Taking A BMW M1 Out For An Alpine Hill Climb
Photography by Alex Sobran
I’m downing a coffee with three espresso shots in it and looking aimlessly out the window as the sun starts to punch its way through the cloud cover intermittently interrupted by the peaks of the Swiss Alps. Cowbells chime in the distance and the pastoral chug of a tractor can be heard further down the hill. The purple bags under my eyes suggest that I’ve recently boxed and lost.
It’s eight in the morning and I haven’t slept since the last time my watch registered that hour thanks to jet lag and my general lack of productivity before midnight, but even without adequate rest I don’t think the puppet strings of caffeine are really necessary; today I’m driving a BMW M1. I’m privileged enough to say this wasn’t my first time doing so, but clocking kilometers on a rainy stretch of speed-limit-enforced Bavarian Autobahn is not analogous to using such a car properly on the mountain roads that connect Switzerland to Austria.
The GPS suctioned to the M1’s raked windshield is a welcome smidgen of modernity in the otherwise analog rocket, mostly because the roads it’s highlighting resemble the squiggly attempts of a toddler’s first crayon-drawn masterpiece. The route certainly has me acting like a little kid, what with any semblance of eloquence having turned into a thankfully inner monologue of gimme, gimme, gimme the keys once it’s time for our convoy of Bimmers to start another day of Alpine zig-zagging.
I’m sharing this white wedge for the next nine hours with my boss and buddy Afshin Behnia, and we’re joined by another M1, a pair of CSLs, a 2500 sedan, a handful of i8 Roadsters, and a sizable crew of support vehicles and camera cars. We’ve been invited to join BMW Classic for a four-day drive to Munich following the concours weekend at Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, and any attempt I can make here to convey how excited I was to have a turn in the M1 will just come across as inane rambling with too many adjectives and superlatives to be coherent. Instead I’ll try to share what the driving experience was like now that I’ve had some time to digest it.
Is this a piece of sponsored content? Sure, I guess it is, in a sense, but for somebody who put early M cars on a pedestal long before he ever wrote about any cars for a living I hope you understand that these thoughts and impressions are coming from me alone—and if I gush too much I won’t apologize for trying to share my genuine enthusiasm. Some people dream of 250s and Tuscany, others Supras and the Osaka Loop Line, but this just about does it for me.
Though it’s been covered and copy-pasted by every other article about the BMW E26 M1, I suppose it’s wise to stop talking about myself for a minute and go into the history of the car in order to understand its place in 2018. I’ll keep it brief. None of this is new information, and if you know it all already, please skip ahead to the next section.
The M1 in Context
Simply put, this car was built to beat Porsches. The E9 CSL had spanked the Capris and the rest of the competition in the ETCC for the majority of the ‘70s thus far, and at the time of the M1’s conception the team at BMW Motorsport understood that the aging and expensive-to-modify E9 platform couldn’t keep up with the advances of the turbocharged cars that were soon to dominate international Group 4 and Group 5-based sports car racing.
In the beginning, the project was an auspicious one. Jochen Neerpasch, the first director of Motorsport and the man who oversaw the CSL’s dramatic transformation knew that relying on an existing road car wasn’t going to cut it anymore if the marque would have a chance at keeping up with the rapidly-evolving Porsches in series like the DRM in Germany and IMSA in the United States, so the next step in BMW’s factory racing efforts required something engineered primarily for the track rather than the street. The blueprint was mid-engined, tube-framed, V8s and V12s were considered; all in all rather exotic. BMW brass didn’t want to use up the requisite production capacity on the project though, so rather than build it in house, a deal was struck with Lamborghini to develop the chassis and assemble the road cars needed for homologation.
Despite Lamborghini’s bankruptcy and subsequent removal from the project, the M1 is still quite Italian. Gianpaolo Dallara worked on the steel tube frame skeleton and its four-corner double wishbone suspension geometry, and Giorgetto Giugiaro built upon Paul Bracq’s design of the 1972 BMW Turbo X1 concept to create the M1’s angular fiberglass skin. In the space behind the driver however, it was quintessential BMW engineering in the form of “Camshaft Paul” Rosche’s M88/1 straight-six. Featuring dry sump lubrication to lower the center of gravity, individual throttle bodies topped with velocity stacks, four valves per cylinder, and two camshafts spinning in the aluminum head, the 3.5L motor would go on to be the basis for nearly every M Powered six that followed, as well as the four in the S14 of the first M3, which was basically the M88/1 with two cylinders lopped off.
Production delays, the Procar series, the Warhol art car at Le Mans, eventually satisfied homologation requirements, the departure of Neerpasch, non-factory Group 5 cars like the Schnitzer twin-turbo, and BMW’s shift towards Formula 1 characterize the racing M1’s rather brief life story, and though you can write a book or two about all of it, others have already done that and this story is about a single day’s drive in one of the 399 street cars so let’s get back to Switzerland.
Sweeter than White Chocolate
Afshin was driving for the first of the day’s four stints, as we both agreed I should try to sneak in a nap before my turn. That idea turned out to be unfounded for two reasons: rather than wait for the scheduled lunch breaks and coffee stops to swap, the afternoon saw us stopping dozens of times to switch seats on the side of the road, with each of us telling the other that he just had to “try this part” of the route; and also, how does one sleep while sitting shotgun in an M1 that’s chasing another one in the top of third gear through tunnels and across bridges and rarely on anything straight or even level with the horizon?
The mountains poke the heavens above but we’re more than happy to stay in our own satellite slice of it on earth, and while we’re hustling along far above sea level and adding a few hundred pounds between us to the 2,866 of the BMW, I can’t recall an instance when the M1 felt bogged down, and with each mid-apex meeting of gas pedal and carpet it became increasingly difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that this car is celebrating its 40th birthday this year.
