The BMW M1

The BMW M1

When BMW launched their Motorsport division in 1972 they set about making some homologation road car specials to enable their racing and with great success, but what they really needed to make a splash on the world stage was their own, bespoke car. A supercar. And so in 1978, the M1 was born…

The path to creating an all-new sports/supercar (some doubted it should be called a supercar thanks to the engine, but just look at it – it’s a supercar) was certainly not an easy one for BMW though. They wanted a car that would enable them to compete in racing, and to give them an advantage over rivals with front and rear engine layouts, BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch decided they needed a mid engined layout. At that point this had been the reserve of Italian exotica, so was certainly a brave move for BMW to make, especially when it came to pass that it would ‘only’ have a six cylinder engine.

BMW designer Paul Bracq penned the BMW Turbo show car in 1972, which is the car that inspired the M1 – the design of which was taken on by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign and they did an outstanding job, creating a car that was both classically BMW and utterly futuristic at the same time. The nose has the classic kidney grille, small (especially by today’s standards!) but enough to show the heritage while still allowing a sleek appearance. Being a 70’s sports car, it of course had pop-up headlights too, which further enhanced the aerodynamic front end – don’t forget this was designed to be a race car as well as a road car so aero is key. The side window has the traditional ‘Hofmeister kink’ as all BMW’s have, the little hockey stick shaped kink in the rearmost side window, while the rear end sits quite high thanks to that mid engined layout. 

The rear is one of the most distinctive parts of the M1, with vents above the rear wheel arches, and a deeply concaved rear decklid with oh-so-70’s slats between the rear buttresses. At the end of those buttresses sat a BMW roundel on each side, which to this day still looks a little strange, though that’s likely because we’re just used to seeing one BMW in the centre. There are no big spoilers, just great aerodynamics and a set of wonderful flat-faced alloy wheels, all adding to the overall aesthetic that is subtle yet purposeful. 

BMW M1 dash
Bonhams Auction Dubai, detailed view BMW M1 (09/2010)

The interior was… simple, but then the 70’s wasn’t really the best era for interior design and the M1 was effectively a race car for the road so they were never going to go too luxe with the design. Simple boxy shapes and a set of comfy yet supportive bucket seats, a wonderful three-spoke steering wheel and of course, a leather-topped gear lever sticking out of the centre console. Visibility was good for this type of car thanks to the generous glasshouse, but of course the view rearwards was somewhat limited by the slats. But as great as the M1 looked, it was really all about the mechanical package.

BMW M1 engine

The M1 featured the proven M88 3.5 litre straight-six engine, with six separate throttle bodies, twin-cams, 4-valves per cylinder and put out 273hp and 330NM – tiny outputs by modern standards (and by supercar standards in the 70’s) which is why it never really sat well in the marketplace. Most buyers of an exotic car don’t want to know that the engine is shared with more mundane models. The engine was amazing though, designed by Paul Rosche who most famously went on the design the incredible 6.1 litre naturally aspirated V12 engine in the McLaren F1. Power was sent to the rear wheels via a 5-speed ZF manual gearbox and a 40% locking limited slip differential. 

Given it was being built to become a race car, it’s no surprise that the suspension is a double wishbone setup all around, using Bilstein dampers and adjustable coil springs. Along with the slightly softer setup, this allowed the M1 to have a really forgiving ride for a mid engined car, along with high levels of grip and sweet handling. The chassis is a tubular steel spaceframe, manufactured by Machesi in Modena, while the body was glass fibre and also made in Modena by Italia Resina. The initial plan was that Lamborghini was going to build the 400 road cars, and while they did a lot of the prototyping work, their financial woes meant that BMW then moved the production to Baur in Germany for final assembly. Only 453 road cars were made in the end, of which 53 were competition cars.

The M1 was initially devised for a one-make race series, the Procar BMW M1 Championship which was a support series to Formula One. This ran for two years and enabled the car to gain Group-4 classification, which meant it could then be used in other motorsport series. It was run in the Le Mans 24hrs race from 1981 to 1986, which is where it gained some of the most iconic liveries that you associate with the M1 – the Art Car and BASF designs being two of the best (above). The racing version really does look fantastic too, with the wider arches, deeper front spoiler and that enormous rear wing. There are a few road cars which have been converted to have the racing bodywork and dare I say it they look even better when on the road.

Ultimately though, the M1 was deemed a failure by the BMW board and its creator Jochen Neerpasch was fired because of it. It simply cost too much to develop when it was entangled with the production woes, and then thanks to changing motorsport regulations it was never really allowed to flourish in competition as much as it could. It will forever be remembered as one of the BMW greats though, and holds it place among the upper echelons of desirable classic cars alongside greats like the Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari Testarossa.

In 2008, BMW decided that it would take another stab at the M1 in the form of a concept called the M1 Homage. This took the design language of the M1 and brought it right up to date with 2008-era details. The pop-ups disappeared, replaced with double fared-in units, but the overall look was definitely pure M1. Even though the reaction was most favourable from the public, the M1 Homage was never intended to be a production car, only a design exercise for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. Some of the details did make production though, mainly the area around the rear wing and roof area, which can be seen in the BMW i8 of 2014. It shows how design ideas can be tested in the market via concepts and then resurface many years later. 

We can only hope that at some point, BMW decides to create another supercar, though anything created now wouldn’t be mid-engined, it wouldn’t have an engine at all! Though a sleek, 2-seat supercar EV BMW would certainly be interesting…

Click here to read about the other M cars…