Road Impressions: BMW M1

Magnificent and obsolete

Although BMW had shown a gullwing door two seater in 1972, the mid-engined straight six M1 was not officially ordered from Lamborghini until 1976. Then a series of delays, the result of Lamborghini’s increasing financial troubles and some bitter internal opposition at BMW to this, the pet project of now former competition director Jochen Neerpasch, delayed production of the first examples until 1978. From then until last year an increasing trickle of these Giugaro-styled, Italo-German manufactured supercars were assembled at the premises of specialist coach builders Baur of Stuttgart, Lamborghini’s original role as manufacturers passing into history in 1978.

However, the Italian company and their engineering staff, together with technical personnel from BMW, had by then produced a fine road car, one that also served as the basic vehicle for the series of supporting races to GPs of 1979-80.

Production ceased last year, negating BMW Great Britain’s then active interest in importing limited number for orders already placed in the UK. Thus the only way you can buy this genuine 160 m.p.h., 3½-litre, Munich mongrel of lovable character, is to purchase one of several offered in Britain between £25,000 and £29,000. Contrary to some UK reports the German asking price is not in excess of £36,000 (that is for the racing models, and there are 26 existing race customers on BMW Motorsport’s books at present!) but £24,353.45 at the late February exchange rate of Dm 4.64 to the pound, or much less if a German dealer wants to be rid of one of the 400 made and authenticated by FISA, so that the M1 could compete internationally in Group 4 and 5 trim.

So the LHD-only M1 has perforce become an instant collector’s piece. The factory allowed no more to be made via the rather clumsy Italian chassis-body production and German assembly (using items like BMW switchgear, 3-series, or 5-series tail-lights) at Baur, before returning to BMW Motorsport in Munich for pre-delivery quality control and tests. The reason was presumably that the M1 was not a commercial proposition. Conceived for sporting purposes, an accountant would say that each one cost far more than the price charged because of the enormous overheads the programme has incurred in Pro Car and the changeover in production methods after an original costing based on all-Italian production.

Enough of the history, what kind of road car did BMW, Baur and those Italian sub-contractors (like Ital engineering for trim and seats; Marchesi tubular chassis and TIR glassfibre, 20-piece, bodywork) produce, after that protracted gestation?

The answer is a superb road vehicle, worthy of a commercial future as a flagship and a supremely capable performer. It is, above all, a practical everyday machine, not a Stratos-style homologation special. BMW insisted on their normal levels of fit and finish. We have yet to encounter, or read a report, by anyone who did not think the M1 was a true super car.

Perhaps the reason for that is that the conception was that of a racing car primarily, one designed to fulfil BMW’s aspirations to beat Porsche in the long distance World Championship of Makes. Thus the general principles of an aerodynamically suitable two-seater, supported on a partially panelled, and typically Italian, tubular chassis, arrived along with four wheel braking via giant ventilated discs, unequal length wishbone link suspension and the mid-engine. Originally, and now resuscitated for use in this year’s German Championship, the M1 was expected to feel the thrust of a turbocharged version of their four valve per cylinder straight six. This unit had been developed in 3.2 litre 1976 guise for the classic CSL coupe driven three times by Ronnie Peterson in unforgettable style. Thus there was little choice but to use a straight six motor of known pedigree in the M1.

In fact engineer Paul Rosche and a small Motorsport team effectively developed a new version of the famous BMW big six. It has the 93.4 mm. bore and 84 mm. stroke you find within the two valve 3,453 c.c. 635 CSi or 735i, or M535i, but fundamentally differs from any other BMW road six. There is a new steel crankshaft, connecting rods and unique Mahle pistons to mate with the 9.0:1 c.r., four-valve, cylinder head. This is not a full race four valve top end, for the double overhead camshafts are chain-driven, not gear driven as is BMW’s Formula 2 and six cylinder racing practice, besides the obvious valve size and camshaft timing differences. Kugelfischer-Bosche mechanical injection is used, but with separate 46 mm. throttles instead of a slide throttle racing layout. However dry sump lubrication is used on the road models, for it offers a lower engine height for the vertically mounted six (normally canted in saloons, though it has been raced in the vertical position for better cooling and exhaust layout). The ZF five-speed road transmission is served by a comparatively small diameter Fichtel and Sachs twin plate clutch, the gearbox mounted inline with the engine, North-South.