Switchbacks are chopped into rock face, tunnels turn into tube amps of mechanical heavy metal, and while the landscape is tectonically severe and impressive, the engineering of the motorways built to to defy these once impassable mountains rises to the occasion. There are no potholes to be found, but in keeping with the condition of these roads there are more construction crews than you’d find in the springtime on Manhattan. No real worry though, as the M1 has a surprising amount of ground clearance relative to what its ankle-slicing stance implies, and each first-gear crawl across gravel toward the next patch of smooth asphalt just provided another opportunity to enjoy the five-speed ZF dogleg as we got back to the speeds where we’d left off before the flashing roadwork signs gave the brakes a workout.
I say this because it’s true: Afshin is a damn good driver. It’s ideal to ride with someone who can keep the pace up without making the passenger feel like it could come to a twisted halt at any moment, but I wasn’t about to relinquish my seat time on the left side of the cockpit because of it. We began the day under sunshine and above valleys of verdant greenery, but in just about an hour after we’d set off we found ourselves digging in the trunk for jackets as the farmland hillsides now resembled ski slopes and the blue skies had turned to a void of cold white mist.
Though we now had some slight camouflage to our advantage over the strict Swiss police, we were going mostly downhill through switchbacks, and the road was more or less soaked with snowmelt; in other words I wasn’t pushing it yet, just getting acquainted. And for all the hype around switchbacks like those of the Stelvio Pass, I have to say I really don’t get it. They seem more like a chore than an excitement, for unless you’re smearing rubber and holding opposite-lock, most cars tend to lug through second or force you into first gear, and if you’re descending you’re just hoping the brakes don’t fade too much before making it back to the actual fun stuff; you know, the curves that let you carry actual speed while making forward progress.
After sawing the steering wheel attached to unassisted quick-ratio rack-and-pinion back and forth more times than I cared to count, we finally made it to some esses and sweepers, and with dry pavement under the tires—though the 205 fronts and a 225 rears wrapping the 16” Campagnolos are laughably skinny by today’s standards—it was time to start enjoying the car’s capabilities. Like most, I’ve not driven many mid-engined cars, and whenever the opportunity’s come up it’s not lasted all that long. This was different though, for we still had hours upon hours and Alps upon Alps ahead of us. Plenty of time to work up to my limits (I don’t think I found many of the M1’s).
Besides the sound of exhaust and intake coming from behind you, the engine’s location has two immediately noticeable effects. One is that since the cockpit is pushed forward, you have to bend your legs slightly inward to make room for the front wheel wheel that commands the space, but it’s really not that extreme in this car and you tend to forget about it once you start carrying significant speed, and that’s when I really started to feel the pendulum-like weight transfer of the M1. At first it’s a little disconcerting because the inherent oversteer produced by the layout categorically does not remind me of swinging my old Volvo around in the snow nor does it feel like my M3 when I’m trying to induce some tail-out fun and wake up the LSD.
In the M1, cornering at speeds where the tires start talking almost feels like a Smart Fortwo is trying a pit maneuver on you, but after I got used to the sensation and started to learn a little bit more about when and how the car’s arc would be affected in the middle of the turn by early throttle or late braking it felt like I was cheating the physics of the kind of car control I’d gotten used to with typical front-engined fare. I’m not saying I was flicking it around like a champ, but you don’t have to drive the M1 on the limit for your butt to tell you things feel different from this seat.
To careen down narrow roads on narrow treads (though they were modern compounds rather than the original Pirelli P7s, which surely helped in the confidence and G-force departments), the BMW requires your attention not because it’s a handful, but because it’s so far from it that you don’t realize just how fast you’re going. And out here it’s hard not to be distracted by what’s flying across the the windshield, what with the back half of every corner revealing yet another towering wall of alien nature, another mile-high waterfall, another wide-open valley pocked with the red rooftops of idyll Austrian life, another squiggly street sign that makes you smile and downshift.
It gets to the point where you think Enough! To drive here is to be pummeled with scenery. At one point I’m exiting a tunnel still laughing at the sounds I’ve just made inside of it, and in the middle of watching the headlights recess themselves back into the M1’s snout (if you don’t think pop-ups are cool on cars like this I’m sorry that nobody invites you to parties), I notice a set of train tracks curling out of a tunnel below us, which is above the green pool of a glacial lake being fed by a massive chute of snow and ice on the side of a particularly looming mountain… and then bright red train pops out as if to say, “What are you looking at? This is just our commute to work.”
Even when the most aggressive elevations of the Alps are left behind and above us as we make our way down to more relatable earth, the roads just don’t let up. They still snake and climb and dip and coil around the rolling hills, and to be frank these are the sources of the most fun in the M1. They don’t hold the same photo opportunities perhaps, but the sights lines are distended in comparison to the tight mountain passes, the air is noticeably denser, and the tires get just a bit more supple in the heat which all means you can push the car just a little more, means every vacant section of this incredibly smooth network of go-kart track turns into a private hillclimb.
The car produces a modest 277HP at 6,500RPM, and a foot-pound of torque under 240 at 5,000, but the numbers are far faster in reality than they are on paper and each upshift is more like a pause in the action than a resetting of it. It maintains its energy when you send it up an incline in top gear, and it will hit 60MPH in well under six seconds on flat ground.
On this drive though, the hours pass like minutes, the louvers scattered around the car send you back to the dawn of the 1980s, and even if they’re strong stats, acceleration times start to seem pointless compared to what it feels like to make the differential lock on one of your favorite cars as you flit between the edges of Alps. For me, the only cars that beat this one have numbers on their doors, and here I am again, writing well into the night as the first birds are waking up, trying to capture and share an experience will stay in my memory until I don’t have a choice in the matter. Thank you to everyone who made it possible.