The idea for the BMW M1 took root in the mid-1970s as a competition replacement for BMW’s successful 3.0 CSL, which was starting to show its age at the race track. BMW Motorsport, tasked with making the M1 the foremost expression of automotive art and also with winning races, revived the mid-engined E25 Turbo, a concept show car created for BMW by noted designer Paul Bracq. Introduced in 1978, the two-seat, mid-engine M1 didn’t live up to BMW’s expectations at the race track, and perceiving a weak market for the street-legal version of the exotic M1, BMW ended production in 1981.
The BMW M1 – a visual tour de force
While the M1 didn’t meet BMW’s visions of racing success, Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Ital Design team outdid themselves with the M1 body – it was drop-dead gorgeous from any angle. The low (only 45 inches high), sleek, wedge-shaped body conveyed the appearance of being able to do anything its driver commanded with grace and aplomb. It was an appearance that was backed up by the M1’s street performance.
Powered by a 3.4 liter, fuel-injected, inline six-cylinder, double-overhead-cam engine producing 277 horsepower in street trim, the 2900-pound M1 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, 0 to 100 mph in 13.3 seconds, and had a top speed of 164 mph. Not only was the M1 quick, it took good care of its occupants. According to Car and Driver magazine, “The interior is beautifully turned out. Dashboard, console and door pockets are upholstered in hand-stitched leather.”
The rear, mid-engined layout restricted foot room, thanks to the intrusion of the front wheel wells into the cabin. The pedals were offset to the right so much that the clutch pedal was on the right side of the steering column. Not ideal, certainly, but for such performance, one makes accommodations to one’s driving style. Andrew Frankel, noted European motoring and racing writer, said of the M1’s motoring manners, “It’s almost too easy to drive – it’s quiet, has a compliant ride, and motors in high gear without protest.”
M1 – First BMW mid-engined car
The M1 marked a first step in a new direction for BMW. After great success in building some of the world’s best sedans, the company felt that a mid-engined car was necessary to compete in 1970’s racing. But, not having any production experience with mid-engined cars and not wishing to disrupt their sedan production lines, BMW contracted with Ital Design for the design and engineering work, and with Lamborghini to assemble the car on their production line. It was then that BMW came face-to-face with Murphy’s Law.
There are various versions of Murphy’s Law, but most of us know it as, “Whatever can go wrong, will.” The first domino to fall on the M1 was Lamborghini – their precarious financial position forced them into receivership, causing BMW to completely revise their production plans for the M1. Now, the tube frame and the fiberglass body would made in Italy by two different firms, and Ital Design would assemble the bodies on the frames. The cars would then be shipped to Stuttgart, Germany, where Baur would handle the final assembly, and then to Munich, where BMW Motorsport would do the final preparation.
Shipping the cars between several locations in Italy, then to Stuttgart and finally to Munich caused serious production delays, which lead to more dominos toppling over.
Procar Racing Championship
The racing regulations in force at the time required BMW to have built at least 400 examples of the M1 before it could be homologated as a “production” car. With the production delays, it was obvious to all concerned that the required 400 cars could not possibly be built before the 1979 racing season, preventing BMW from selling any M1s for production car racing purposes. Putting their collective heads together, the BMW Motorsport team came up with an idea that would allow BMW to give the M1 some immediate racing exposure without violating existing regulations: the Procar Championship.
The Procar Championship was a racing series limited to only M1s. All cars were prepared to identical specifications, with five cars retained for the BMW Team and other M1s sold to other racing teams. For the initial season of 1979, the races were held in conjunction with Formula 1 race weekends at the top European tracks and featured the top five qualifying Formula 1 drivers, as well as top drivers from other series.
Niki Lauda took home the championship for 1979 with three victories in eight races. Another Formula 1 driver, Nelson Piquet, won the championship in 1980, taking three wins in nine races. BMW was entering the Formula 1 party in 1981 as an engine manufacturer and would enter their own car in 1982. With the demands of full-time F1, there was no time to devote to the Procar Championship and it was cancelled following the 1980 season.
BMW Art Cars
Racing driver Hervé Poulain commissioned artist Alexander Caldor to paint the BMW 3.0 CSL that Poulain would drive in the 1975 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, thus beginning the tradition of BMW Art Cars. Since then, various models of BMWs have been selected to be Art Cars and painted by eighteen famous artists. The M1 has the distinction of being an “official” Art Car commissioned by BMW, and the only “unofficial,” privately owned BMW Art Car commissioned by former racer Peter Gregg.
Artist Andy Warhol was selected by BMW to paint the M1, while Gregg chose painter and printmaker Frank Stella for his M1. The Gregg M1 was donated to the Guggenheim Museum and sold at auction in 2011 for $854,000. The Andy Warhol M1 remains one of BMW’s Art Cars, which are used in various public relations events to further artistic and other worthwhile causes.
Only 453 M1s were built during its short life and none were officially imported into the U.S. As a result of the small number of cars produced and its unmet expectations on the race track, the M1 has been overlooked by many exotic car fans and collectors. While the on-track performance of the M1 was moderate, its street performance has made it the favorite of experts. Noted motoring journalist Andrew Frankel recently test drove a 1979 M1 and loved it, saying, “The BMW M1 is a pearl, technically the best supercar of its era.” In the December 1981 issue, Car and Driver magazine was even more effusive, saying, “The M1 is the absolute pinnacle of hyperfast street cars.” The experts have spoken – the BMW M1 is the simply the best supercar of its time.
We’d like to offer a special ‘Thank you’ to Gullwing Motor Cars of Astoria, NY for allowing us to use photos of the 1980 BMW M1 they currently have for sale.
BMW Art Car Collection – https://www.bmwartcarcollection.com/2011/05/04-andy-warhol-bmw-art-car/
Sports Car Digest – http://www.sportscardigest.com/bonhams-quail-lodge-auction-2011-results/
Exotic Car List – http://www.exoticcarlist.com/blog/bmw-m1-a-sports-car-ahead-of-its-time/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMW_M1