Featured: The Full Story: How Canepa Built A Street-Legal 1979 BMW M1 Procar

The Full Story: How Canepa Built A Street-Legal 1979 BMW M1 Procar

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
May 10, 2018
2 comments

Photography by Drew Phillips at the Thermal Club

The BMW M1 was an impressive road car, though that was never the end goal. Developed to compete in Group 4 and 5 against the dominant might of its rear-engined countrymen called the Porsche 934 and 935, the M1 was slated to become BMW Motorsport’s first purpose-built competition car; it was a mid-engined, tube-framed missile aimed at the preeminent racing series of its day, and if the the company’s track record with the CSL was anything to go off of the M1 would be the giant rather than its killer.

If you know the BMW E26 M1 you know this never came to fruition. Mid-development regulation changes required it to be homologated to the tune of a few hundred cars before it could compete in Group 5 (the rule change meant it had to be eligible for Group 4 before it could move up a division, and Group 4 required, fittingly enough, 400 units), and because this was BMW’s first supercar, they enlisted the help of Lamborghini to meet the required production figures. After all, they had experience in building low-volume, high-performance machines, right?

Extravagant cars can lead to extravagant debts however, and the Italian manufacturer found itself in a dire financial state after only having produced a few chassis for BMW. Jochen Neerpasch, head of Motorsport, picked up the pieces and arranged for the car to be put together in a massive figurative conveyer belt between factories in Italy and Germany, but BMW was still in a conundrum.

Behind schedule and with all of their racing capital tied up in a car that couldn’t compete yet, Neerpasch made lemonade from the souring project: why not construct the Group 4 car now—which would also contribute toward the 400-unit requirement—and race it in a standalone, one-make series? It would allow the company to develop the racing cars ahead of their international debut, while also providing publicity for Motorsport, and so in 1979, the M1 Procar series was born.

Forty of these so-called Procars were constructed between 1979 and 1980, and during the series’ two-season run they were raced by the likes of Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet as the Procar races more or less shadowed the European Formula 1 calendar. Top drivers from multiple disciplines competed against the factory-prepped M1s reserved for the fastest Formula 1 qualifiers, and by all accounts the cars were “quite good.” Lauda even went so far as to purchase his own. We’re not here today to recount the details of the series though, but rather one of the few Procars that never set a tire on the track.

If you’ve left your stoney abode in the last two years you’ll recognize the Basalt Blau wedge of angles pictured here, but you might not know the full story of Canepa’s “street-legal Procar.” In many ways, the history of this specific M1 is a mimic of the model at large, a fractal; it bounced around Europe, it was repurposed more than a few times, and it never did what it was originally built to do.

The 31st of the 40 M1s built to Procar specification, this BMW was a racing spare so to speak. It was prepped at the factory, but it had never seen any use on any circuits, and so it was sent back to BMW to be converted into a standard street car before being delivered to a dealership in Munich. It sold in ’79, and a few years later it was sold again, to an artist—not Warhol—who used the car as a canvas for his work. By 1983 it had found its way over to the German BMW dealer AHG, wherein it was given the full gaudy ‘80s tuner treatment. AHG had developed a lookalike kit that aped the bulbous flares and the aggressive front and rear wings of the Procar, albeit a bit diluted of course, and they fitted this “AHG M1 Studie” option to this former bonafide version. Not exactly ironic, but not far from it.

They’d also given the interior a nasty velour treatment, and enlisted the paint shop of Hermann Altmiks to apply an Art Car-style livery. It was the ‘80s, tacky wasn’t seen as such, and so the gradient silver-to-black fade wasn’t considered as uncool as it would be today, but alas, these AHG converted cars weren’t cheap back then, and so only 10 were believed to have been built in this manner in 1982. It sold rather quickly despite the price and appearance though, and in 1983, the car was purchased by an American and shipped to the ‘States.

After a few years of bureaucratic hassles and paperwork, it finally achieved a degree of roadworthiness after some modification for DOT and EPA compliance, and by the mid ‘80s the car was a regular fixture at Bimmer shows and a well-known machine in certain circles up until the late ‘90s, when it was socked away in storage.

And there it sat, sinking into obscurity, until Canepa got a lead on the car back in 2012—a strange M1 with a strange paint job sitting in a Texan barn. Canepa inspected the tube-frame for rust and corrosion, found it to be dry and intact, purchased the car, brought it to his facilities in California, and put it away to be restored at a later date. A few years later, the impetus to restore the oddball M1 came during the lead-up to BMW’s 100-year automobile anniversary celebration in Monterey, and so the dismantling process began in order to treat the car to a proper ground-up job to be debuted at the event.

