fichtel and Sachs twin plate clutch to a ZF five-speed all indirect transaxle fitted with a limited slip unit. Overall gearing is 24.3 mph per 1,000 rpm - virtually perfect to achieve the claimed 160 plus mph maximum speed at peak power.
Suspension is by unequal length wishbones (fully adjustable), coil springs and telescopic dampers. There are anti-roll bars front and rear. 16in. dia x 7in. (front) and 8in. (rear) Campagnolo alloy wheels carry 205/55 and 225/50 VR P7 tyres.
The M1 tipped BMW test department's scales at 27.8cwt, distributed exactly 56/44 front rear, ready for the road with half full tanks.
1980 BMW M1 E21 MAX SPEED
MAXIMUM SPEEDS AT TEST
It's not just what the engine does... but the way this superb straight six delivers its power. It idles sweetly at 800 rpm with a subdued exhaust burble, and a hint of those delightful whirring noises that come from chains and directly operated valves. For such a highly tuned engine, flexibility is superb. On a light throttle the M1 will motor happily along with as little as 1,000 rpm indicated and with a complete absence of engine or drive-line snatch. Cruelly floor the throttle at these rpm, and the engine will jerk and hesitate. Feed in the next 500 rpm more gradually and the engine pulls without complaint. At 3,000 rpm it is pulling like a lion, the induction and exhaust notes have be- come more purposeful. By the time you reach 4,500 rpm the car is pushing forward hard, induction and exhaust notes blending into a beautiful howl.
Pop up headlights and grille mounted lamps operate on full beam.
This glorious six may not quite have the instant mid range punch of the big V8 or 12-cylinder supercars; change down a gear to keep the engine spinning and acceleration response equals any current supercar. As it is the 20 mph increments in all five gears are beautifully even. Only over 120 mph does aerodynamic drag cause a fall off in acceleration, but then not by much, for example in fifth gear it is a mere 6.1 sec slower from 130-150 mph than from 100-120 mph. It is as fast between 40-60 mph in third as it is from 80-100 mph. It seems that as the torque begins to fall off the power curve becomes ever stronger. Ultimately it is only the rev limiter (variable within 200 rpm but set at 6,700 rpm on the test car) that prevents this superbly smooth unit revving well into the red sector (also starting at 6,700 rpm).
ACCELERATION FROM REST
Standing 1 km
25.2 / 132 MPH
Standing ¼ mile
13.6 / 103 MPH
ACCELERATION IN TOP
ACCELERATION IN 4TH
On the road this wonderfully constant acceleration flow is maintained by well chosen gear ratios. The rev drops diminish progressively from 2,200 (1st to 2nd) to 1,100 rpm (4th to 5th) at each step. Maxima are 48, 71, 100 and 136 mph.
Maximum speed testing was conducted on a virtually windless day (fortunately so in view of later comments) and here the M1 excelled itself by going conclusively onto the rev limiter to record 163 mph (with what wind there was) and 161 mph into wind.
Straight line acceleration equals all but such cars as the much vaunted Ferrari Daytona-certainly all the currently available supercars - and this on "only" 277 bhp. Dropping the clutch with 4,800 rpm displayed provided just the right amount of wheelspin, and two gradually fading black lines on the tarmac. Grip returned as the M1 passed through 30 mph in 2.1 sec (unmatched by any car recently tested) and then on to 60, 100, 120 and 150 mph in 5.5, 13.0, 20.2 and 41.8 sec. The gearchange pattern has a racing style dog leg first. It has a reasonably direct feel (unlike the rubbery 535i E12 movement). The first to second change is comparatively fast as the time to 60 mph shows, and once working in the normal H-pattern change quality is good.
Based on official fuel economy figures - 50 per cent of urban cycle, plus 25 per cent of each of 56/75 mph consumptions.
Turning circle Lock to lock
10.8 m 35.6 ft 3.2 turns
Peak noise level under full-throttle acceleration in 2nd
Distance recorder: 1.4 per cent slow
27.8 / 3,122lb
Weight as tested
31.8 / 3,563lb
All this adds up to a beautifully responsive and sometimes thrilling motor car. Most overtaking is seemingly instantaneous. 100 mph is available on any ¼ mile country road straight and 120 mph becomes a quite natural cruising gait. Acceleration plus cornering g out of slow corners is sufficient to send carelessly placed objects flying around the cockpit.
The throttle operates beautifully smoothly, and the engine responds beautifully to it at all times. Starting is typically BMW; the key is turned for a second or two, the engine fires, and then settles down to an even tickover. Warm up is quick and this initial driving period free of any quirks to mar flexibility. Once warm the M1 asks to be driven hard for hours on end. At no time does the engine feel stressed. When stationary it, always settles back to the same unruffled and relaxed idle.
