Featured: A Twin-Turbocharged, Speed-Record-Setting BMW M1 Emerges From ‘80s Obscurity

A Twin-Turbocharged, Speed-Record-Setting BMW M1 Emerges From ‘80s Obscurity

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
April 9, 2018
5 comments

Contemporary photos provided by Dan Curwin, historical sources in order of appearance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22-26

This is a story of speed records, pop culture indulgence, street-parked supercars, and crooked museum curators. It all starts with a brazenly mustachioed Austrian motorsports journalist named Harald Ertl.

Ertl was also a racing driver, and hirsuteness aside, by all accounts his face was one of the friendlier ones to be found milling about the pre-race pit lane. Born in the lakeside village of Zell am See a few years after the end of WWII, by the age of 21 he’d already purchased an open-wheeled racing car and promptly began winning races with it in the Austrian Formula V. That was in 1969, and throughout the early ‘70s that followed he bounced between various formula and touring car series, including making his European Touring Car Championship debut in 1971 with an Alfa GTAm set up by the lightweight whiz-kids at Autodelta. Two years later, he wins the RAC Tourist Trophy—the two-heat ETCC season-finale at Silverstone—sharing an Alpina-prepared BMW CSL with Derek Bell and beating such names as Jochen Mass, Toine Hezemans, and Hans-Joachim Stuck—proof that Ertl was no slouch when you stuck him in a bucket seat. Here he is below looking like the coolest dude you’ve never met.

In 1974 he made his first appearance in Formula 2, and by 1975 Ertl had convinced the Warsteiner brewery to foot the bill for three drives in a Hesketh 308B—the sister car to James Hunt’s at the time—and in doing so officially began his Formula 1 career smack-dab in the middle of ‘70s with an appropriate steed: a gold-painted race car covered in beer logos and rented from a titled Englishman who seemed to be doing it all for a laugh.

Though simply making it onto a Grand Prix starting grid is a great accomplishment, in the relative scheme of the sport this particular Austrian was unremarkable. Indeed the most noteworthy of Ertl’s on-track performances during his F1 tenure was when he helped pull his quicker countryman Niki Lauda from a fiery 312T2 at the Nürburgring while they waited for Herbert Linge’s ONS Staffel 911 fire engine to arrive with aquatic backup.

An obvious hero in other ways to be sure, Ertl never managed to score a point in Formula 1, but he did find success in touring cars—and once again behind the wheel of a BMW. For the 1978 season of the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft (DRM), Ertl had moved on from his Celica Turbo to a Group 5-spec BMW 320i Turbo set up by Schnitzer Motorsport, and he was doing quite a good job with it too, seeing as he racked up five division wins in eleven races and became the first non-German champion in the series.

A few years later, Schnitzer would build another Group 5 BMW beast by turning the M1 into a twin-turbocharged silhouette producing somewhere between 800 and 1,000 horsepower, depending on who you asked and the what the particular day’s meteorological profile looked like. March Engineering built some wild competition M1s as well, but they soon pivoted to Group C and IMSA GTX, and although the ProCar series was an ingenious lemonade-from-lemons maneuver on BMW’s behalf, and while other non-factory teams developed the M1 for motorsport well into the ‘80s, soon enough the car’s scattered and brief racing career was all but forgotten—after all, it didn’t win any championships that weren’t solely comprised of copies of itself. That said, one unique example broke a world record in the period, and many thought it to be lost in the literal sense.

Harald Ertl’s racing career was winding down as the ‘70s were turning into the ‘80s. He had failed to qualify for the last handful of Grands Prix he entered, and he wasn’t having as much luck with the Capri Turbo as he did with the old boxy Bimmer when it came to the sports car side of his efforts in the DRM. He was still very much interested in probing the limits and boundaries of motorsport engineering though, and as such he decided to chase it down a different avenue: by going after a speed record. In the fall of 1980, Ertl and an ad-man friend, Gerhard Freudenberg, got to work on the project that resulted in the odd-looking M1 pictured below. Rather than strap a bunch of rockets to something that looked more like a handicapped jet than an evolution of the motorcar, their goal was to contribute to the future of sports driving by pioneering new technologies that could be applied to production cars.

They got in touch with BP in the early stages, and the energy company saw an opportunity to promote its liquid petroleum gas (LPG), called Autogas, a product they wanted to position as an alternative to traditional pump gas for personal cars and fleets of the then-near future. It didn’t really pan out in the long run—engines needed to be retrofitted to accept the fuel, which is always a tough proposition—and rather than filling the tanks of high-end European sports cars, Autogas more or less became a fuel source for motorhome heaters and cooktops in the decades that followed. To prove the performance capabilities of Autogas at the time though, the surface-level plan was pretty simple: Ertl would start with an M1 road car, retrofit its M88 straight-six to accept LPG, and then drive it past 300km/h, setting an LPG-powered speed record in the process.

