The History of BMW M///
If you think of modern legendary performance car versions of regular cars, you invariably think of BMW M models. Throughout recent history most new M models have been regarded as best in class soon after launch and M now has one of the richest back catalogues of all automotive manufacturers.
In the 1960’s, BMW was getting more and more successful in various forms of motorsport, so it was decided that a new division would be created to curate this racing program and spawn performance road cars as well – so in 1972 we saw the formation of BMW Motorsport GmbH… with a little help from Ford. Well not Ford exactly, but in the late 60’s the head of Ford’s Motorsport Department in Cologne, Germany was an engineer called Jochen Neerpasch. He was responsible for the race-winning Capri RS 2600 and was poached by BMW to head up their new Motorsport division.
The first car to be developed by the new division was the 3.0 CSL race car, which was based on the gorgeous 3.0 CS road car to race in the European Touring Car Championship and then with more development in the IMSA GT Championship (seen above). The ETCC rules meant that the racing cars had to be homologated for road use as well, which spawned the 3.0 CSL road cars of which 1,265 were built. These rapidly got the nickname of the ‘Batmobile’ thanks to the aerodynamics package that was offered, with fins along the front wings, a deeper front airdam, a spoiler at the tail edge of the roof and a huge rear wing. Amusingly these wings were illegal for use on German roads thanks to their stricter regulations, so the spoiler was left in the boot when they departed the factory and were installed by dealers. As good as the CSL was though (and it really was), it was the next car that really set the tone for the M division – their first M-branded car – the M1.
The M1 was a huge departure for BMW, a full-blown supercar to rival the best that Italy could produce and featured a 3.5 litre straight-six engine, mid mounted in a gorgeous body. Development was a mess though, via Lamborghini and Giugiaro and when it eventually hit the road it was at just the wrong time with only 453 made. The M1 was created to compete as well though, in the new ProCar Championship and Le Mans in which it had great success. There were some legendary liveries like the BASF red car and the Art Cars. Sadly it was deemed a failure by the board and Neerpasch was fired because of it, but M division lived on…
Click here for an in-depth article on the BMW M1
The next car to come out of M division was actually the car that set the tone for future M products – a hotter, more performance-oriented version of one of BMW’s existing models. In this case it was the e12 5-Series, and the model was the 1980 M535i.
The M535i featured a similar 3.5 litre straight six to the M1, but placed into the nose of the regular 5-series, creating a sports saloon that helped define a genre. With 220hp it was more powerful than any 5-series before and had front and rear spoilers, sports suspension, a dogleg manual gearbox and more importantly, drove like nothing else available at the time. This was where BMW M really started to take off, realising that they could take a regular saloon car and make it into something that would handle as well as a contemporary Porsche 911 and allow owners to have huge fun driving when they wanted, but could also transport the family in comfort or complete business duties with ease. With the e28 generation of 5-series there was again an M535i but this time it was joined by a newer, even faster and more powerful model using the proper M1 engine and sporting a badge that everyone now knows – the M5.
Click here for an in-depth article on the BMW M5
The M5 was developed alongside another car though – the M635CSi. This was designed to take BMW into a newer, far more upmarket space occupied by cars like the Porsche 928 and Mercedes SL – the luxury performance coupe/GT car. Using the same venerable 3.5 litre straight six, this sleek gorgeous coupe made 282hp in Europe (the US got a more emissions-strangled version called just ‘M6’) and came with BBS alloy wheels, front and rear spoilers, lower-riding sports suspension and a pair of sports seats inside. The M635CSi remained on sale until 1990 with a few revisions and like most other 80’s/90’s BMWs is now quite sought after.
Click here for an in-depth article on the BMW M6
In the mid-1908’s BMW M turned its attention to the smallest BMW in the range – the 3-series and created what has become one of the most inconic performance cars ever – the e30 M3. The e30 shape was already a really good looking machine, with a clean 2dr saloon bodystyle featuring classic BMW proportions and ‘world styling’ – meaning it wouldn’t change when sold in Europe, North America or Japan. The M3 version took those good looks and added a solid dose of steroids, with wider arches, a lower front splitter, a big rear wing and some lovely BBS alloy wheels. Under the bonnet sat a new engine, the now-legendary S14 2.3 litre four cylinder producing 192hp and a truly intoxicating howl at full stretch. The e30 M3 regularly appears in lists of the Top 10 best driver’s cars of all time – usually in the top 5. The e30 M3 wasn’t just a road car though, enjoying huge success on the race tracks too.
