Driving The BMW M1: A Singular Supercar With A Split Personality
Photography by Alex Sobran
Thank you to BMW Classic for providing the car and the opportunity.
Driving through the monochrome of Munich in the rain, the red wedge of the M1 is a slice of brightness that draws attention from even the dourest faces behind the wet gray windows. While a decidedly German car, it knows more than enough Italian to elicit a few Ferrari questions from passersby. I suppose that’s to be expected when you’re in a Giugaro-designed supercar painted bright red with only a few inscriptions to indicate any of its Bavarian heritage. Lifting the louvered deck lid changes the equation though; the M88 inline-six scrawled with “BMW Motorsport” leaves no room for guessing even without the valve cover’s instruction. The same is true of the car’s character on the road; it takes a just a moment to place its provenance. A few engagements of the dogleg gear lever and actuations of the clutch will suffice, but hearing the 24-valve song of intake and exhaust confirms this car as emphatically BMW.
It’s hard to talk about supercars without being hyperbolic. Exaggeration is in their nature and overdoing it is part of the template, so when people share their impressions it seems to fall into one of two categories; it’s either a story of met expectations, and thus amplified in every way, or it’s about being let down and stacking up all the faults against the praise given to the niche’s standouts. Good or bad, the news is conveyed with superlatives. There isn’t much room in the middle, and that sort of makes sense, because when you’re among the ranks of the fastest and most frivolous, anything that leans toward sensible rather than sensational is missing the point. It’s a binary categorization in most cases: the car is “super,” or it isn’t. When it is, we laud the absurdity, and when it isn’t, we shake our heads and tsk at the silliness of it.
Even as the shapes have morphed from svelte to square to sinuous and the motors have grown quieter and quicker and have introduced new sources of power, the identity of the supercar has remained timeless. They are pinnacles. They are the machines most capable of finding physics’ limits and doing so wearing dresses to die for. Speed alone can’t tape posters to walls, and the criteria for being a supercar has little to do with outright athleticism, otherwise we’d be lending the term to late-model Hondas because they can out-drive early Lamborghinis. Instead it’s about motorsport ideology on the street in the shape of something torn from imagination, and it’s a world where presence and performance are equally important and both reach to extremes.
So what is the status of the BMW M1? The M1 is not only a unique product for the brand that built it, it is also significant in the history of the supercar at large. It is the earliest example of something we call “super” that we also know to be tolerable for running errands. It deserves all the praise given to the first NSX for being the first drivable member of this class, and it doles out excitement with a liberal scoop. Its DNA is a mixture of romantic high-strung speed and pragmatism at its German finest—in the realm of cars with singular purpose, the BMW M1 is able to reap the benefits of compromise without much cost thanks to its unique upbringing.
The car was originally conceived as a way for BMW to enter Group 4 and eventually Group 5-governed series as a genuine competitor to the dominant turbo Porsches of the 1970s, and this would initially require 400 units to be homologated for street use. The trials and tribulations of the M1’s racing destiny make for a story all their own, but the gist of it would come down to unrealized potentials due to rule changes and missed deadlines brought on by Lamborghini’s financial tangle. The project’s director and head of BMW Motorsport, Jochen Neerpasch, had had the idea of using the Italian firm’s knowledge and excess production capacity to build the road cars necessary to take the M1 racing, and with the design of the reinforced-fiberglass body being handled by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign, this would ensure BMW’s first supercar would have a fair bit of Italian in its code.
However, it turned out that Lamborghini owed its suppliers money (it only sounds like the beginning or end to a mafia story if you want it to be) to the extent that they couldn’t deliver the M1s to BMW on a satisfactory timeline and with sufficient standards of fit and finish. To cut a long story short, production of the M1 was to be carried out by a string of companies in Italy and Germany, with the cars eventually coming back to BMW at the end of the line for final inspection and quality control.
While the resulting product certainly doesn’t feel like something that’s been passed around as much as the M1 was, it has a definite dichotomy to it. Certain things are very German—the way the doors close with a confident thunk and a tiny metallic ring, or the linear power band of the smooth but wrung-out straight-six—while others are decidedly not from the same source. The most obvious of course being the shape. Though derived from Paul Bracq’s Turbo concept design for BMW in the early 1970s, the production M1 looks very much like something drawn in Milan rather than Munich, and if it weren’t for the nostril-sized kidney grilles on the leading edge and the twin roundels on the rear of the car, guessing the correct make would be nigh impossible. It looks like a Lamborghini, but once you start opening and closing all the big funky pieces of it you realize that nothing this well-made could exist without some German influence. And the biggest identifier of its true heritage is also that piece inextricably linked to BMW: the straight-six. It’s not a typical one though, as the 24-valve 3.5-liter M88 powering the M1 is basically a detuned race motor. It’s trite to say, but true in cases like this one.
