Epic Restoration BMW M1 E26

 

This M1 E26 – registered 255 BMW – on BMW’s press fleet is arguably the most famous roadgoing M1 of all, having been assigned to BMW GB by the factory. All those miles in the hands of journalists added to the toll taken by time itself and so the decision was taken in late 2015 to get classic BMW specialist Munich Legends to restore it. The catch was that it had to be completed in time for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June 2016 – barely three months after it arrived in the workshop. Impossible, surely?

Looks fine, doesn’t it? M1 E26 arrives at Munich Legends, hiding a multitude of horrors. Engine, transmission, suspension and lower bodywork removed before rotten chassis tubes could be cut out and repaired.


Munich Legends’ Dan Norris didn’t think so when it arrived in the back of a BMW transporter. ‘It looked so good that I wondered if anything really needed doing to it,’ he says. ‘Then we started to unwrap it and the more we saw, the more we wondered what the hell we’d got ourselves into.’

The fact that the M1 was conceived and largely built as a racing car has a few implications for anyone seeking to restore one. The chassis is a lightweight spaceframe of steel tubing, box-sections and flat steel panels. Most of it is hidden behind bonded and riveted glassfibre panels or – if approaching it from underneath – behind the full-length flat floor. It’s designed to be worked on from above, while resting on its wheels with no thought given to longer-term roadgoing maintenance or assessment. In fact, the only accessible steel areas (apart from the wellprotected floor) are in the doors and at the base of the headlamp pods. And both were rotten.

Polythene wrap protected exterior while anti-rust paint process finished off repairs to the underside. James Blackwell had to make old carpets look as good as new.


‘When I discovered that anything that could have rusted had rusted, I began to understand the mess we might find when we finally stripped it further,’ says Dan.

He handed over the dismantling task to James Blackwell and Mick Hope, whose job it was to expose the M1’s steel substructure in the areas that their bodyshop colleagues needed to repair.

‘The doors have an outer glassfibre skin with a steel skeleton bonded on,’ says James. ‘We kept a separate box for each individual door because we had to remove the winder mechanisms, the hinges, the locks, and all the nuts and bolts to allow the bodyshop to cut out the rotten steel and weld in new metal, leaving us with the pieces that we needed to refurbish. We tackled the headlamp pods in exactly the same way.’

The only way to assess the floor was to remove all the interior trim. This job had to be tackled with great care because the original carpet material is no longer available, a problem that would rear its head in many other areas of the M1’s restoration. ‘The carpets are glued in,’ explains James. ‘If you try to yank them up you’ll pull threads out through the carpet. The only way to remove them is to ease them away extremely slowly and carefully with a paint scraper. Even then, however, I still had to poke some threads back through.’

After a frantic restoration BMW’s own M1 is ready for press duties once more.


This revealed a pattern of rusting square tube with the flat floor welded on underneath. Several areas of tubing would need to be replaced, but the worst was yet to come.

‘The doors were a real challenge – they each took about 60 hours to finish off properly’

‘The amount of corrosion surprised us given the car’s relatively low mileage,’ says Mick. The full horror was exposed later by the guys in the bodyshop when they unstitched the dozens of rivets that hold each sill panel in place. But before they could get their hands on it, James and Mick removed all four corners of the suspension. It has double wishbones front and rear and it’s impossible to access the load-bearing areas of the chassis near to where the components attach without taking everything off first.

‘We found some pretty serious rust in the nearside rear section around the fuel tank, around the driveshafts and a few areas adjacent to the engine,’ says Mick. ‘Then we had to fabricate a trolley for it to sit on during its trip to the bodyshop.’

It took some lateral thinking to find the engine bay trim – some were listed as Mercedes parts. Munich Legends had to lay fresh paint onto the M1’s older finish even though it had been painted several times before.


With the bodyshop located on a different site a short trailerride away, the cargo was loaded, carefully strapped down and driven away. The brief given to Dan Summers and Sam Corke was to cut out the rot discovered by Munich Legends’ HQ, complete the repairs, respray each panel and return the lot on its trolley ready for assembly – in less than three weeks.

‘It gave us the fear, if I’m honest,’ says Sam. ‘Thankfully we received the doors before the rest of the car because they were a real challenge. The glassfibre was wrapped around the steel skeleton at the factory while it was still wet and flexible, but the steel on this car had rusted and blown it. We had to cut it all away, weld in new steel and then form new glassfibre around it. Each door took about 60 hours to finish off properly.’

With some of the glassfibre showing signs of delamination and a wavy surface texture, several areas – including the door skins – had to be taken back to the bare gel coat, but it was impossible to do this over the whole car in the time available.

‘It must have been painted at least four or five times over the years – I guess press-fleet cars take more than their fair share of knocks,’ says Sam. ‘So we had to trust previous paint jobs and lay the colour on to an older finish.’

There was a structural challenge too – the rear panel had cracked and separated from the boot floor right across its width below the number plate. Sam thinks this was a result of 30 years of mechanics leaning on it to access the engine bay. Despite this, Sam, Dan and their colleagues returned the M1, resplendent in a new coat of BMW 357 Top Red, in just three weeks. So what had the rest of the crew at Munich Legends been up to in the meantime?

‘It took three days to get a parts list together and then we discovered that only a quarter of what we needed was available,’ says Munich Legends’ general manager Stuart Draper. ‘We realised that we were going to have to scour the globe for the items we needed. Then there were things that had to be re-made – companies were quoting a three-month lead time but we could only give them four weeks!’