Good for the class
For most of the relatively short test mileage the M1 was driven as hard as conditions would allow on autobahnen or over Bavaria's often tortuous country roads. The overall consumption figure of 17.0 mpg is thus extremely creditable, and suggests that in more restrained use nearly 20 mpg should be approachable. The fuel load (split between two centrally placed tanks) is 22.5 gallons, giving the M1 an ultimate range of nearly 400 miles.
On the test car the fuel warning light started to glow with 17 gallons gone, leaving us with around 270 miles between stops, and a five gallons plus generous reserve. Although the tanks do cross feed, BMW recommend that for breathing purposes both key operated "plug" type fillers are opened at fill ups. However, very annoyingly even this does not allow full pump flow to be used during the later stages of brimming when we found ourselves filling the tanks alternatively (and several times) to allow each a settling period.
Oil replenishment is straightforward - this is done with the engine hot but stationary. Considering the engine type - the clearances and number of valves - oil consumption was just tolerable at 400 miles per pint.
High but acceptable - sometimes delightful
Engine noise varies from the glorious full throttle howl to the smooth hum apparent at cruising speeds. As in any mid-engined car, engine noise is always there to some degree, yet in this case it is the complete lack of any engine vibration period that leads one to a feeling of such well oiled mechanical refinement.
BMW are justifiably proud of wind noise suppression. At any reasonable speed vents in each door should be opened to maintain the ventilation through-flow, the air passing forward through the door cavities, and out to atmosphere via the jambs. Thus internal and outside air pressures are balanced which in turn prevents the door frames from being "sucked" out (and the occupants feeling a build up in pressure). This plus excellent door sealing doubtless accounted for the test car suffering only the wind whistles from this source.
Above: Rear quarter lights open to clean centre window. Engine cover hatch release is seen to right of seatbelt.
Above 90 mph air turbulence is audible as a low frequency buffeting (this increases noticeably if the headlights are raised), that becomes increasingly evident above 120 mph. Not surprisingly in such a wide tyred car with what amounts to rubber bushed race car suspension, tread generated roar is always there, but not to an obtrusive degree unless running over very coarse patterned surfaces. Only over 120 mph do these wind and road generated noises combine to make normal conversation require slightly raised voices, and the radio difficult to discern without an increase in volume. Sustained speeds of over 130 mph (hardly ever possible even in Germany) produce a marked increase in induction and exhaust noise levels that would soon tire. Tyre thump over makeshift road re-pairs is particularly well subdued. When in use one hears the air conditioning pump clutching in and out from time to time.
The rearward weight bias and those wide section Pirelli P7 tyres give the M1 superb grip and traction. Perhaps the car's greatest joy is being able to consistently use its huge reserves of power to rocket out of corners, and past others. By previous supercar standards the M1 feels softly sprung. This particularly benefits traction and mid corner grip where the surface undulates or is rough. The tyres stay glued to the road surface. Ride quality is truly excellent. Even at very slow speeds the suspension is working to even out bad surfaces. Long open road undulations are absorbed beautifully.
At all "normal" speeds straight line stability is good, and in virtually still air we ecountered no problems during the maximum speed runs. Yet there were occasions when travelling at over 120 mph that we were blown off line by light gusts. One expects a degree of straight line nervousness in a rear weight biased mid engined car, but in "our" M1 this slight uneasiness seemed not to be discouraged by the suspension's suppleness and a tendency for the front wheels to fidget over road camber changes, the latter being a particularly noticeable characteristic on variably cambered B roads when unless the wheel was gripped tightly the front end would "walk" mildly about.
The steering itself is superb, ideally geared with 3 ¼ turns from lock to lock (the turning circle is dismal at 41ft), nicely weighted, beautifully accurate, and thanks to a steering damper between rack and chassis, remarkably free from transmitted road shock.
In corners the M1 E26 is neutrally balanced. It is happiest being driven in slow (slow in this case does not relate to everyday cars) and out fast, and at all times gives the driver an excellent feel as the cornering forces build up.
The M1 turns-in avidly. It responds fast to steering inputs. Dry road grip levels are simply phenomenal. At speeds where the everyday car would be sliding the M1 simply clings. The driver has to adjust to an altogether different level of adhesion. In the dry the problem in the M1 is no longer finding enough grip, but the forward visibility with which to exploit it. For us, finding somewhere to unstick the car safely at any speed presented perhaps the greatest testing problem of all.
As implied understeer is rarely present except on the entry to slow corners. Yet as we have said before it is initial understeer that leads the driver into a corner and gives him a better initial feel of the road - particularly in the wet. A niggling point perhaps but we think worth making if only because at normal speeds the car is otherwise so well mannered. As cornering forces are increased under power in slowish corners it is the rear which finally breaks away. It does so with docility yet at such a high limit we cannot imagine it being transgressed in normal circumstances. In extremis an abrupt lift off also starts the car oversteering. In either case, response to correction is beautifully quick and precise, inspiring great confidence especially in the wet where at moderate speed it is quite easy to provoke oversteer with the throttle. Testing conditions prevented such experiments at anything more than 70 mph. However, we did notice that when easing the throttle in very fast (over 100 mph) corners taken at perhaps "eight-tenths" of the maximum possible, chassis movement (weight transfer and pitch) caused a mildly inhibiting uneasiness at the rear end, a lightness we felt to be due only to the suspension settings chosen to operate best at lower speeds, rather than any fundamental quirk.