This road engine is limited to 6,750 r.p.m., rather than the 9,000 r.p.m. racing redline, but has been developed to give power over a generous r.p.m. range, including a peak of 239 lb. ft. torque at 5,000 r.p.m. (a road speed of 121.5 m.p.h. in fifth . . . So there’s plenty of forward pull ready at this speed!) Maximum power is a reported 277 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m. comparing with 218 b.h.p. for the same capacity BMW engine in its usual two valve trim, or 252 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m. and 280 lb ft. torque on 2,600 r.p.m. for the also LHD-only BMW 745i turbo saloon of 3.2 litres.

“Our” M1 came in an attractive red, and the finish had not the remotest connection to some of the glassfibre horrors that have been inflicted on the public. The panels all seemed quite heavy, durable, and worked faultlessly especially when we inspected the engine – which shrunk far enough down in its pit to confound the writer’s photographic abilities – or the narrow spacesaver Michelin spare. That cover is asked to step into the breach of a deflated 205/55 (front) or 225/50 VR 16 Pirelli P7, the front rims an inch narrower at 7 in. that the rear cast alloys.

The body is carefully detailed to include minimal baggage space aft of the engine in a grey-carpeted area, but it is rather disappointing to see a possible front baggage area dominated by a large cowl around the front radiator, battery and brake servo: fuses are clearly laid out in this front compartment. It’s worth remembering that many mid-engine exoticars don’t even have space for the punctured road wheel to go when it is replaced by a spacesaver.

More useful than you might think are the little lamps stuck in the ends of the front grille, for they save fractions over the efficient pop-up lamps in warning fellow autobahnists that Munich’s personal missile really is making use of the absence of an overall speed limit. Rearward visibility is poorish through the heavy rear slats, though we did spot the plain BMW 5-series that the police used to relieve us of over £30 for exceeding a speed limit when joining a motorway. They wave batons at you from inside the car and hoot, or they do if an M1 is about to disappear over the horizon!

Reclined in seats that look rather average in chequered cloth and heavy duty simulated leather surround, the M1 does not over-awe the occupants. Trim is neat, but not fabulous. There’s plenty of matt black simulated leather around and the carpet looks as though it might have been drawn from an office furnishing sale: hardwearing but by no means plush.

The writer is not a regular supercar tester – several Porsche 3.0-litre turbos and a 4.5-litre Ferrari Boxer would serve as his benchmarks for comparison – but anyone who regularly drives BMWs, as he does, would recognise most of the furniture in this new home. Thus a light switch with 3-positions, column switchgear, ventilation arrangements, are all familiar and contributed much to the way in which we could rumble out into the morning Munich traffic with few qualms apart from, suppose-I-can’t-bear-to-part-with-it at the end of the day? With 22.5 gallons of fuel on board and a likely 16½ m.p.g. our likely range was only 371 of the 800 odd miles that separate Munich from Britain by road, so temptation was removed.

Air conditioning is available and could well be necessary in a European summer behind that enormous windscreen. You do get electric window and a solidly reassuring foot brace, to the left of the clutch. Equally, functionality is also the key to the flat three spoke steering wheel, horn push buttons set accessibly in each spoke, and a talk of shimmering solid steel, topped by a leather grip, which serves as the control for an excellent gearchange: the five speed gate, with first on a limb closest to the driver on the left, is marked on the centre console. 

A Becker Mexico radio and cassette player is supplied, but the writer only checked that it worked and could be easily heard at a constant 120 m.p.h.; that engine was music enough for a day on the move.