Click here for an in-depth article on the BMW M3
As time progressed through the 80’s and early 90’s, BMW stuck to what they knew with the M3 and M5, upgrading models and creating an M version with each new model from e34 5-series to e36 3-series. In 1993 the company name was changed from BMW Motorsport GmbH to simply BMW M GmbH.
But in 1996 BMW M decided to diversify a little and made what ended up being one of BMW’s most controversial models based on the Z3. The Z3 Roadster was a cute, Mazda MX-5 rivalling 2-seat convertible sports car and was sold in huge numbers, a massive success in Europe and the US and was joined by a coupe version in 1998. This was a controversial design with a boxy rear end that gave it the nickname ‘breadvan’, but in the UK we only saw the breadvan when it came here as the Z3M Coupe, joining the Z3M Roadster. Featuring the same 3.2 litre straight six engine as seen in the e36 M3, the Z3M was a wild little thing with 316hp and a short wheelbase. The Z3M coupe didn’t sell well though, the oddball styling proving too much for the staid British tastes of the time. They have, however gone on to be far more popular in later years as a modern classic.
In 2011 BMW took the 1-Series coupe and made its smallest M model yet – the 1M (called so as to not get it confused with the M1 at the start of the article). This was a proper M car too, with a 75mm wider track resulting in massively swollen wheelarches giving purposeful looks and incredible handling. The 335hp turbocharged straight-six gave epic performance and the 1M won group tests and car of the year plaudits all over the world. This also paved the way for the car widely recognised as the best M car of the modern era – the M2.
Click here for an in-depth article on the 1M/M2
Through the following years, BMW continued to push the boundaries of what you could expect from a performance car, from the V8-powered e39 M5 to the insane V10-engined e60 M5, V8 e92 M3 and beyond. M6 became M8 and morphed into a continent crushing super-GT, while the M badge was attached to some huge SUVs for the first time. All of these models can be read about in more depth in the specific articles linked throughout – BMW M has such a huge, rich history that each model needs its own story.
Click here for an in-depth article on the ‘other’ M cars
BMW M is now the biggest it has ever been, with the current range spanning a huge 9 models, from small coupe to huge SUV. But the 2012 M135i saw the advent of a new division within M – the M-Performance cars. These were a way to sprinkle a little of the M driving magic (and more importantly, marketing magic) on lesser models, also giving the buying public a way to get into something like an M car at a lower price point. The previous generation 1-Series Coupe had the excellent 1M, but BMW wanted to give the newer f20 model a little taste of that so created the M135i. This was developed by BMW M and had a turbocharged straight-six 3.0 litre engine with 315hp and RWD, linked up to a slick manual gearbox and was the first in a new generation of super-hot hatches.
With the success of the M135i, BMW M went on to develop the M140i, M235/240i and M340i (and even M340d diesel for the first time). The M-Performance models sell in much higher numbers than the full-fat M cars, and this is great news for BMW as they contain far fewer bespoke parts meaning a bigger profit. BMW also now sells M-Performance parts for most cars in their range, adding sportier bumpers, wheels, spoilers etc which can be added from the factory or by dealers – this really helps as you can include it in your finance deal. You can see how popular this is by the sheer number of 320d saloons covered in M-Performance parts seen on the motorway.
So what does the future hold for BMW M? Well this year we’ve seen the first M-Performance EV models with the i4 M50 and iX M60. With the future ban on non-electrified models coming in 2030 BMW is heavily investing in EVs, so it stands to reason that M products will have to evolve too. It’s a pretty safe bet that the next generation M3 will probably be a plug-in hybrid, featuring an electric motor paired to the petrol engine. This will likely push power up beyond 600hp and make the car even heavier, but I think we’ll still see an M3 in 2030, as a full EV. Same goes for M5, M8 and the rest. Having driven the i4 M50 I’m fairly certain that BMW M can face the challenges of making a performance EV fun to drive and to have that ‘M’ feel – it’s all about how you make the handling feel and the i4 M50 is every bit as fun to drive as the petrol equivalent. The only thing you won’t get is the usual howling M engine note.