While Stuart and his team were jumping queues and calling in favours, they discovered that some M1 items are just too challenging for most sub-contractors to tackle. ‘I remember trying to get an alloy wheel specialist to re-finish the M1’s cast magnesium Campagnolos and the guy I spoke to was a bit nervous,’ says Dan Norris. ‘Then I told them what the deadline was and he flatly refused.‘

Refinishing old magnesium wheels is a long process that begins by dissolving away the old paint and other residue in a weak acidic solution before re-sealing and painting them. ‘They can turn to powder if you get it wrong,’ says Dan. ‘I eventually found a company to carry out the work but we had to get the Campagnolo stickers – along with all the other stickers on the car – custom-made.’

It looked for a while as though the car would have to be reassembled with perished bushes and worn ball joints. The one polyurethane bush manufacturer that Norris hoped could help took the view that demand for M1 parts wasn’t high enough to justify even a short production run, taking the search back to square one. ‘Eventually we found a stock of bushes and someone in Germany who had all eight of the ball joints we needed,‘ says Dan. ‘We bought the lot but only six of the joints turned up.’ Considerable detective work eventually unearthed the others.

In other areas it was a similar matter of persistence and lateral thinking. The correct expansion tank, for example, is listed as being no longer available, but a 7 Series tank turned out to be identical. The clips for the wiring loom in the engine bay weren’t listed for any BMW but turned out to be Mercedes items.

‘People think the M1’s engine is the same the one in the M635CSi E24,’ says Mick, ‘but it isn’t. The dimensions and the cylinder block casting are the same but the cylinder head is quite a bit different – and much more bother.’

Mick probably has as much experience as anyone when it comes to working on M1s. His apprenticeship began with BMW back in 1969 and he was a mechanic for Niki Lauda’s M1 Procar in the short-lived Formula One support series in 1979 and ’80. Nonetheless, there was only so much even he could do without the right parts. ‘We did an old-fashioned de-coke and rebuilt the top end,’ he says. ‘I fitted new valve stem seals and having established that the bottom end of the engine was fine, put it all back together. I checked the valve clearances and found that 23 of the 24 were fine – but one wasn’t…’

The shims required to set the clearances on an M1 engine are underneath the camshafts, meaning the camshafts have to come back out to make adjustments – a major difference from the M635. The shims are the size of an aspirin tablet but finding one of the required thickness proved to be impossible. ‘We had no option but to buy the wrong one and then carefully machine it down to size,’ says Mick.

He and James Blackwell had an equally tedious time sourcing and replacing the numerous O-rings that are designed to keep the oil inside the engine and its race-inspired dry-sump system. ‘They really love to leak,’ James says with a rueful smile.

There was a visual detail to get right too. The camshaft carrier and the aluminium casting sandwiched between the cylinder head and the ribbed black camshaft cover on the top should be gold. ‘It’s a specific custom colour that appears to be almost anodised, so we made an effort to get it right,’ says James. ‘All BMW M-sport engines from that era have it.’

Parkinson’s Law states, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ When there is a matter of only a few weeks to rebuild a car, there’s not much time available in the first place. A tight finish seemed inevitable.

Mick and James built up the suspension assemblies and put the car back on its wheels. Next came the interior, which was still bare after its return from the bodyshop.

‘We reapplied the headlining,’ says James. ‘We saved the fabric and applied it to a new backing board. The seat covers just needed to be re-dyed but the bases had collapsed so we had to fit new foam and have new bolsters made up.’

With James’ carefully rescued carpet re-fitted, the seats and door-cards completed the interior. Fitting the engine and getting the car running now looked like a manageable final hurdle with time to spare – but then Parkinson’s Law kicked in again. First came the challenge of getting the fuel injection working.

‘We had to get the injection pulses from the pump timed properly,’ says Mick, ‘which would have been a lot easier if the information on the car and the numbers in the workshop manual had actually tallied.’ The situation was made trickier still by misbehaving Marelli electronic ignition. It has sensors on the flywheel, but unlike modern systems the sensors have to have precisely the right clearance from a series of tiny shims or they simply won’t function.

‘Then there was the cold start mechanism,’ he goes on. ‘A good idea in theory, but it seems to have been a bit of an afterthought.’

Time was getting tight.

‘There we were, 9pm on a Friday night, trying to bleed the clutch,’ says Mick. ‘I think Dan Norris locked us in!’ He and James had two bottles of beer in the work fridge to act as an incentive when things were going badly. In the end, they never had time to relax and drink the beer, but the car was indeed finished. James grins at the memory of that first trip up the road with the engine revving sweetly all the way to the redline – and its arrival on BMW’s exhibition stand at the Festival of Speed right on time.

We’ll leave the last word to Martin Harrison, the man in charge of BMW GB’s press fleet, ‘We’ve always kept an eye on the M1’s condition but never had the budget to sort it out until our centenary celebrations came round. There are 16 cars in the collection but if I could pick just one to represent the M Division, it would be the M1. We’re all passionate about this car and wanted the best for it. Add that to the enthusiasm from Dan Norris’s team and their willingness to do it properly and you’re in for a few late nights!’


MY FAVOURITE TOOL

‘There are literally hundreds of rivets on the M1,’ explains James Blackwell. ‘They hold the GRP panels on to the steel structure beneath, and secure various bits of trim. I got pretty familiar with the rivet gun – the rivet is held in its jaws, poked through a hole and then expanded as the gun is squeezed and the pin is drawn back through the body of the rivet. I developed strong arms!’


Low point ‘We were trying to bed the clutch in when the bias valve failed and we lost all brake pressure. We really thought it wouldn’t make it to the Festival of Speed’

High point ‘Going to the Festival of Speed and seeing it on the stand after all that hard work. We just sat down with a few beers and gazed at it’


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