In the M1 BMW have achieved three ideals; progressive response, good front to rear balance and excellent fade resistance. Pedal efforts rise in a gradually steepening curve, 10lb producing 0.25g retardation, 30lb (0.65g), 50lb (0.95g) and 60lb (1.0g). With a 70lb load the fluid in the decelerometer shot below the limits of the scale to record an exceptional stop of well over 1.0g. Only at 80lb did the front brakes finally lock. It is these greater braking loads towards maximum braking that provide an ideal cushion against the driver locking up in panic.
Anti-dive front suspension geometry and a low centre of gravity keep braking pitch well controlled. Perhaps surprisingly in view of our earlier comments on camber-induced nervousness, braking stability is good.
Fade resistance is excellent. By the seventh of 10 consecutive 0.5g stops from 103 mph (the speed at the ¼ mile) pedal pressures had risen considerably to the accompaniment of some sponginess and friction material smell, thereafter the linings staged a recovery that continued to the end of the test.
In contrast the handbrake was miserably inefficient (and strictly speaking illegal) only managing 0.15g retardation - a stopping distance of 200ft from 30 mph.
Behind the wheel
Those of average height will find little difficulty in getting comfortable. It is only if you are 6ft or more that the driving position starts to become cramped. A lower seat is to be introduced to give more headroom whereas BMW can provide little more legroom as longitudinal adjustment is limited by the bulkhead.
The cloth faced seats provide adequate rather than excellent support. We felt the need for more padding in the lumbar region, particularly as a tall driver needs to adopt a rather round-shouldered pose, which leaves a hollow at the bottom of the spine.
Otherwise the M1's cockpit is a most workmanlike place to be. The pedals are perfectly positioned for heel and toe operation. They are offset due to the intrusion of the wheelarch but one soon gets used to this.
A flat "Motorsport" steering wheel is adjustable for reach, the gearlever and normal BMW stalk controls fall naturally to hand. All switchgear is within easy reach. Pop up headlights are raised electrically, but only when the main lights are switched. If the headlamp flash is operated in daytime two smaller grille-mounted lamps come on - they also light on full beam at night.
Contained within a long hooded binnacle are a full set of instruments, also the heating and ventilation controls. The main dials; an 0-9,000 rpm rev-counter (accurate and visible) and 280 kph speedometer (partially masked by wheel rim) with press-to-reset trip odeometer (1.5 per cent slow) are flanked by water temperature and fuel contents gauges. The oil pressure and most welcome oil temperature gauges are on the far left. Warning lights dealing with main beam, handbrake, charging rate, oil level, and indicators are set at random in the central display.
Right: The M1 interior presents a pleasingly functional sight. Adjusted as shown the seats allow just enough longitudinal room for a 6 footer. Headroom is a little restricted far right) though it is to be improved with a lower seat. Below: Main instrument binnacle contains (from left to right) oil pressure and temperature gauges, fuel tank gauge, rev-counter, speedometer, and temperature gauge; also heater controls, fan switch, cigar lighter, and digital clock. The main light switch and panel light dimmer rheostat lie alongside left hand facia vent. Air conditioning controls are situated next to gearlever together with hazard warning, heated rear window and rear fog lamp switches. Note the intrusion of wheelarch into footwell, and resultant offset pedals. Above: Under the front lid, is a compartment dominant by radiator ducting, battery, fuses and brake servo. Vents in doors, are opened to maintain ventilation through-flow an prevent door frames “popping out” at high speed.
The electric window switches, plus buttons for hazard warning, heated centre window and rear fog lights, also the air conditioning controls are mounted in a panel beside the gearlever.
On the M1 BMW have clung to their water-valve heating system. Heat output is good, also directional control quite satisfactory, but as we have commented on so many occasions it is slow to respond and very much an on/off affair. Ram fed fresh airflow through the four facia vents is also disappointing, though a reasonable breeze is obtainable with the fan set on the first speed - its noisiness inhibiting constant use on the higher two speeds. Thus on any averagely warm summer's day we found intermittent use of the air conditioning (which has a separate-fan) necessary to keep comfortable. Constant cab temperatures seemed difficult to maintain without constantly "hunting" for the right fan settings, and we felt that the right balance would have been easier to achieve had the main fan been rheostat controlled. In spite of these criticisms the M1 is undoubtedly better ventilated than any previously tested supercar.
