The Legend of BMW’s ’70s Supercar.
The BMW M1, BMW’s first and only supercar, made its debut 40 years ago this year. Today, it’s one of the rarest and most collectible BMWs, but it almost didn’t see the light of day.
There is only one BMW M1 in South Africa – and it belongs to BMW Group South Africa. Refurbishing of the vehicle began in 2016 as part of BMW’s centenary celebrations, which included a fascinating exploration of the company’s heritage. BMW South Africa purchased the BMW M1 from a customer in the mid-1980s to join its classic collection, which at various times has included the BMW E23 745i, BMW E28 M5, BMW E30 333i and 325i S.
Now one of BMW’s rarest and most collectible cars, the story behind the BMW M1 is so fraught with accident, intrigue and bad luck that it’s a wonder it exists at all.
Where it all began
The BMW M1 was originally conceived in the mid-70s as an ambitious project with the main aim of knocking Porsche – then the dominant force in motor racing – off its perch. With that in mind, in 1976 BMW began to devise a car that could race in the FIA’s World Sportscar Championship’s Group 5. For various reasons, BMW’s motorsports division ended up subcontracting the job to, of all manufacturers, Lamborghini.
One glance at the 1.14m-high wedge of eye-catching intent tells you something unusual was happening. The body styling was masterminded by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro in a design that pushed boundaries (it even had two badges at the back; one on each side), but also proved aerodynamically very efficient. Nevertheless, the inline six-cylinder engine was from Stuttgart, making it a true BMW at heart.
Taking a turn for the worse
It was sure to be a showstopper and had wowed the crowds at the Paris motor show but, with only a few prototypes completed, disaster struck when a cash-strapped Lamborghini ran out of money before a proper production line could be built for the M1. If BMW’s project wasn’t going to sink with Lamborghini, BMW would have to take it back and get new partners on board to see the project through. Legend has it that they had to sneak into the Lamborghini factory and steal back their own moulds for the bodywork, which would otherwise have been sold as scrap.
BMW managed to get the project back on track, working with a number of different Italian factories. Some former Lamborghini employees had set up shop themselves under the banner Ital-Engineering (today known as Italdesign) and finished off the design. After that, the bodywork was done by one factory, the chassis by another, and finally it was all put together by a third, before being sent to Stuttgart where specialist coachbuilders would put in the engines and transmission, and eventually BMW themselves would do the testing.
The BMW M1 at the Procar Championship race in Monte Carlo 1979.
The BMW M1 was originally conceived in the mid-70s as an ambitious project with the main aim of knocking Porsche – then the dominant force in motor racing – off its perch.
The M1 became the fastest production car in Germany with a top speed of 262km/h.
The body design and styling pushed boundaries, even having two badges at the back – one on each side.
The finish line
It was a complicated process, but BMW Motorsport GmbH had made its first sports car. It became the fastest production car in Germany, reaching 100km/h in 5.6 seconds with a top speed of 262km/h.
It might have looked like BMW had pulled a rabbit out of a hat, but disaster struck again when the Group 5 rules changed, ruling that BMW would first have to sell 400 road-going versions of the M1 before being allowed to participate. The very reason for the BMW M1’s existence had disappeared in a puff of smoke, yet, there it was, ready to race…
While waiting for enough cars to be produced and sold, BMW seeded the BMW M1 into the public imagination by launching its own race – the BMW M1 Procar Championship – which featured at the European Formula 1 Grand Prix during 1979 and 1980. Big names like Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet won the BMW M1 Procar Championship, but the race was eventually dropped once the BMW M1 was eligible for the Group 5.
While BMW did finally get to participate in the Group 5 series, the association was short-lived. The Group 5 series was canned in 1982, meaning production of the BMW M1 stopped after only 456 had been made. In the end, the BMW M1 found surprising success in the American IMSA GTO Championship, where it gained a cult following after multiple wins.
A generation of M
Of course, the limited production run makes the BMW M1 incredibly rare and collectible today but, perhaps more than that, its significance lives on in its legacy. A modified version of the BMW M1 engine (known as the M88 – a 3.5L 24-valve straight-6) found its way into the first ever BMW M5, and a different breed of legend was born. The BMW M division went on to be, and still is, a global benchmark for automotive performance.