GALLERY: 93 Photos Of BMW M1 Procars Having A Reunion At The Norisring
Photography by Alex Sobran // Experience provided by BMW Classic
The mid-engined, Giugiaro-designed M1 made a distinct contribution to BMW Motorsport history, and to motorsport lore in general, but no matter how high the praise we heap on it, it will never be remembered as the successful racing car it might have been—namely because the only two championship trophies earned by drivers in BMW M1s were awarded to them because they were faster than other drivers in BMW M1s. The car was destined to be a world-beater, but it really only beat itself. Figuratively and literally.
Instead of fulfilling its early promise and becoming a great equalizer to the dominance of the Porsche 934 and 935, the M1’s story is plotted instead by financial woe, a messy web of production, missed homologation requirements, and unexplored potential that still ultimately led to a fascinating machine and an intriguing story of What If (the “if” being, if only Lamborghini didn’t go bankrupt in 1978).
If that last part sounds unrelated to the car at hand, just know that the “making of” of the M1 is a narrative that runs all over Italy and Germany, and has been written time and time again whenever an M1 and a journalist get together (and I’m unabashedly guilty of jumping at any excuse to rewrite it, especially the excuses that involve driving one of these homologation specials in the Alps).
Rather than a date by date, step by step stroll down the deeply rutted path that ends at the M1 Procar, here is the overview of the timeline if you want to get up to speed: It’s the mid 1970s, and the BMW E9 CSL is in need of a replacement at the forefront of BMW’s competition efforts. It costs too much to build race versions from the E9 road cars, and there are inherent limitations to the front-engine layout. Neerpasch proposes a mid-engine platform that will be an example of every car nut’s favorite trope: a race car first and a road car second.
This new car will be cheaper to take racing than the CSL, but BMW has never made a mid-engine supercar before, and is already low on factory capacity. To plug the gap, Lamborghini is hired to build the required number of road-going M1s to homologate the versions that will be campaigned in series governed by FIA Groups 4 and 5. However, Lamborghini is spreading itself and its finances thin across the M1 and other projects, and declares bankruptcy early on in the endeavor, forcing a reorganization of the M1’s production.
In the wake of the Lamborghini issues, Neerpasch and co. pivot, and enlist Marchesi for the tube frames, Trasformazione Italiana Resina for the fiberglass bodywork, Italdesign to join them, and Baur to install the Paul Rosche-engineered running gear, while BMW’s internal Motorsport department performs quality control and picks up any of the remaining slack left behind by Lambo. M1 production is now up and running, though it’s cumbersome and very behind schedule, and it’s starting to look like the car could be obsolete by the time it’s allowed to compete.
Around this time, Neerpasch meets Max Mosley in a bar in Munich. The two share a conversation and a few bottles, and Neerpasch proposes an idea that holds up to sober logic the following morning: Why not have a one-make series for F1 drivers as a sort of opening act for Grand Prix weekends, using the M1? They take the idea to Bernie Ecclestone; he approves but tells them to spend more money (of course) to get the top drivers on board. BMW shells out accordingly, and in 1979 the M1 Procar Championship is born. It runs for two seasons, with Niki Lauda winning the first in 1979, and Nelson Piquet winning in 1980. A handful of M1s compete against other Group 4 and Group 5 cars at races like the 1000km Nürburgring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but without a full factory effort there is not much to write home about and even less to etch onto a trophy.
Still, what a captivating, impressive car this is. Four decades later, the M1 Procar still has the kind of paddock presence that makes you stop and hang around on the hope that you’ll be there for startup. The Paul Rosche-designed 3.5L M88/1 is one of the best looking, sounding, and performing straight-sixes to come from BMW or anywhere else, and during the most recent Procar reunion, 14 of them yawped as one.
Held at the Norisring (a simple but beloved city circuit that wraps tightly around a less-cool piece of German history), the reunion offered a rare chance to see more than one or two M1s sharing a track. Although it’s all but a fixture at all the big historic festivals, the M1 Procars rarely show up as a family. Rarer still is the opportunity to see them driven by the names that were printed on the doors the first time around. Along with inviting a few lucky members of the press, BMW Classic also had Neerpasch, Marc Surer (the man with the most testing hours logged in the M1, along with the first to properly race one in 1978), Jan Lammers, Hans-Joachim Stuck, and Harald Grohs (the first DTM race winner) to put the cars through their paces (and paces that were significantly faster than “parade”).
As something of a BMW zealot, seeing these geometric machines sharking around the Norisring as a pack—a tableau normally confined to old photos—was like looking through the stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral and seeing the being that inspired them. With its aggressive aerodynamics and sat amidst a grid of bold and bright liveries, the M1 Procar represented the aesthetics of ’70s motorsport exceptionally well for a machine that rarely participated. And for all this talk about what it could have done had it all gone to plan, the M1 did achieve something unique in its field; like the IROC Camaros and RSRs that predated it, it was a democratizer, a chance to drive on a level racing track.
Bringing in drivers from multiple disciplines to compete against the some of the fastest F1 talents, the Procar series was what would today be known as a sponsor’s worst nightmare. Imagine how happy Merc and Petronas would be if Lewis Hamilton lost a race to Romain Grosjean the day before a Grand Prix. People had to be paid in order for such things to happen in the 1970s too of course, but it was still feasible. And for drivers at the top, winning in a Procar was a chance to prove that your F1 results weren’t just a result of your equipment. For drivers with something to prove, the Procar was a chance to do just that.