It seems barely possible that 20 years before the BMW M1 E26 made its motor show debut in 1978, the company was staring bankruptcy in the face. Yet, during those two decades it went from facing a possible takeover by Mercedes-Benz, to being the maker of one of the most revered supercars on the planet.
A bailout by the Quandt family and the Neue Klasse saloon sealed BMW’s survival, and racing versions of the new saloon started to establish the company as a sporting brand once again. But it wasn’t until the arrival of BMW Motorsport in 1972, that things really started to take off. Jochen Neerpasch, who BMW poached from Ford to head its new Motorsport department, would be the driving force behind the M1 project but, somewhat surprisingly, he left the company before it had fully come to fruition. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Neerpasch’s arrival at BMW Motorsport certainly coincided with plenty of glory on the track. The BMW 3.0 CSL E9 bagged the European Touring Car Championship for the first time in 1973, then again in 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978. In the European Formula 2 Championship, the four-cylinder M12 engine powered its way to five championships during the 1970s. But what Neerpasch really wanted to do was to take the fight to Porsche in Group 4 and Group 5 racing and, to do this he needed a much more up-to-date weapon.
BMW Motorsport had tried to challenge Porsche with the glorious turbocharged CSL but, ultimately, it proved a bit of a dismal failure. The car could be made fast enough to beat the Porsches in outright pace but, while the turbocharged motor was capable of developing 800hp, the rest of the car simply wasn’t up to the job. The frustrating consequence of this was that, typically after an hour or so of racing, part of the transmission would give up the ghost in spectacular fashion.
Neerpasch could be very persuasive, and he managed to get the BMW board to sanction the construction of a mid-engined machine that would act as a ‘halo car’ for the BMW range, but would also allow BMW Motorsport to beat Porsche on the track. The Turbo show car from 1972 had demonstrated there was an appetite for such a vehicle, but actually manufacturing one was an entirely different matter – it would have taken BMW right out of its comfort zone. So it was that the company commissioned Italian firm Lamborghini to get on board and design and build the car.
Lamborghini’s Gianpaolo Dallara designed a great chassis with a suspension set-up to take full advantage of the recently-launched Pirelli P7 tyre. There’s no getting away from the fact that the fibreglass body penned by Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro was drop-dead gorgeous. And, with a 3.5-litre BMW straight-six fitted with a 24-valve DOHC head, it was guaranteed to be quite a performer, too.
But that’s when things started to go wrong, in a spectacular fashion. Lamborghini, despite a recent bail-out from the Italian government, effectively went bust, at which point BMW pulled the plug on the Italian company’s involvement in the project.
But, by this stage, BMW was too far down the line with the project to cancel it, so needed to make alternative arrangements. The bodies were produced by Trasformazione Italiana Resina, based just outside Modena. The Lamborghini-designed space-frame chassis was fabricated by another Italian firm, Marchesi, also in Modena, while Ital Design in Turin bonded the elegant panels to the space-frame, painted the complete body/chassis units and fitted the glass and some other components.
The resultant, partially-completed M1s were then transported to Baur in Germany, for the installation of the hand-built M88 engines and ZF transmissions, plus the rest of the trim. The completed machines were then shipped back to BMW Motorsport in Munich, supposedly for the final checks to be carried out.
By this time, however, Jochen Neerspasch had fallen out with the management at BMW. He was gunning for a Formula 1 entry, and had already virtually sewn-up a deal to supply one of the big F1 teams with a 1.5-litre, turbo engine, and his hope was that the Board wouldn’t be able to say no.
But BMW’s top-brass had fallen slightly out of love with Motorsport projects, thanks to the M1 production debacle, and also resented being pushed around by Neerpasch. Consequently, the F1 project was canned and Neerpasch left under a cloud, and went off to work for Talbot. This left poor old Paul Rosche to finish the M1 project.
While Rosche was undoubtedly a hugely talented engineer, having to oversee the M1’s convoluted production process – and bring a production car to market – gave him many a sleepless night. Once the completed M1s started to arrive in Munich from their production ‘line’, Rosche discovered that the expected BMW quality just wasn’t there, and many early examples had to be virtually taken apart and reassembled by Motorsport’s engineers. All-in-all, the fact that the M1 was so well received by the press when it finally arrived, was something of a miracle.
JUST TOO LATE
Unfortunately for BMW, by the time the M1 came to market, homologation rules had changed, and there was no way it could produce enough examples of the M1 to satisfy Group 4 rules. So, this left the M1 all dressed up but with nowhere to race!
Before he left, Neerpasch and Max Mosely (a leading light in the Formula One Constructor’s Association) cooked-up the idea of the Procar series to accompany the F1 circus and, for two glorious years, the M1s provided a rousing spectacle on the F1 race card.