The common mid-engined car complaint is of poor all round visibility. Once on the move the M1's rear quarter light windows allow a quite tolerable over the shoulder view, one also learns to make good use of the excellent electric door mirrors in town. Nevertheless parking is made awkward by the nose which falls away, the high rear quarter, which renders low posts and kerbs invisible and the aforementioned poor turning circle. Once on the move the driver's view forward and to the side is little more obstructed than in an everyday car, and there will always be something rather sensual about sitting in a machine of this type, in close contact with the road, watching the road surface rush past the bottom of the screen, and other vehicles rapidly diminishing in size in a mirror image crossed with thin section slats. Most unusual and welcome is the M1's total freedom from reflections in the screen or in the vertical rear window.
Living with the M1
With no official sales in this country and certainly no right hand drive version available, owners will undoubtedly have to live for this superb mid-engined road racer. One of the most satisfying aspects is that M1s pass all the normal BMW quality control checks. Panel fits, paintwork and the cloth and leather trim are of a high standard. On a practical note the rear window can be cleaned of road muck splashed up through the engine bay, via the opening rear quarterlight windows. The electric windows work tolerably fast. A quite reasonably proportioned luggage bin contains the extra narrow spare wheel, jack and very comprehensive tool kit. Care is needed not to load articles affected by warmth as the "boot" sits immediately over the exhaust system.
Oddments space is very limited, being restricted to some door pockets, a tray in the centre console, and a tiny lock-able cubby hole/speaker box situated where the centre console meets the rear bulk-head.
With no official back-up in this country, anybody contemplating the purchase of an M1 from the factory will have to make their own service arrangements, or contact BMW GB at Reading who say they would be only too happy to look after one or more M1s. As with any exotic car maintenance costs will obviously be sustantial. There is also an unusually short six-month, 6,000-mile warranty period.
The M1 is only obtainable in left-hand drive. Cars are purchased "ex-works" and brought to this country on a "personal import" basis. They cost DM 144,000 (approx £36,000) which includes £6,300 German VAT (17 ½ per cent). When exported this is returnable but the car is still subject to Special Car Tax (10 per cent of basic price) and British VAT (15 per cent) making a grand total - not allowing for prevent door currency fluctuations - of around £37,570.
HOW THE BMW M1 COMPARES
Maximum speed (mph)
Acceleration 0-60 (sec)
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Ferrari 512 BB
de Tomaso Pantera
Porsche 911 Turbo 930
*Figures for 930 3.0-litre Turbo / t Estimated figures
An obvious omission is the yet to be tested 2.2-litre Esprit Turbo (£20,950), a comparatively light car that initial driving suggests more than matches any roadholding and handling standards set here, if not the sheer performance. And don't forget such discontinued cars as the Miura (172 mph max) but slower than M1 to 130 mph and incomparable Daytona (174 mph), which still beats any road car tested by us. Those that remain are still tremendously fast. Acceleration builds strongly in the superbly refined Porsche. If you want the ultimate mid range kick, consider the Vantage, Khamsin (two very practical machines) 512 Boxer or Pantera or even the Porsche if you can wait a second for the full urge. The M1 engine provides similar performance with an eager revving smoothness, and mechanical refinement only bettered by the Porsche. Of the mid-engine trio the BMW wins for its all round efficiency, an overall performance likely to be equalled only by the current 3.3-litre Porsche 911 Turbo 930.
ON THE ROAD
High geared (2 turns) and very direct Citroen SM derived power steering make the otherwise well mannered Khamsin a difficult car to corner hard and smoothly. It is firm riding, harder even than the Boxer. The Porsche and M1 ride beautifully, just better than the Aston. The Porsche's combination of power understeer, and abrupt trailing throttle oversteer take some taming. A little below that it is a most refined (the quietest here) and grippy car. P7 tyres (also standard on the BMW M1 E26) give the car extraordinary levels of dry road grip. We would have preferred the chassis tuned to give more initial understeer (something the Pantera has a-plenty) in the cause of high speed stability and turning in "feel.'' It remains a very manoeuvrable, handy and handleable car, more so than the Boxer whose engine over gearbox concept dictates a potentially more pendulous slide at the limit. For ease of handling the de Dion rear axled Aston wins. All are adequately straight line stable. All have good brakes, though Citroen hydraulics are again responsible for the Maserati's extreme sensitiveness to the pedal. Noise levels are highest in the Boxer, followed by Khamsin, Pantera and M1. Air conditioning is standard throughout so all are habitable in summer, yet surprisingly none have the "luxury" of decent air blending heat control.
SIZE & SPACE
Legroom (seats fully back)
Aston Martin Vantage
BMW M1 E26
de Tomaso Pantera
Ferrari 512 BB
If space and performance are required then the Aston is a clear leader. Neither the Maserati or Porsche offer more than child size rear accommodation (though the Italia hatchback is a plus) and are disadvantaged by their extra narrow or "spacesaver" spare wheels. The same applies to the mid-engined trio, where the punctured tyre has to be carried by the passenger! There is room for a normal spare and plenty of luggage in the Aston. The Pantera and M1 have reasonable sized luggage "boxes" behind the engine and the Porsche just tolerable suitcase space under the front "bonnet." By contrast the Boxer is relatively cramped to drive and barely has room for small squashy bag in its front compartment.
