M1 Was BMW’s Game Changer
If I were to describe a wedge-shaped, mid-engined supercar styled by Giugiaro, built largely by hand in Italy and based on a Dallara-designed chassis, you’d be forgiven for picturing some sort of Lamborghini prototype or limited production model, but you’d be wrong. Though much of the BMW M1 may have been built and penned in Italy, it remained at its Teutonic core a very German automobile.
Originally conceived in 1975 as a Group 5 racer, which for 1976 enacted a new and liberal silhouette formula, the road-going M1 was to be the racer’s homologation model and the publicly-available basis for said silhouette. Heavily influenced by BMW’s internally-styled “Turbo” concept (with a triple supercharged V10!) from 1972, Giugiaro’s M1 was a masterpiece of restrained malice and refined aggression, like Shug Night in a bespoke suit—polite, but far from friendly.
As its name suggests, the M1 was M genesis, the primordial mass of fiberglass and chassis tubes from which all later Motorsport legends were derived—each successive generation of M3 and M5 owe their birth to a project that very nearly caused the death of Lamborghini.
BMW originally contracted the M1 project out to Ferruccio’s famous Sant’Agata supercar firm, who were to design and build cars to meet the aforementioned homologation rules. Designed around BMW’s new M88/1 engine, itself a derivation of the 3.0 CSL’s M49 race unit, its chassis consisted of front, rear and central subframes braced by tubes of varying thickness, sort of a modified Superleggera setup.
In April of 1978, after only seven prototypes had been constructed, BMW was forced to take control of the project due to Lamborghini’s eminent bankruptcy. Under a hastily laid out new plan, Marchesi would construct the M1’s chassis while Trasformazione Italiana Resina, or TAR, would build the car’s elegant fiberglass body. Final assembly would then be completed by long-time BMW coachbuilder Baur back home in Germany.
In the spring of 1978—after nearly two years of delays—the M1 was finally ready for the bright lights, but a 1977 FISA rule change meant that minimum Group 5 homologation production had doubled to 400 cars, leaving BMW in the unfavorable position of having a heavily-publicized and eagerly-anticipated car launched only to be ineligible for the series for which it was originally conceived.
In order to save face, Munich devised the Procar Championship, in which F1 and Touring Car drivers were pitted against each other in identically-prepared M1 racers. Procar’s inaugural 1979 season saw the races held before major European Formula One events, as a sort of supporting act. Niki Lauda was overall champion that year, followed by Nelson Piquet in 1980—after which BMW unceremoniously discontinued the series in 1981 in order to concentrate on their own F1 effort.
The series brought mixed reviews, frequently offering brilliant racing but in cars plagued by reliability problems. The M1’s eventual Group 4 and Group 5 careers were disastrous in comparison, with the former’s Watkins Glen and Le Mans entries both ending in DNF’s, while the only two cars ever built for the latter series suffered even greater indignities—the first BMW-powered car would not only later prove to be wildly illegal, it was also slow and uncompetitive. The second car was powered by a Chevy small-block V8, and was similarly unimpressive in the field.
In 1980, BMW executives, frustrated with endless delays, budget over-runs, mediocre race results, and the very public embarrassment associated with these shortcomings, summarily pulled the plug on the M1. In total, 430 were built, approximately 35-40 of which were racers.
Today, in spite of these facts, the M1 roadcar is respected as one of the all-time great BMW’s, and rightfully so. It’s M88/1 straight six, with its snarling, trumpeting individual throttle bodies, 24 valves, twin cams, and insatiable appetite for revs is among the best engines of that configuration ever made. Dallara’s brilliant chassis work endowed the Bavarian wedge with bucketfuls of balance, poise, grip, and adjustability, bucking the contemporary trend of truculent, evil-handling, mid-engined supercars. In many ways, the M1 was the first practical example of the rarified breed, blazing a path for today’s civilized exotics.
This isn’t to say it was all sunshine and smiles—the M1 was still a very powerful, relatively light car on period skinny tires with a short-geared, dog-leg gearbox. And therein lies its timeless appeal—it was easy-going and docile when need be, and a fossil-fueled adrenaline pump at the flick of an ankle, a real dual-purpose package delivered in an understated, low-slung wrapper of ideal proportions and detailing. It may not have been built with scissor doors or a screaming V12, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The M1 was the first thinking man’s supercar.