Having owned and modified a few M1s in period, Bruce was no stranger to the inner workings of BMW’s sole supercar, but once the pieces started to come off there were a few things that didn’t look so familiar, like adjustable suspension mounts, patched over holes where a wing and fender flares might be mounted, brackets for a missing oil cooler—telltale signs of a previous identity as a Procar. Later confirmed by BMW as one of four factory-sanctioned Procars that never saw competition, the plan to restore the M1 into a concours-level production version was ditched in favor of something in keeping with its newly discovered provenance. It never raced, it was never an immaculate and untouched road car, and so there was a wide open future for this particular M1, with no such thing as sacrilege.

The goal shifted: build the world’s first street-legal Procar—not a kit, not a lookalike with 277hp, but a car with serious power that you could take on a road trip to a track day, with the fit and finish of something decidedly separate from the rough-hewn construction of cars built solely for competition.

Using as many original Procar parts as possible, this M1 now sports an array of items from the realm of unobtanium: it has genuine suspension uprights, genuine center-lock hubs, genuine, tie-rods, axles, mirrors, wheels, and of course, that gorgeous steroidal bodywork. All original. 

That said, it was not the intention to recreate a 1979 Procar piece but piece. Instead, hundreds of hours were spent sanding and blocking the fiberglass bodywork to achieve a level of perfection not seen on even the production M1s (for instance, the front fender flares were carefully modified to ensure a perfect tire-to-arch fitment to match the proportions of the rears, and to ensure they wouldn’t rub on the open doors like they did in period), the interior was completely reupholstered and treated to wool carpeting and full leather with perforated seat inserts and body-color-matched stitching, and the mechanical bits were also given their share of updating.

For starters, the wheels are original un-cracked magnesium Procar centers from BBS, but they were built up with 17” wheel halves rather than the original 16” units to take advantage of modern rubber. This also allowed for larger brakes too, and it now stops with vomit-inducing G-force thanks to Porsche 962 calipers and 935 rotors mounted to the Procar hubs. The appropriately upsized turbofan covers were created in-house at Canepa to honor the original look of the racers that used them, and the resulting exterior presence is like the ultimate body-in-white (blue) race car without an imperfection to speak of.

Under the deck lid, the production-spec M88 straight-six fitted to the car when it was re-converted by BMW was completely overhauled. It’s been bored and stroked to 3.8 liters from the original 3.5, and comprehensively reworked to produce more than 100hp per liter. Now rocking modern MoTec-run fuel injection, the old mechanical injection pieces were left in the bay so the original look is retained. It’s hard to use the word sleeper when talking about this car, but this would be the place to do it. Dyno testing shows the hot six is good for 414hp and 357lb/ft at the crank, numbers which are very close to the original racing motors’ output. In keeping, the tach and speedometer have been rebuilt with a new redline and MPH-range. As if the build wasn’t comprehensive enough.

Though it has air-conditioning, a perforated leather headliner, and sound and heat insulation in the cabin, it still retains much of its racing DNA. The dry-break fuel fills that were cut into the corner window on the Procars have been reimagined and reconstructed here such that you can pretend you’re in the pits at Le Mans if you find yourself with the right kind of equipment (in other words, the dry-break is functional), but the break also spins off like a normal fuel cap so you can fill it with pump gas like anything else you drive on the street. And indeed, Canepa built the car to run on the relatively low 91-octane pump gas available in California, so you don’t need to lug tubs of VP race fuel wherever you go either.

During the restoration, a thicker floor pan was fitted to improve rigidity, and combined with custom-valved Penske coilovers with remote reservoirs, the roadholding abilities live up to the look. And speaking of the look again, one last clarification should be made concerning the paintwork. I’ve been reading about this car in various short blog posts since I saw it back in 2016, and most if not all claimed it to be a custom color. In fact, Basalt Blau was at one point intended as a factory color option for the production M1s, but along the way it was nixed from the list—only four cars ever left the factory in this color, belonging to Jochen Neerpasch, BMW board members, and their family members.

Every single fastener and screw and wire has been replaced during the course of Canepa’s ultimate M1 street car project, and we’re happy to report that despite the concours lawn-quality result of the thousands of hours put into it, the car’s new owner isn’t afraid to take it to the track, completing a destiny set out for the car four decades ago. 

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Larry Beale
Larry Beale

Holy moly. I’ve got a new desktop wallpaper. Stunning car.

cbell92129
cbell92129

This car is absolutely perfect….