If you require at least the possibility of carrying four, the choice among this delectable six must lie with the Aston, a magnificent beast and most practical, the Khamsin, a car full of style and temperament or the Porsche Turbo, a refined and beautifully finished car. Charisma is what the mid engined car offers - certainly no greater performance. That and in the M1's case a gloriously smooth revving engine also adhesion and ride quality that for the most part is quite unequalled by the Boxer or comparatively low priced Pantera. The M1 gives the driver an indefinable feeling of being at one with machine. It was designed to have competition potential (which it clearly has). It happens to have also made a first class road car - possibly the best mid engined car yet (though we have yet to try the Esprit Turbo). The only pity for us is that BMW have not found it possible to make just a few with right-hand-drive.
Part 2 M1 Magic!
You can take the sports car in BMW's M1 for granted - it's the refinement that brings the surprises. Steve Cropley on a car that’s far too good to be thrown away in bump and bash motor races.
Let us pause for a moment to mark the passing of the man in the Simca 1000. About 45 seconds ought to do; it isn't certain that he is truly deceased. Yet such was his unhappy blend of adventurism and limited driving skill when we met him recently on a German autobahn, that it is at least three-quarters of a certainty that he has handed in his portfolio by now.
We had eased a BMW M1 from the unblinking gatekeepers of Motorsport Ag. BMW’s fast cars division on the northern outskirts of Munich, and were driving it north-east at a relaxed 90mph. it was about 7pm and the evening light still beamed brightly from a clear sky. The car was to be in our care - photographer Curvvood’s and mine - for a couple of days and apart from a resolve to put many miles under its wheels, we had no concrete plans. We had merely decided, on the aircraft from London, to head for clear roads up near the Czech border. We were aiming, for the want of anywhere more appealing, for a dot on the map called Rottenburg. Perhaps it was the gin.
If this sounds idyllic, it was not. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no pleasure in your first half-hour in a fast, rare, expensive car. There is only the beat of an apprehensive heart. And when you must drive this unfamiliar beast through after-work traffic, constantly carved up by rats, racing home, you become acutely aware of the mittelmotor's visibility vagaries, its sudden clutch and its engine pregnant with the potential to misbehave in crowds. Even the Citroen 2CVs have menace.
On this special occasion, I had managed to leave our maps securely stored with the airsick bags behind the seat of a grimy British Airways Trident, so we were navigating with the small- scale maps in the front of the Michelin guide. Moreover, this was no ordinary traffic. It was the Munich Grand Prix which occurs every year on the eve of the Ascension Day holiday, when every self-respecting Teuton vies to be first to shake the soot of the city from his shoulders. And As We All Know.
‘The red mid-engined car had special notoriety in front of its home crowd ; we were the centre of attention’
German motorway drivers - even those in Simca 1000s - are the most competitive on the planet.
We learned in the first 10 minutes the futility of trying to be a non-combatant in a three-laned Battle of the Bulge. Red, mid-engined cars are rare on German motorways, just as they are on Britain’s, and this one of ours had special notoriety in front of its home crowd. We were the centre of attention for those reasons, and because we were disobeying one of the precepts of social order in Germany - that all motorists worthy of the title should travel at maximum speed (plus or minus 5 percent for gradients). Our austere 90mph was barely 60percent of our potential. Drivers of sub-100mph cars looked quizzical as we eased past them only slowly. Those with more performance flaunted themselves on our outside, looking for a race. The fast lane, even more than usual, was an unbroken line of snaking, 110mph metal, gleaming in the evening sun.
The man in the Simca 1000 was locked in a slower, but consuming battle with a VW 1302. Like all good racing drivers his concentration was absolute; he had no time for those who weren't in the race. Three feet from our low, red nosecone - so close that his car was only visible half-way up its dun-coloured rear engine cover - he lurched into our lane in an attempt to steal the racer's edge from the Volkswagen. Even more quickly he twitched away again in response to our lights, horn and the looming redness in his mirror (which he consulted hurriedly for the first time in miles). The redoubtable Simca swing axles, always dependable for their Ralph Nader oversteer, did their bit and the tail of the Simca (laden, you will remember, with an ill-placed engine) began to flap like a laddered windsock in a Force Five. Somehow the Simca’s nose stayed in the same hemisphere as its direction of travel, and as the tyres began to wail and smoke began to billow from spindly wheels, we were past. In a second the incident was buried alive by the congestion: there was nothing but a blue haze in the mirror and an ominous lack of traffic in the adjacent lane. But the man in the Simca 1000 did not die; he passed us half an hour later still scorching along at a defiant 82mph.