Despite not being able to take on Porsche on the track, the M1 did make a delectable road car. The mid-mounted M88 straight-six had dry-sump lubrication to allow it to be mounted low in the chassis and, with 277hp and 239lb ft of torque, it had enough grunt to roll the M1 along very well indeed. The results were a 0-62mph sprint time of 5.6 seconds and a top speed of 161mph.
But it was Dallara’s work on the chassis that really separated the M1 from other supercars of the time – it was a brilliant piece of design that blessed the car with sublime road manners. The steel spaceframe had been designed for far more power than the road car’s 277hp and, with unequal length double wishbones at each corner, height-adjustable coil springs, bespoke Bilstein dampers and a geometry set-up to make the most of its 15in Pirelli P7s, it really was a very tidy handler.
Perhaps the one aspect that let the M1 down in was its interior, which arguably lacked the sense of drama you got with the contemporary, Italian rivals. The BMW’s interior was all pretty workman-like, with half-leather, half-cloth seats, and plenty of items scavenged from the BMW parts bin. On the plus side, there was a stereo, air conditioning and electric windows which, thanks to Paul Rosche’s ministrations over the production process, all worked well.
ON THE ROAD
But what’s the M1 like on the road today? Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to sample several different M1s, and they’ve all been sublime and, quite remarkably for an old, mid-engined supercar, all utterly reliable. I adore the shape and while it might not look like a traditional BMW, I think it’s a design that’s aged really well.
First impressions once you’re sitting inside inevitably centre around the cockpit and, while it’s not what you’d call plush, everything falls neatly to hand. You’re immediately struck by how the gear lever’s positioned just a simple hand’s span away from the steering wheel, and the fact that the pedals are quite heavily offset to the right in this left-hand drive-only machine. Legroom’s just acceptable for a six-footer, as is headroom, although taller drivers might struggle to fit comfortably.
Twisting the key brings a cacophony of sound from just behind your right shoulder, as the Kugelfischer-injected straight-six settles into a busy idle. Moving off, you discover that the clutch doesn’t have the easiest of actions, and that the unassisted rack-and-pinion steering is quite heavy when at manoeuvring speeds. Rearward vision isn’t great either, thanks to the flowing buttresses and slatted rear screen.
Once you’ve become familiar with the controls, and you add some pace, the M1 really starts to come together. The engine’s an absolute belter; torquey enough to pull from low revs in a higher gear, yet delightfully tuneful and powerful further up the rev range. If it goes this well with 277hp, I can only imagine what a 450hp Procar version must have been like, let alone one of the turbocharged, 850hp examples that eventually raced in Group 5. The dog-leg, five-speed gearbox works well, too, with precise shifts that aren’t too long in the throw and, once on the move and shifting swiftly, the clutch action becomes much better.
There’s a delicacy to the M1’s handling and, despite having very modest (by today’s standards) 15in wheels fitted with 205-section front tyres, its front-end hangs on tenaciously. While you get the impression that you could bring the rear end into play, you need plenty of space to do so as, once it starts to go, you need to have quick reactions to bring it back. Despite this, the M1 is never intimidating to drive and, right up to its limit, it feels very controllable and composed. Even the ride’s good.
With just 453 M1s (including the competition cars) having been made, it probably wasn’t BMW’s soundest commercial venture, especially given the protracted production process. Yet it remains a real halo car for the company, and demonstrated what it could do when it put its mind to something.
It took another 35 years before BMW launched its next mid-engined machine, and I’d still love to see if M could turn the i8 into an iconic range-topper like the M1. The world would be a better place if it did.
The engine’s an absolute belter; torquey enough to pull from low revs in a higher gear.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sample several different M1s over the years; all have been sublime.
The M88, 3,453cc straight-six is an absolute belter; torquey enough to pull from low revs, yet delightfully tuneful further up the rev range.
I adore the shape of the M1 and, while it might not look like a traditional BMW, I think it’s a design that’s aged really well.
Above: The M1’s interior is a slight disappointment, lacking the sense of drama you get with the contemporary, Italian rivals.
Right: Despite a somewhat dark and utilitarian interior, all the important controls fall beautifully to hand, and everything works.
The M1’s fibreglass body is distinctive, simple and beautiful; what an appealing combination!
The M1 sits on very modest, 15in alloy wheels. Nevertheless, there’s a delicacy to its handling that’s a joy to experience.
The fibreglass body penned by Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro is drop-dead gorgeous.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS BMW E26 M1
ENGINE: M88 straight-six, DOHC, 24-valve
MAX POWER: 277hp @ 6,500rpm
MAX TORQUE: 239lb ft @ 5,000rpm
0-62MPH: 5.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 161mph
PRICE: £37,500 (1980)