Other brands jumped on the promotional opportunity as well, and soon the car was sporting everything from custom Sachs suspension setups to fashion-house-designed interiors and chunks of leather-clad Blaupunkt speakers wedged into the cockpit. Of course, those last two flourishes are exactly that, and it would take more than your standard supercar to claim the record—and so another twin-turbo M1 was born. The promotional material that accompanied the project is included below, scanned in order. It’s in German, and I already typed a lot of it into Google translate, and it’s pretty much as ad-speak as today, so you aren’t missing much. It is neat to see the brands that chipped in some support though, from Ronal lightweight wheels to the garage that installed the integrated roll bars.

Using a German race garage, Gustav Hoecker Sportwagen-Service GmbH, Ertl had his M1 fitted with a pair of K26 snails from KKK. With the supporting modifications, this was enough to bring the official power figure from just under 280 to right around 410, though people who’ve been lucky enough to ride in the car claim it was capable of putting out closer to 500. “The” car is a bit misleading though, as there were reportedly three built with this radical bodywork—supposedly developed in part by Walter Wolf, who helped to define the look of the wide-body Countach. One was supposedly destroyed long ago, one with similar bodywork but not turbos was sold by Mirbach to a private collector years ago, and the third car, this one, was used to break the record on October 17th, 1981. It was the only one with the twin-turbocharged setup, and is identifiable as such from the interior by way of the massive protruding boost controller that’s just begging to be nudged clockwise, if only to straighten out the Alpina crest today. 

On the VW test track in Ehra-Lessien, Ertl managed to bring his streamlined M1 to a recorded speed of 301.4km/h (~187.3mph), and as such, just a year after the idea’s conception, he had achieved the goal of claiming the world record. However, this is just hearsay, as there are no third-party validating documents from the date attempted. A few months later, on April 7th, 1982, Ertl was killed in a plane crash while en route to his family’s vacation home for Easter. His wife and son survived. He was only 33 years old.

Pritham Bhatia was only three years old when his father purchased Harald Ertl’s old M1. And he was only a few years older than that when his father died in 1995, leaving a young Pritham and his mother, Shaheen, behind with a few of his cars still parked out in front of the family home. The preceding portion of this article tells how this unique BMW came to be—and none of that is new information—and the following is the story of where it’s been for the past thirty-odd years.

The Autogas M1 began life like so many other limited-series supercars; it was spec’d in a loud color, a rather bright blue, and delivered to a major metropolitan city, Berlin. Well, it was 1980, so, West Berlin. A year later, Ertl acquires the car for his BP stunt, pulls it off, tragically passes away, and the car finds its way to an Alpina dealership somewhere in the Ruhr. In 1984 that dealer trades it to another Alpina dealer, owned by Piet Oldenhof in Holland. It was around this time that this particular M1 (though I’m sure it was not alone) flirted a bit too much with ‘80s garishness, as multiple reports claim that people saw it wearing a two-tone silver and blue scheme complete with a triumphantly thrusted sword airbrushed on top.  It’s hard to sell a serious car painted like a kid’s toy though, and it was quickly resprayed to the interesting inky shade of violet it wears to this day—the Piet Oldenhof “PO” graphics that adorned the cars in his showroom were added at this stage, and they remain today. The Alpina interior pieces were also said to appear in the car under Oldenhof’s care. 

So, today. How did it come to this rather dusty mess? On top of trying to sell the car for years with no luck, in 1988 Oldenhof was then treated to a severely damaged, severely complex motor resulting from a potential buyer test-driving the low-hanging crankcase over something worrisome. It dumped its oil and was towed back to the showroom in a much sorrier state than when it left a few minutes prior. However, a standard M88 was sourced for replacement duty not long afterwards, and with its new if not comparatively anemic heart (pieces of the twin turbo setup seem to have been salvaged or replicated along the way) the Autogas M1 was ready to move on to a new owner in 1989 by way of auction.

As the rumor goes, it was scooped up by a Japanese Investment agency of some variety. This was still before the effects of the country’s recession and “Lost Decade” had started to manifest in full, so it’s not surprising that the car like this might have been headed east with the herds of other specialty vehicles being shipped to the country—remember when Ferrari pissed off a bunch of people and built more F40s than they promised? A lot of the first cars were bought by Japanese investors, and it’s arguable that this demand encouraged the increased production.