From that moment, the evening improved rapidly. It was clear that this was one of those rosy moments when even those most deserving of the ultimate calamity were to be spared. The evening sun turned into a spectacular sunset, captured on Colin's Kodak. The traffic thinned as we left Munich 100miles behind and turned further east. Already, we were impressed with the M1's ability to swallow distance so quietly, even though the camshafts' drive is a foot from the back of the cabin. Even better was the utter lack of wind noise and best of all was the ride.
Paradoxically, BMW have not built the M1 to acquit itself well in the hands of people like us. or indeed, people like you. From its birth in 1972 the M1 has been the bones of a competition car.
The ‘Procars’ that race as support for Grands Prix are the first track versions - 480bhp Group Four machines. There are 850bhp turbocharged Group Five cars coming soon. The 277bhp road car was never meant to be more than a passport to race car homologation.
The project began in 1972 with the arrival at Motorsport Ag of Jochen Neerpasch. and the abrupt expansion of the organisation. It v/as decided to produce the M1 ("Motorsport One") as the standard-bearer for the ’80s, and a PR tool. It was obvious from the start that production of the cars by BMW themselves would merely be a headache. Their assembly facilities were geared to bigger volume activities, so a deal was done whereby Lamborghini would design, develop, test and produce M1s to BMW’s parameters, using a body designed by Giugiaro but based on the aerodynamic research and some styling characteristics of BMW's 'Turbo styling study show car, seen around Europe at the beginning of the '70s.
The resulting chassis and suspension were among Lamborghini’s most advanced and painstaking work; they were developed alongside the mighty Countach S. The greatly respected Ing Dallara brought his special touch to the project, including a knowledge of how to draw the best from the excellent, but complex Pirelli P7 tyre. Six prototypes had been built and consigned to Munich, and a lot of initial testing had been done at Nardo race circuit by Lamborghini test driver Sterzel by the time things began to go wrong at Sant’Agata in 1977.
‘There were tales of in-fighting and of BMW staff swooping on Sant’Agata to liberate designs and tooling’
It became clear that £1.1m of Italian government money, loaned to Lamborghini to buy materials for M1 production, had been applied to things thought ‘more pressing’ by the then Lamborghini management. There was no money left to build M1s. Since the BMW board had long-since decreed that no Deutschmarks were to be invested in Italy. BMW were in deep trouble. Too much time and money had been invested in the project - and too much face was to be lost - for it to be aborted. A solution had to be found. Amid stories of serious bouts of corporate in-fighting and tales of BMW staff swooping on the Sant’Agata works to liberate designs and tooling, the body stylists. ItalDesign, agreed to expand their works to take over the job of bonding the fibreglass panels made by the Italian-based TIR with the chassis manufactured in Bologna by the Marchese brothers. And that is how it works today. The bodies are shipped from ItalDesign in Turin to the Bauer works in Stuttgart, the people who make the Opel-based Bitter coupe, where it is trimmed and fitted with its mechanicals. All final tuning and testing is done by Motorsport themselves. The result is a car heavy with Italian flair, yet built with the uncompromising durability and assembly standards that no Italian car ever had.
The road M1 is very closely related to the track cars. The basis of both is a space frame chassis made in square section tube. The body is entirely GRP and consists of unstressed panels with a joining line that runs horizontally around the skirt of the body and fits very well into the car's styling. That styling, though dated to some eyes (it is. after all. at least eight years old) is beautifully detailed; the curves across the top of the engine cover, over the wheel arches and ahead of the windscreen in particular give the car a definite non plastic look.
It is clear, if for no other reason than that BMW make no great claims about extra-low drag coefficients, that the car’s aerodynamics are primarily aimed at high speed stability. There are concessions to aerodynamics all over the car a front spoiler, slots in the bodywork above the engine bay to extract heated air, the small side windows on flexible mountings to allow them to move slightly as the air pressure varies at differing speeds but candidly, the design is too old to be more than fairly efficient by 1980 standards. If Giugiaro were drawing the car again, you can be sure he'd make changes.
There was only ever one option for the suspension system unequal length wishbones and anti-roll bars at both ends. It is the system which combines maximum potential for adjustment with minimum camber change (when designed properly). It is the system adopted by the most serious designers of fast, heavy road cars. The road M1 s suspension is adjustable (including the car's ride height) but it uses rubber suspension bushes to cut down its road noise. The steering is manual rack and pinion with 2.35 turns from lock to lock, quite a lot when you consider that the car's turning circle is a decidedly inconvenient 42.7ft. Still, U-turns on racing circuits are rarely called for.