Instrumentation in the plain black fascia is more competition orientated than fancy. Absolutely no undue decoration adorns either the four minor dials, or the central and larger matching dials for up to 280 km/h (174 m.p.h.) and 9,000 r.p.m., the latter scale redlined between 6,750 and 7,500 r.p.m. The minor dials, also in black and white design that we have not seen elsewhere in BMW’s range (having a side needle pointer mounted on the right and reading upward instead of around) began with oil pressure in the top left corner. The scale marked 0-5-10 bar normally read the equivalent of 7 bar. Below engine oil temperature normally read 90°C while water temperature – placed in solitude to the right of the steering column – recorded some 20 degrees less on a sunny winter’s day. Fuel contents are also monitored by an individual gauge offering a maximum 105-litres when the twin tanks, filled by separate orifices on either flank of the flying buttress roofline, are sated. A green readout digital clock was supplied, together with a warning to keep the internal air ventilation vents open to counteract any danger of excessive pressure at high speed popping the door frames ajar.

Oddly enough, just as it was the case when the author drove the Esprit turbo, the test car was not wearing normal Pirelli rubber, but Goodyear NCTs in the differing profiles (higher at the front) and with sizes noted earlier. The route to test those tyres and this 2,867 lb. package of carefully developed joy would take me from Munich via a rough and traffic ridden equivalent to the South Circular. Thence to clear but sometimes single lane autobahn narrowed by snow ice. Two way roads, then to Oberammergau and on over an inch of snow or packed ice and snow, for a “will-it-spin” session en route to Garmisch Partenkirchen, before descending to the agricultural flatlands and near-equivalents to our B roads that abound in the region of Buchloe, home of BMW specialists, Alpina. It was on rejoining after that hectic mileage that the police were encountered, before allowing us legal full flight on the way back to Munich on a mainly dry autobahn. I deliberately included the worst traffic and maximum number of engine restarts that I could to simulate London use in and around Munich.

The only severe problem encountered was the incompatibility of the powerful single wiper and the vast quantities of salt and slush we met. It was more difficult to keep the screen clean in this car than any I have ever driven, a great deal of water was needed constantly to get any vision when (rarely) sitting behind other traffic.

The gear lever moves about the gate easily enough, but one had to be sure the clutch was fully depressed before selecting reverse or an embarrassing grunt from the gearbox would result when fiddling across the gate from first and into reverse.

Electric mirror adjustment for both door-mounted reflecting panes took much of the worry of the poor three-quarter vision away. In fact other Munich traffic is so respectful of “their” manufacturer’s fastest roadgoing product that one need only tickle the throttle and ease the other driving controls gently to maintain a very respectable average. However, those who have just bought 635CSi coupes are not so keen, as I discovered thrice; yet 1,300 kg./277 b.h.p. in M1 versus 218 b.h.p./1,500 kg. of 635 means that the mid-engined two-seater only has to breathe seriously for a second or two before dispatching even a fleet, 140 m.p.h. 635 convincingly. It is in another league. . . theoretically you could be nauseously boastful and overtake a 635 CSi at 135 m.p.h. on autobahn and then change into fifth! In fact there is never any need to try this hard. We did wind the car to its well-spaced maximum gearchange points of nearly 50 m.p.h. in third quite regularly, which accounts for our m.p.g. figure (which was over 20 m.p.g. on snow with no more than 70 m.p.h.), but fourth was only used flat out twice, as was fifth. This when we sorted out a section of motorway to see what the experience on an independently checked honest 160 m.p.h. felt like. Perhaps the main memory of those runs was exhilaration and a sense of shock at the sheer space you need to drive with anything approaching safety at those speeds. Strong sunlight glinting from snowbanks and an occasional rivulet across the carriageway didn’t help, but the car ran strongly and cleanly from its town pottering to an indicated 124 m.p.h. in fourth and 255 km./h.  (158.36 m.p.h.) as a fifth gear average in both directions.

Whether in town or on the motorway the impression so far had been of the ease with which the M1 would tackle any task. The engine was noisier than expected at first, a very hearty blare from behind the driver’s head. After a day of speed it seemed quite normal, and the note is almost peaceful once the throttle is eased to leave the M1 body just to cut through the air with less wind noise than BMW can manage on lesser models at half speed. Motorway and town use emphasise the outstanding work completed by BMW engineers in making this M88-coded unit an honest road engine. Starting is prompt, not quite in the Ferrari mould of leaping (prancing?) to life, but a fast response to the turn key nonetheless.