Today 270 horsepower isn’t met with the same awe as it was in the late-‘70s, but once you drive this car you realize the numbers don’t matter. Every special car should provide an experience that renders its specifications and measurements secondary to the visceral feeling of controlling it, and this is the case with the M1 as well. In keeping with the duality that characterizes it, driving one offers two distinct sensations depending on where you put your attention. Focus on the roadholding and the way the tach moves in relation to the speedometer, on the feedback coming through the wheel, or on the fulcrum where you think the tires’ limits give way to the chassis’, and you’re left with the impression that this car is very competent but very civilized. However, walk up to it in a crowded parking lot, open the door, dump yourself over the low sill, start it up, put it in gear, and roll it out into a clump of commuter traffic and you’ll feel like a sun-soaked playboy in the coolest slice of excess to exist on four Campagnolo wheels. It manages to feel like the epitome of the supercar stereotype while challenging the notion of how difficult they must inherently be to live with. I was lucky enough to live with one for a day, and this is what it felt like.
Before going into more detail, here’s the summary: the BMW M1 a package deal. It is both the violent rocket booster and the scientific equipment being sent into a controlled orbit.
My day began symbolically sound: a crisp 50-degree fall morning in Munich, in September, in a light rain, and under the portico of BMW Group Classic’s headquarters. I’ve come with a small group of four, and having just met the other journalist in our pack not an hour earlier, we aren’t talking much as we make our way around the M1’s exterior in our independent orbits of assessment. We also don’t want to come off as rude by responding with a too-quick “me” to the security guard’s question of who will drive first, so I give it enough time to be polite, then gingerly accept the simple key.
It’s funny how delicate we can sometimes get with things like car keys when they’re linked to certain grander objects. It’s just a sliver of metal a few micrometers away from living a life starting up a taxi cab each morning. Anyway, I take this special key and open the door to a special car. The first thing that I noticed in a “I should mention this” kind of way is how different the interior feels to the exterior before you’ve even bent the first knee to get inside. Whereas the outside is characterized by its guillotine louvers and angular drama, the black and grey leather and cloth guts of the M1 were handsome, comfortable, and devoid of pretension. Its simple design and functionality make anything more seem unnecessary, but then you spot details like the fact that there are controls for the interior fan speed on the center console and the upright console, and you remember that oh yes, these cars spent some time in Italy, didn’t they.
Sliding into the rather compressed cabin, the first sensation I have of actually being in it is of putting on a snug wool suit. I don’t own any wool suits and can’t remember when I last or ever did, but that’s how the seat felt: like you were putting something on rather than sitting on something. This was still part of the era when if you were on the wider side of life you might not squeeze into a car like this one. I was narrow enough to slot myself in between the bolsters, but it wasn’t a perfect fit (though what is perfect is arguable, as I think the contortions that come with ‘70s and ‘80s supercars are part of their appeal).
I was as far back against the firewall as possible, and even then almost every part of my body was touching a part of the interior. My left leg hit either the wheel or the door panel, my head was on the roof, and my arms did their best to stay out of the way of my knees. You sit pretty low to the ground as you’d expect, but you aren’t laying down either. The seating position is closer to a right angle than you’d find in a lot of comparable cars, and this helps with the feeling that you’re driving something more mundane than it really is. The pedal box is characteristically bunched up toward the center of the car to avoid the wheel well, but it’s a slight offset that slips into the unconscious side of driving soon enough.
Settled and correctly folded into the car now, it was time to make it move. Nerves compel me to check if it’s in gear repeatedly before rotating the key, but once it’s fired up they melt into the six-pot’s cold-start sounds. It’s a mechanical motor, and a talkative one. It starts and dies once, then with a little throttle and a clearing of its throat, it finds its idle among the idiosyncratic pockets of noise that warming engines produce. I let it come to temperature for a minute or so, but it’s more for my own preparation than the car’s. For me it was one of those moments so rich in personal significance that in an attempt to best “live it,” I more or less sat there looking at the steering wheel as my head was reduced to a ticker tape reading “Wow” on a fast-forward loop. Slipping out of that brief catatonia, I turn on the wipers and after the single blade makes a few passes across the panoramic windshield, I finally slide the gearshift down and to the left for the dogleg first gear.
Then I’m driving. It’s too simple. The clutch pickup was a bit higher up than I’m used to, but it’s not abnormal and after the first slightly revvy takeoff it became as automatic as any other habit of daily driving. There is no power steering but the tires are narrow and the car is light, which makes maneuvering at stoplight speeds pretty painless. Visibility is great as long as you don’t care who’s taking cell phone photos of your rear quarter panels, and though I checked my sides compulsively, I also found that people don’t like getting too close to this car when lanes were being changed.
The most noteworthy thing about these first few minutes isn’t the car’s temperament though, it’s the temperament of the other people on the road around it. It’s a dreary day by typical standards, all grey and puddly and wet, but everyone with even the mildest interests in the automotive world are glued to this car. I feel very conspicuous. Usually when people are looking at me in traffic it’s right before they say something nasty to me. Also, I’m not used to so many faces pointing at my car at once. This happens when we’re on the highway, when we’ve exited the highway for gas station snacks, for gas station stretching, for the gas station gas, and really just whenever we’re near another car. Later when I am parking it for photos I am approached each time without fail by excited kids and adults and their strings of enthusiastic half-sentences to which I reply with a butchered “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.” Then we both smile and look at the car together, not really needing to say much to each other after all.