'Of all fast road cars M1 compares most closely with the 911 Turbo 930; both have claimed top speeds of 160’
Of all fast road cars, the M1 E26 compares most closely with the Porsche 911 Turbo (the 930). At 171 in, it is 2in longer than the Porsche, it weighs just 30lb more at 2870lb, its 3.5lilre engine yields 277bhp compared with the Porsche's 300bhp from 3.3-litres (albeit accompanied by the harder-to-handle power characteristics of a turbocharged engine). The cars' claimed top speeds are identical at 160mph and the Porsche is claimed to be 0.3 sec faster from standstill to 60mph at 5.5 sec. In this context the Lotus Esprit Turbo is very much a car of the future. It weighs at least 850lb less than either of the other cars, has a top speed of 150mph and loses only 0.05 sec in 0-60mph acceleration. And all from 2.2-litres.
The basic M1's competition car overtones do not end with the suspension design. There are fabricated alloy components all about, the clutch is a twin-plate Fichtel and Sachs unit, the brakes are gigantic race-bred ventilated discs at both ends, power assisted and fed by air scooped from under the car. The engine is dry-sumped. The space frame incorporates first class roll-over protection; this is, after all. basically a car engineered to handle 850bhp. Even the puny 277bhp road car has the best in tyres; 205/55VR15 Pirelli P7s on the front wheels, 225/50s on the rears. The wheels are aerodynamic, but unimpressive-looking, cast alloy Campagnolos all round.
The M1's engine sits close behind the occupants at the centre of the car and drives the fat rear wheels through a five-speed ZF transaxle. It is related ' both to current BMW road cars and successful racing cars of the past. The iron engine block is a little-changed 635CSi E24 unit with a capacity of 3453cc, a bore of 93.4mm and a stroke of 84mm. The block height is standard but there is a different crankshaft (nitrided, forged alloy) and the connecting rods are longer than the 635's. But it is the cylinder head that is responsible for the extra power. Originally developed for competition use in front-engined BMWs. it is an alloy, four valves per cylinder unit with twin overhead camshafts, driven by chains. It incorporates BMW's so-called polispherical combustion chambers and is fed by Kugelfischer-Bosch indirect fuel injection. The compression ratio is a modest nine to one which ensures that the engine behaves itself on ordinary four-star fuel.
Spark is provided by a contactless Magneti-Marelli electronic distributor and the mixture it ignites is exhausted by a tuned, ‘bunch of bananas' exhaust system. The result of all this design sophistication is a maximum power output of 277bhp at 6500rpm (300rpm short of the redline) and a torque peak of 239lb/ft at 5000rpm. More importantly for M1 E26 road drivers, the torque output is considerable, even 2500rpm below the maximum.
The M1 interior is not all black, but it still manages to be a dark, claustrophobic place. There are black bolsters on the seat sides, relieved a little by finely-chequered fabric seat inserts and a lighter-coloured carpet. The facia is simple. There is a flat, vertical panel for the two big dials and four smaller ones, plus warning lights, in simple array. The tachometer, speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges are plainly visible, but the voltmeter and oil pressure dials are completely obscured by the rim of the fat, three-spoke wheel.
‘Just another-impractical exotic, you think, built for short, slim-hipped sons of Monte Carlo millionaires’
For all the unimpressive display, the car's equipment is very complete. There are electrically adjustable mirrors on both sides which cover the rearward blind spots well, even if they mess up the exterior lines. The windows are electric, too; the cabin has air conditioning if you want it and, of course, there is a demister for the rear screen. The cabin finish is excellent although the trim materials are more durable than sumptuous.
If there is one thing you tend to remember of the M1 it is that initial impressions are later proved wrong. If you’re tall, you get into the car and find that your head contacts the roof lining. The wheel arches intrude into the footwells. The seats feel beautiful and the wheel is superbly placed, but what use is that, you wonder, if your 74in body is cramped at both extremities? It's just another impractical exotic, you think, built for short, slim-hipped sons of Monte Carlo millionaires.
When you start the engine, it snuffles rather a lot at low revs. It threatens to stall a lot in your first quarter mile. The clutch is very firm and takes up in a remarkably short distance. You can almost feel those plugs oiling. On the autobahn, you give the car its head the first time. You expect a kick in the back; it doesn’t come. Only above 5000rpm does the car begin to move really well. It's not a true performance car, you think; it just looks like one.
But reality is different. It takes several hundreds of miles of driving to get to know this car. It takes two dozen trips at high speed around one corner; one which you thought had a 60mph maximum but which you eventually negotiate on rails at 85. It takes time to learn how to settle your body into the seat; learning to sit knees-high to keep your head free of the roof lining. It takes familiarity with the engine to find that it pulls with sweetness and smoothness from 2500rpm but needs judicious use of revs and a perfect set of gear ratios - plus your discovery of that last half inch on a long-travel. Lambo-style throttle.