Anyway, back to the Bimmer. The Autogas M1 ends up in a showroom in England in the early ‘90s. Right around this time, in 1987, Pummy Bhatia opens up a pharmacy and care clinic nearby. His commute takes him past the car nearly every day. Absorbed and infatuated by the pop culture of the time—a big fan of the Back to the Future series, Pummy had recently purchased one of John DeLorean’s stainless steel DMC-12s—the undeniable presence of the long dark wedge in the window speaks to his affinity for the significant cars of the era. Its aura simultaneously apes the awe-inspiring monoliths in 2001 and the absurdity of Koenig-Specials, and the combined pull of its aesthetic proves to be a strong one. He buys the car in 1993, and registers it for the road in the same year.

His son Pritham was far too young to remember all or indeed any of this, but his mother, who took over operations at the family pharmacy when Pummy passed away, remembers the M1 as mostly frustrating, and always impractical. They didn’t have a huge home and a sprawling garage to store this budding collection of cars, and this was not the case of wealthy apartment owners with nowhere to park their third and fourth toys—loans were common avenues to such cars for Pummy, and promises of their future values commonly served as collateral. So, the M1 was often street parked next to hatchbacks half its size rather than pampered. That said, it was thoroughly loved. Even if its turning radius and bulk and ravenous appetite for fuel made it difficult to appreciate in suburban England most of the time. Sadly, he was only able to spend two short years with the M1, and in that time he never knew the full story behind his exceptional automobile. To him it was just a wildly fun and outrageous symbol of the decade he’d come to identify with, and he wasn’t wrong.

After he passed, Pummy’s BMW sat on the street like it always had, only for longer and longer stints of time between drives. Pritham is too young to do anything with the car of course, and his mother is busy enough as is with running the family business on her own and raising her family, so the M1 takes an understandable backseat to the larger parts of their lives. A friend of a friend notices it’s not been touched for a while, and offers to send it up to a relatively nearby museum called the Midland Motor Museum. That place doesn’t exist anymore though, because about 10 years after being moved out of sight and mind, the Bhatia’s receive a telephone call from the police department informing them that the curator of the Midland wasn’t the most ethical. Turns out he’d been selling off the museum’s cars over time, and of course that was bound to work forever… Lucky enough for the Bhatias though, the M1 was one of the few cars he couldn’t offload. In the intervening time since it shipped away and then returned in 2005, the family had moved into a larger house that now had a garage space where the M1 could be socked away. As a shock to nobody, the shady fellow trying to sell the car that didn’t belong to him didn’t take the best care of it, and it was under his careful supervision that the car was plopped unceremoniously outside to start its slow decay.

So, it sits. Again. This time it’s at least indoors, and it stays tucked in like this for a number of years until the family decided to dig into the history of the strange old car in the garage. They reconstruct the timeline, quickly come to understand the special nature of said strange old car, and this brings us up to the present day. Pritham is a singer and musician, and since I’m guessing he isn’t on your morning commute playlist, it’s safe to say he isn’t bankrolled like Bon Jovi. His dream is to see the car’s dignity restored. To see it in motion, to hear it, to smell the inputs and outputs of its mechanical life functions and mighty athleticism. But, bespoke twin-turbocharged high-strung low-volume European supercars built some forty years ago are not, as they say, “cheap.” Maintaining something like this alone would be the mother of all M-taxes, and to bring back to sparkling glory from this state of semi-annihilation? Not many people can write that check. It’s a tough predicament to be in then, a balance between sentimentality and practicality. Pritham was unfairly young when his father passed, the two had their time together cut cruelly short, and some of the great weight of all that leftover unknown transfers to the pieces that are left behind; the few memories that had time to form, the stories passed down and internalized, the artifacts like this BMW. It is a symbol of what made his father happy, and so even though it is a remarkable machine when viewed on the cold plane of objectivity, it is obviously so much more than that to Pritham.

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clarksworthAlex SobranOscarMihai Oprean Recent comment authors
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clarksworth
clarksworth

Also; this was an incredible article. A special car, a family history – what a brilliant read.

clarksworth
clarksworth

Missing the woods for the trees here a little; but would anyone happen to know anything about Bhatia’s DeLorean? In 1987 there can’t have been more than a handful in England including a lot of the rare RHD prototype cars; would be fascinated to know which one he had.

Oscar
Oscar

I drove in that car with Piet Oldenhof when I was young.

Mihai Oprean
Mihai Oprean

LPG FTW!!! 🙂