Idling in traffic, followed by brisk acceleration does not cause hiccups. Cruising in fifth gear can be anything from an 80 km./h. (50 m.p.h.) potter to the addictive stream of power that drops you around 125 m.p.h. and 5,150 r.p.m. At that pace there’s still time to wonder if they really had to adopt those restrictive rear vision slats? To feel the suspension working, but nothing like stressed, as the body acknowledged, and it does not alter course for differing side winds. The view ahead is excellent, the bonnet falling out of sight so fast to one of 5’ 9” so that you have “front row in the house.” Because of the huge (near 12” diameter) ventilated disc brakes and the capable chassis, 125 m.p.h. can be routine, but the BMW’s engine noise certainly wouldn’t allow the kind of pace that V12 Jaguar owners can tolerate. This BMW is a sports machine and nothing, from its Cortina G1 level trim to the awesome acceleration (awesome partially because the chassis copes so well with full power in low gears) will allow you to lose sight of this exciting car’s character.

The exciting part of this supercar is that it is just as driveable as many less exotic saloons. Whereas some exotics seem to be cumbersome when you get them onto a B-road, or challenges them with wildly changing surfaces and cambers, the M1 is at its best. I felt so happy with it, that I would let the rear wheels power out of line in second or third under full power, because the chassis took care of me. The steering could be gently turned into the direction of the skid, and the M1 would track obediently into line with none of the snap, or heart-in-mouth feel that some more established Supercars engender. Even provoked on ice the BMW did not spin, and if a corner was entered a little too fast, the nose could be pulled from understeering wide to a more neutral grip by releasing the accelerator. Most reassuring and a lot more fun than I expected for my Lotus experiences had led me to believe that the Goodyears would provide a sharper breakaway, albeit at higher speed, than Pirellis provide. I found the Goodyears coping very predictably with this BMW.

A natural loafing pace on B-rods is around 72 m.p.h. and 3,000 r.p.m. at which pace the engine chunters its 24 valves, two camshafts, six pistons, one cam drive chain, and two auxiliary belts, around in a smooth symphony of delight to the driver's ears. The steering has roughly 3 1/4 turns lock to lock, is light enough to park without power assistance, and has all the feel a true thoroughbred should exhibit. Together with the perfectly weighted vacuum-assisted Ate braking, the steering perfectly compliments and tames this outstanding powerplant.

Is there an unacceptable face to the M1? No, but the clutch proved tiresomely long in travel and consciously heavy to operate. The trim has definite Italian sports car frugality about it, without the glamour (the writer prefers it, but would the average middle-aged buyer?) and we would definitely welcome the opportunity to drive one further, over several days, before passing that engine noise level as acceptable for an owner who has habitually charged a Porsche Turbo or a Jaguar XJ-S around at over 130 m.p.h.

The BMW could be something of a shock judged by those standards, but with a racing car chassis, brakes and suspension to compensate. A true driver's car rather than a poser for Monaco; it can be used for boulevard cruising and shopping (you get used to using mirrors like a truck driver for reversing easily!), but it's wasted on anyone but a true enthusiast. He doesn't have to be as skilled as a rear-engine Porsche or mid-engine Ferrari driver to stay out of trouble and enjoy himself. I would guess, and without driving all the current top car crop it can only be a guess, that this is the safest and most exploitable of supercars to emerge since the era of true GTs with front engines and rear drive.

A shame it could not have had a commercial future like the Porsche Turbo, which originally grew from an homologation requirement into an outstanding production vehicle for anyone with enough money. It would be nice to see BMW show a continuing commitment to sports motoring with two seats as well as four, and this car showed that they are perfectly capable of engineering such cars. The Italo-German marriage may have taken time to consummate, but the result was certainly a car worthy of our pages. Perhaps, next time BMW venture into these spheres we could have something smaller to wear a 328 badge with pride, and stay in tune with the times? - J.W.

P.S.:Please, if you decide to import a personal car, get hold of the leaflet Permanent Import of Motor Vehicles into great Britain, from: Department of Transport, Import of Vehicles Enquiries, 2 Marsham Street, London SW1 3EB, 01-212-3065. Things can be tricky on personal car importation at present and you should check with your local vehicle licensing office that they will grant your purchase Personal Import Status.