All this attention makes you feel pretty hip, I must admit, but it’s not like what you’d get from the front seat of a new Bugatti or even a performer like the McLaren P1. The BMW will likely get more looks than those cars in certain places, but again, it’s not the numbers that matter. The people who notice this car stare at it in appreciation, with nostalgia, and yes a little lust too, while any gaze leveled at an Aventador is usually part of a larger “Who is this [expletive] driving an Aventador?” narrative. In the case of the M1, the attention is earned by the car, not by what its presence implies about its owner.
Okay, what does it actually feel like to drive? Though I had it for a few hours on a single day, the weather and whereabouts offered plenty of variety, and after leaving Munich proper I was out on the Autobahn following a brief glimpse of acceleration on the on-ramp. The five-speed’s gearing puts the theoretical top speed just north of 160MPH, and in the rain, in a car insured for more than I am, I didn’t even think about it. I brought it to cruise at around 70-80MPH instead, and paid more attention to standing water than speed. Maybe you’d rather hear about the car on the edge, but until I had dry and open space to do anything like that I spent two hours driving it on a rainy highway. It was still able to impress all the same though. The steering wheel links the car’s heading to your inputs on a mental level, and when the occasional bump couldn’t be avoided the suspension thumped rather than crashed. The BMW had laughably low mileage on the odometer, but even so, its ability to communicate the road so articulately while also not riding over it like a race car was remarkable, and a trait that couldn’t be explained by this car’s preservation alone. I hoped to have a chance to test it a little on dry asphalt.
Thankfully, once we’d arrived at our day’s lakeside destination (that will be another story that I don’t want to spoil too soon), bright warm rays split the clouds and began drying up the saturated roads. I spent some time puttering around the narrow perimeter streets taking pictures and doing my utmost to avoid the stream of cyclists brought out with the sun, but after I took my thousandth quarter-view-of-the-front-end shot I spent the rest of my session with the car actually in the car. Having no cellular service as an American in Germany, I didn’t want to venture too far for fear of getting lost, but I needed to get on a road where I could at least find third gear.
Once I found some space and myself on a road with curves I had my chance. Following my downtown crawl the first thing that hit me was how loud this car could be when you let it rev. It has old-school intake noise coming from the individual throttle bodies, and the howl of induction builds with the tach until at some point the exhaust just overpowers the whole auditory show and then it’s time for the next gear. Letting off the throttle results in joyful whines from the transaxle ‘box and the occasional big pop of exhaust leftovers from the mechanical fuel injection’s spray. All this is coming from right behind your head, and though it’s not the loudest car, it has a dynamic soundtrack that’s definitely audible.
That’s the chorus of acceleration and deceleration, the action is less violent. Bringing it through the gears, it feels quick—and in the top 2,000 of the rev range it’s just plain fast—but it won’t punch you into the seat. It’s just a smooth surge that gets interrupted briefly when you change gears. It’s not a slouch by any means, and the way this modest speed (by modern standards) is delivered makes it feel more alive than so many cars that can beat it on the measurable metrics. It’s the kind of highly-tuned naturally-aspirated engine that only comes to its crescendo of thrust when it’s nearing its redline. The sounds coalesce as the tach sweeps clockwise, the pace stacks on itself and the sounds grow louder yet, your hand probes for the shifter and its still pulling, then you clutch in and repeat the buildup all over again. It’s the kind of process that could send me on and off the highway in endless loops just to bring it from 20 to 100 on the same identical on-ramp.
The gearing is a surprise to me in a good way. I expect performance cars from this decade to have tall gears that leave you always feeling like you’re never in the right one, and are spaced in such a way that you only get to use one or two of them when driving with any kind of true energy. The M1’s five-speed is however very well-suited for backroads driving, and it’s simple to manipulate in the heat of speed. Heel-toe downshifting would be a breeze were it not for my legs and steering wheel fighting for the same volume, and the clutch feel is just heavy enough to give you confidence and readable feedback when you need to be a bit aggressive. And it’s a good thing too, because when you start pushing on this car it just invites you to shove. On my first patch of dry grey pavement I give the wheel a few twitches to try to gauge the turn-in, and I am again surprised, this time by the lack of body roll. It’s flat and undisturbed. It just, turns. I double back down the twisty road I’ve just run the length of. I do this routine at least five more times, edging up the speed with each pass until I grow paranoid and find another squiggly makeshift test track out in these corn fields.
I do find more, and though I’m not looking to meet the M1’s grip limits or even their distant relative for that matter, I can tell that the first weak point will come from the size and stick of the tires rather than the suspension setup or chassis. Each time I thought I’d be listening to the skinny Continentals I just found poise instead, and when I finally did hear a little bit I was already imagining what the car could do with wider ones and a better driver than myself. It is a deceptive machine in this way; driving it at walking pace and dodging pot holes and pedestrians it feels like a souped up street car that’s retained its creature comforts, and then when you’re alone on a road where you can give it some exercise it reveals itself to be the race bred machine that you’d forgotten while lulled by its manners. Perhaps its fitting then that the M1’s racing career faltered, as it makes for an exceptional road car. Some might even call it super.