In truth, the performance is not as earth-shattering as the comparison with a Porsche 911 930 implies. The 160mph claim is optimistic. The car will achieve 150 easily enough, but even 140mph (which is 5mph beyond the wrung-out, 6800rpm maximum of fourth, and corresponds to about 6000rpm in top) takes some achieving. Perhaps the car will do 160, but you'd need to over-rev the engine and find the right piece of road, and we did neither. The engine’s strength is its wide band of power delivery, its smoothness and its unobtrusive nature. For the basis of a track engine, it really is silken. It is the unit to waft you across countries - or at least across the unrestricted Fatherland - at a constant 120 without causing fatigue or strain. And the brakes, the brakes. It should be a traumatic experience to stop fast from 130mph. The energy to be dissipated in a couple of seconds is locomotive in proportions. The M1 brakes laugh at the job; what is more they provide the progressiveness and bite that racing drivers of a decade ago could only dream about.
The steering is beautiful, too. You can forget any niggles about heaviness at parking speeds - it’s fine at 20mph, anyway - and a big turning circle. It is sure and firm at 140mph which is worth incalculably more. In the beginning, you might be slightly unnerved by the way the wheel moves in your hands with the contours of the road. You're aware of it constantly for the first fast hour; and never again. The accuracy and the feel are those of a latter-day Lamborghini, which is as good as a machine gun magazine of superlatives.
The gearchange lets a driver down a little. When timed properly and used with concentration it is fluent and satisfying, but it could do with more precision and better gate definition. You can get lost when quick movements are called for - as they are in a car which can pack the approach, the direction change and the acceleration out of a corner into so little time. A driver who is truly getting the best from his M1 has to make do with a shorter time than a lesser car would allow him. In those conditions the car’s gearchange does not match the standard of the rest.
It is customary in a story like this to dwell on the cornering characteristics of the car. The straight line stuff (it is normally implied) is to fill in time between the corners - that’s where euphoria lurks. But with the M1 there's relatively little to describe. The car just goes around. You point with the fat- rimmed wheel and it goes where you aim. You don’t throttle off and wait for the nose to tighten, you merely adjust it minutely. Of body roll and tyre distortion there is practically no sign. The car grips to an extent that even after you’ve hurled the car through the same corner countless times, you don’t really feel you’ve truly approached the limit. You'd need some run-off space to risk it. But you have reached cornering speeds at which your priority is to avoid being bodily levered out of your bucket seat by g-force and that still doesn’t happen too often. In certain 50mph corners you can move the tail out a foot or so with the power, but it's a highly artificial manoeuvre. A smooth road driver would never do it. And to attempt it at higher speeds defies reason.
The best bit is the last. No other car of the mid-engined layout-or of the M1’s performance potential - even goes near it in its ability to suppress noise or deal softly and quietly with the most bone- jarring combinations of bumps. It can stand eye-to-eye comparison with a Jaguar in its sheer ability to absorb bumps, and the way this wheel movement is damped, and the way it is achieved with so little noise. The car performs better than any I’ve ever driven on Pirelli P7s; it is silken at any speed, not just in certain speed ranges. The way the M1, on grip-and-no-compromise tyres, copes with railway crossings (more exacting evaluations of a car’s suspension than man ever designed) is a new experience. You find yourself waiting for the next combination of bumps, just to confirm again the car's excellence. Under 120mph, there is no wind noise at all. None. At 130 there is a rustle at the top of the passenger’s window; at 135 a continuous whistle; at 140 a roar, far away.
All this, you see in a blinding light, is why BMW have put so much into testing the car; why each road-going engine snarls away on a bench for seven hours until it truly delivers the claimed power and torque. This is why there was so much re-thinking of body and chassis when stress areas were discovered.
In building the M1 homologation special, for that is what it is, BMW and Lamborghini and ItalDesign could have built a crude car; something with quivering, paper-thin panels and tin for a cabin floor. Such cars could have been rebuilt before their body, chassis or suspension durability was called into question. It would not have mattered if their bodies clattered like kettledrums and their rock-suspensions crashed into bumps at 40mph. The racket would have been masked by the scream of 850bhp - and the 400 starry-eyed owners would still have put down their money.
Instead, they have built a milestone of a car; a machine too good for its purpose. True, BMW will utilise the lessons of the M1 elsewhere, but it still does not seem fair that so many fine cars have been created merely to jump kerbs, to shunt Armco or merely to rupture their over-revved innards onto some piece of captive tarmac. The tools are too good for the tradesmen. Pearls before swine. I say.
Ducting beneath bonnet slots (above) expels hot air from radiator. M88/1 3.5 engine is BMW's 635CSi E24 M90 (it’s not the M30B35 and 3453cc and uses the same block as the BMW M88/S38) unit; new cylinders head gives it 277bhp and provides truly flexible performance. All you can see of it are cam covers, air cleaner and “banana” exhaust system.
BMW E26 M1s body has definite non-plastic look - even the doors shut with traditional BMW thunk - end is beautifully detailed and made. Styling is 44 years old now but is clean, effective - and 'Italian' (it's one of Giugiaro's). Cabin is not specially roomy though scats are fine and position of controls fabulous. Dash is not so good.
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