It was a crisp fall day. I pulled up to a neighborhood gas station in my steel grey 2001 BMW 325Ci, having enjoyed a spirited drive on an isolated road not too far from my house. On the other side of the pump, I saw a long, black scalloped vent on the c-pillar of a white sports car. The car was flat, low and looked like nothing else I’d ever seen. Could it be? It was. A BMW M1. No, not the 1 Series M, but the legend that launched BMW Motorsport. It was a sight to behold. Emboldened by my pure fascination with this car, I approached the driver directly, so as not to hover and risk annoying him. I said one word: “Amazing”. He said he couldn’t believe it was his.
We spent the next ten minutes looking at it together and talking Bimmers. He gazed at mine and said, “Nice car” — kind of like Michael Phelps telling you he’s impressed by your version of the doggie paddle. I congratulated him on his wise and singularly unique purchase and off he drove. It was like a brush with celebrity, at least for me. The BMW M1 is the supercar that never was, and aficionados of the brand are waiting patiently for its resurrection.
What It’s All About
The prospect of a German supercar in the 1970s had the tenor of something that simply shouldn’t be done, like the Italians producing a mass-market station wagon for the states. But BMW went out on an automotive limb and put just such a car in the works, primarily for racing homologation (building a certain number of road going cars to justify a presence in sports car racing). The goal was to build the then-required 400 automobiles to qualify for Group 5 racing.
But as BMW lacked the chops to build a production supercar with a mid-engine design, they decided to outsource. BMW commissioned none other than the house of Lamborghini to build the car using a BMW powertrain. The plan was to build the M1 alongside the super-exotic Lamborghini Countach. Famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, known for such beauties as the Ferrari 250 GT Bertone and the Maserati Bora, penned the M1 using the rare gullwinged 1972 BMW Turbo concept car as styling inspiration. Though the gullwing doors wouldn’t carry over, the low-slung, flat shape of the Turbo thankfully did. As a result, the car is instantly recognizable and looks like nothing else, sans the M1 Hommage Concept car built in 2008, which doesn’t quite capture the beautiful simplicity of the original M1.
What occurred next was far less smooth than the look of the M1 design. Lamborghini was experiencing its fair share of financial difficulties, and though the design had been finalized and seven cars had been built by the Italian automaker, production of all 400 cars suddenly seemed a far-fetched goal. In 1978, BMW took the reigns back from Lamborghini, their original production is still very much looming. How would they manage to take on something they had never planned on doing in the first place?
BMW reached out to a small German coachbuilder, Baur, which had built BMW prototypes like the 1600 Coupe and Cabriolet; more importantly, they had crafted the very 1972 E25 Turbo concept upon which the M1 was based. In retrospect, this path seemed to be the best one. It became official. Production of the M1 would commence in 1978.
The M1 stands apart from other, even faster BMWs for two reasons: its supercar status and its position as the sole mid-engined BMW mass produced. The famous twin-cam M881 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder naturally aspirated engine possessed four valves per cylinder and a horsepower output of 277 — not an astronomical number, even by 1970s standards.
0-60 for the production M1 came in around 5.5 seconds, with a top speed of 160 MPH (while the Lamborghini Countach LP 400S was hitting 180+). In modified race form, the M1 delivered increased horsepower, with some versions pumping out as much as 850 horses. Now that’s more like it; but if anything near that number had made it into the production car (an automotive wet dream), it would likely have detracted from the M1s remarkable drivability.
As wonderful as the clean exterior design of the M1 was, the interior was stark and very teutonically businesslike. The oftentimes all-black interior bore no creature comforts. The huge rectangular instrument binnacle, unsexy shifter for the ZF 5-speed transmission, and huge chunks of ill-shaped door trim were not at all attractive. To be fair, this was not uncommon in the supercar world at that time; at least it was purposeful and, needless to say, made no claims for distracting you from the driving experience. At the very least, you could actually see outside the car. The M1’s visibility was fairly impressive, and this in spite of the mid-engine design.
Its Place in History
In the end, the production of the M1 was a bust. Only 456 were built, and BMW pulled the plug on the project. The M1 will never go down in the record books as the fastest or best-looking supercar, nor even as mildly race-winning. But the car drove extremely well, and that’s what impresses anyone who drives it, even decades after its production ended. It’s tractable, decently quick and handles incredibly, even at high speeds. There’s no invasive technology, no unmanageable, unbridled power — only the smooth, high-revving inline six engine and a wonderful chassis that allows you to feel your every input. Aside from ergonomic issues like the clutch being situated too far to the right, the car’s engineering was virtually flawless. It’s also a remarkably comfortable tourer, despite the lack of a cushy interior, and with an insanely large fuel tank (31 gallons!), lucky drivers can take it for one long, utterly pleasurable ride. Perhaps most importantly, the M1 marked the beginning of the illustrious BMW Motorsport division and led to the M cars we would know and love for the next forty years. Without having set a single record, the car is famous the world over.
Though this level of driving purity will never be reproduced in a BMW supercar again, there are high hopes that the German automaker will put its money where its mouth is by resurrecting this legendary name. Word on the street is that it will come (and soon), and that it will likely echo some of the same lines as the original, remarkable M1. We should be so lucky.