BMW has garnered a reputation globally for building cars of unsurpassed build quality, performance and reliability. In terms of styling, however, they’ve never really ventured too far from the look of their 60’s coupe’s and saloons. However, in a couple of instances, BMW’s styling genies have taken a leaf out of their contemporary’s books to create some truly magnificent looking machines, the first of these being the lovable, the stylish, the absolutely sublime M1.
The M1 spawned from an agreement made in 1975 between Italian supercar manufacturer Lamborghini and BMW. The idea was for Lamborghini to help BMW create a production racing car in sufficient quantity for homologation, where it would both be acceptable to use on the public highway, but also on the racetrack. In the 1970’s, speed and streamlining were the first and last words in the automotive dictionary, symbolised by the sleek ‘Wedge’ design. Lamborghini essentially pioneered this styling cue with the Countach, and thus they seemed like the perfect guys for the job.
However, conflicts arose between the two companies and very quickly the deal was called off. This wasn’t the end of the road though. Originally, BMW had commissioned Lamborghini to work out the details of the car’s chassis, assemble prototypes and manufacture the vehicles, but Lamborghini’s financial position meant that BMW was forced to reassumed control over the project in April 1978, after seven prototypes were built. Since the engineering of the car was still incomplete, a group of former
Lamborghini engineers that had founded a company named Italengineering offered to complete the car’s design, based at a workshop located less than 10 miles away from the Lamborghini factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese. With their advice in hand, BMW completed the project, fitting the car with a mid-engined configuration, the first BMW to be mass-produced as such, and powerplants comprising of a 3.4L 273hp Inline-6 for street cars, while an 850hp turbocharged version was built for the racetrack.
Production of the M1 started in 1978, with cars being hand-built. The final design of the car was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the legendary stylist who gave us such classics as the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT, the Mk1 Volkswagen Golf, the DeLorean, the Alfa Romeo GTV6, the Maserati Bora and Merak, and, on one of his bad days, the FSO Polonez MR’78. The resulting M1 style was absolutely beautiful, a low, smooth body with pop-up headlights and a crisp feel. It many not have been a super-car in the conventional sense, but boy did it look like one!
In terms of the racing pedigree it was built to represent, the M1 entered the fray in 1979, under the direction of BMW Head of Motorsport, Jochen Neerpasch. Dubbed the Procar BMW M1 Championship, a fleet of modified M1’s hit the tracks, entering group 4 classification in the World Championship for Makes. The new series, served as a support series for Formula One, and included many Formula One drivers in identical cars.
The series ran for two years, with Niki Lauda winning the 1979 season, and Nelson Piquet the 1980 season. After BMW met the standards for group 4, the Procars were used by various teams in the world championship as well as other national series.
Eventually, only 453 production M1’s were built, of which 20 were race versions created for the Procar championship. After the last car left the production line in 1981, the M1, sadly, was quickly forgotten, though its spirit lived on in the form of the highly modified M635Csi and the first-generation M5, which use a modified version of the M88/1 engine, the M88/3.
Today, the M1 is not often remembered by motoring fans, its sublime style and oodles of performance being somewhat overshadowed by contemporary machines such as the Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS, the Maserati Bora and the Lamborghini Countach. Today, in spite of their reputation, they’re incredibly rare cars to come by, seldom found and seldom noticed.
Personally? I really have an admiration for the M1. Though not my favourite as I’m not a particular fan of tiny super-cars and their many flaws, I do appreciate what the M1 was attempting to achieve, and it could’ve achieved it with a bit more interested. As such, the M1 was going up against the established big boys Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari, thus the credentials of an Italian-styled sports car with German efficiency and reliability, coming from a company that hadn’t yet cemented itself as the crown-prince of race engineering, sadly wasn’t enough to bring this car truly into the limelight.