GALLERY: Celebrating 50 Years Of BMW M And BMW Motorsport, Italian Style
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
What began as a commitment to a new motorsport program in 1972 orchestrated by Bob Lutz and Jochen Neerpasch over a few bottles of wine grew into something with a much greater scope over the subsequent half-century, with BMW Motorsport and BMW M defining the Bavarian manufacturer in the minds of road and racing car enthusiasts.
Between victories in competition as wide ranging as Formula 1 championships to the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the Dakar Rally, as well as creating some of the most iconic sports cars for the street, there is much to celebrate in honor of BMW Motorsport and M’s 50th anniversary.
At the recent Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este—an event which shares its own lengthy history with BMW—the field of concours contenders saw plenty of blue and white roundels this year. Some of these cars were from before M, some were outside of the official designation, others were definitive members, but all helped give shape to the story of BMW’s performance division. The story of M’s half-century and counting is made up of many smaller ones—far too many to tell in one sitting—but some of the best chapters were represented on the villa’s grounds on the shores of Lake Como.
Including of course, the car that started it all, the E9 CSL. In order to compete in the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC), BMW Motorsport and Alpina took something decadently beautiful and turned it into something brutally fast. It was the first Bavarian racing effort to use the now iconic BMW M tricolor livery scheme, but its real contribution to BMW’s identity was courtesy of the car’s immediate and lasting success in motorsport; out of seven seasons in the ETCC, CSLs were driven to six championship titles.
In the midst of this, BMW brought the Motorsport team and the CSLs to the United States, where and when the brand was commonly and confusedly referred to as “British Motor Works.” Though it didn’t win any championships, BMW did win the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona and in doing so changed the trajectory of its Stateside reputation (putting the company on the map, and in the right place this time) while it was still dominating back home in Europe.
And as if the car wasn’t pretty and accomplished enough already, another accolade for the E9 racing program was the fact that it launched the BMW Art Car series in 1975 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (a race in which BMW Motorsport would eventually win outright over two decades later, in 1999 with the BMW V12 LMR run by longtime racing partners Schnitzer).
It wasn’t always easy for M in the early days, though, and the first car to officially bear the M insignia is proof. The E9 was a road car first and a race car second, but the idea behind its successor—the M1, meant to take on Porsche 934s and 935s in Group 4 and 5 racing series in the late 1970s—was to build something designed to compete on a circuit first and foremost, with a special limited edition road car built to support the racing version’s homologation as a secondary concern.
The M1 project began in earnest with BMW building a partnership with Lamborghini, a low-volume high-end cars specialist that could help the Bavarians navigate this new territory. The idea was that BMW would tap into the tried and tested craftsmanship of the Motor Valley, with Dallara working on the chassis, Lamborghini on assembly, and Giorgetto Giugiaro handling the visual design. That was all great on paper, but what BMW ended up getting involved with was an Italian supercar company in dire financial straits, AKA not the best business partner. BMW took control of production back over and made it work in the end, but with one bit of bad luck after another hitting the M1’s timeline, the car’s planned competitive career resulted in a much less grand version of what might have been. Still, the road car was unlike anything BMW had, or has, built to date, and it is a worthy machine to stand at the beginning of M road car history.
Fresh from the wild ride of the M1, the engine from the supercar was given a second life in a revised design that would power BMW’s bid to capture the title of the world’s fastest four-door sedan. This time the success exceeded expectations, with the company ending up producing far more E28 M5s than it originally intended to; a welcome change. Except it wasn’t without its own problems, as some of the first buyers objected to the value of their cars being reduced by the extended production run—and BMW had to compensate them following a class action lawsuit. Oh well, issues like that are just inevitable externalities of everything else going right.
The E26 M1, E12 M535i, E24 M635CSi, and E28 M5 may have been the first cars to have the official M logo stamped onto their rumps, but there were precursors in spirit, and two of them joined the M1 at Villa d’Este: the glorious post-war sports roadster BMW 507, and the 2002 Turbo. As for the 507, BMW’s American dealer Max Hoffman asked the factory to produce a competitor for the flurry of very successful British sports cars that were dominating the new and growing roadster market in the 1950s. BMW had a long look at those roadsters, then produced the 507. It was a beautiful, well-engineered machine but it simply cost too much to be a viable product, and only a few hundred were built before BMW and Hoffman pulled the plug. The Z8 is something of a spiritual update to the 507 in the 21st century, and this time the M connection was a more direct one seeing as the Z8 was given the same BMW S62 V8 as found in the E39 M5.
It might be a stretch to relate the 507 directly to the M cars that were still two decades away, but the 2002 Turbo is all but one letter away from being an official part of the family. Not an M car in name, the turbocharged and fender-flared 02 carved out the first piece of the market share that M has today. It makes sense, seeing as the Turbo was perfectly in line with what would become the de facto M recipe: take a typical BMW coupe or sedan, add power, pump the styling, and beef up the chassis and suspension. The tricolor stripe livery and the iconic (and perfectly cheeky) reversed “turbo” script on the front air dam (reversed so that other drivers looking in their rearview would see the word correctly as they moved out of the 2002’s way) complete the unofficial M package.
That fabulous orange wide-bodied and Formula 2-engined Jägermeister monster that was lurking in the shade of the villa’s pergolas tells another M story. As the car that was destined to replace the aging E9 CSL “Batmobiles” in lieu of the M1’s issues at the end of the 1970s, the newly introduced 3 series was converted on the fly into a Group 5 racer, taking shape in just 12 weeks in what must have a hectic but wonderfully exciting project to be a part of.
The result is one of my favorite BMWs ever built. Racing was justified—or, rather post-rationalized, I suspect—by the need to establish the then-new 3-Series model range as a serious competitor in its segment. Yes, even the 3-Series needed establishing at some point, which seems a bit unbelievable these days when every other manufacturer uses it as a benchmark. In racing guise the E21 achieved some competitive success, but not everything went strictly according to plan, as it became most notorious for the incredible antics of its Junior team. A great idea, a great plan, to give young drivers such as Manfred Winkelhock, Eddie Cheever, and Marc Surer a chance to show their skills at an early age. Unfortunately, the testosterone levels of this bunch resulted in some of the most catastrophic races put to film, with them taking each other of the race on more than one occasion and giving BMW a reputation for everything but maturity. It was all a step in the right direction, though, and another great car with BMW M Power under the hood.
The following generation, the E30 3-Series, needs no introduction to anyone who’s read down this far. The winningest touring car in history, the E30 M3 was represented at Villa d’Este in its ultimate road-going form, the Sport Evolution. Flanked by an E28 M5 on one side and an E46 M3 CSL on the other, the relatively little E30 never looked better or more at home amongst family. And speaking of CSL models, the most recent addition to the M car lineage and only the third to take on the CSL namesake—the M4 CSL—was also in attendance at Villa d’Este representing the culmination of 50 years of experience.
There are many fake-M-badged cars on the road today for good reason, and while we might collectively bemoan the fact that a good many of the real ones are on the backs of SUVs now, seeing this collection of history together in such a beautiful location was a perfect reminder of where it all came from. And it’s not like BMW Motorsport has disappeared, either. Far from it, in fact, with the recent announcement of a new BMW LMDh car for next season. Here’s to the next 50 years.