WWI M1 Magic
A day with BMW’s lost super car
WHEN anybody mentions the BMW M1 coupf, I immediately think back to the summer of 1979 when the European Grand Prix season was considerably enlivened by the knockabout ProCar series, basically a spectacular support formula in which a handful of Formula 1 drivers were strapped into a squad of these works-owned central-engined BMWs and went out to do battle with a host of privateers. Regular Grand Prix drivers became eligible to drive the ProCars by being amongst the top six in Friday Formula 1 practice — unless, of course, they were Renault or Ferrari team members and were debarred by contractual obligation from racing at the wheel of the rival Munich firm’s products. The all-M1 category provided some splendid racing, Nelson Piquet won the Championship to supplement the moderate salary he was earning as a rising star within the Brabham team and the cars were bought from BMW
by the ProCar Association which continued to run a similar series in 1980.
However, I can well recall an indignant Ken Tyrrell saying to me, “BMW is trying to get into the Grand Prix arena on the back of the rest of us by fielding those ProCars . . . if they really want to benefit from all the exposure available to Formula I then they should build a Formula 1 engine and get properly involved.” I doubt whether Uncle Ken was being unduly prescient on this occasion, but BMW certainly did take that decision, spellingfinis for any grandiose (and unrealistic) plans for the M1 to compete against the might of Porsche on the World Championship for Makes circuit. The ProCar series was wound up at the end of the 1980 European Formula 1 season, leaving the few remaining racing versions to eke out a twilight existence as also-rans in major sports car events. A total of just over 400 BMW M 1 s were made, of which a mere handful have found their way into Britain. Uniquely, perhaps, this car was probably obsolete before the last production examples had been manufactured, but the MI had done enough to be guaranteed “classic” status from the outset. Undeniably attractive and engineered to an impressively high standard, the M1 was certainly no homologation special in road form: it was built to the same stringent levels of quality as any other production BMW and this alone marks it out as somewhat unusual amongst “small run” machines
The seeds of the M1 design were originally sown in the form of a gullwing two-seater design exercise as early as 1972, but it was not until 1976 that Lamborghini was commissioned to produce the first prototypes of the finalised product. Development was further hampered when this halo-German partnership ran into problems resulting from Lamborghini’s financial difficulties and, moreover, there was a great deal of internal political opposition to the car’s manufacture from within BMW itself. The whole M1 idea had really become the pet project of Competitions Manager Jochen Neerpasch, a man who conducted his business with an increasing amount of autocracy which was not approved of by certain members on the Board of Directors.
Eventually the bulk of the Giugiaro-styled Mls were manufactured by Baur, the Stuttgart-based specialist coachbuilder, and by the end of their production run, the Mls were priced at around £25,000 in Germany, although that is a price which doesn’t take into account import duties to Britain and was calculated when the deutschmark was significantly weaker against the pound sterling than it is today!
It was my pleasure to have a try in one of the ProCar Mls at Donington in the summer of 1979, a privilege afforded me by the generous, if apprehensive, Dieter Stappert who by that time was embroiled in attempting to put together a McLarenBMW partnership in the Formula 1 arena. Despite running on a rain-slicked track surface, it was certainly an invigorating experience, but a recent day behind the wheel of a road version of the M1 shows the other side of the BMW’s coin. The ProCars were out-and-out racers, bearing little resemblance to the docile, flexible and essentially usable road version which still impresses today as an absolutely outstanding “super Cie. It is a measure of the timeless styling adopted by Giugiaro that the Ml looks as crisp and up-to-date today as it did when it burst upon the scene for the first time some six years ago. The typically Italian, partly panelled tubular steel chassis employs unequal length wishbone suspension all round and is powered by a BMW Motorsport-developed version of .the well-known Munich six-cylinder engine,
found today in such machines as the 635i and 735i models. The uprating work was carried out by development engineer Paul Rosche, the man who went on to build the four-cylinder turbocharged Formula I engine, and although it retains the original unit’s dimensions of 93.4 x 84 mm (bore and stroke) there are a host of other improvements which makes it very special indeed. A new steel crankshaft, connecting rods and special Mahle pistons to cope with the 9.0:1 compression ratio were employed and the engine develops a maximum of 277 bhp at 6,500 rpm on Kugelfischer-Bosch mechanical fuel injection. The ZF five-speed gearbox is a notchy joy to use when compared, say, with the cumbersome change on a Ferrari 308, and the engine has a pleasant metallic ring to its exhaust note when worked hard: not quite the “zing” of Ferrari’s transverse-mounted V8, but equally satisfying its own particular way. Slipping in snugly behind the wheel of the LHD delight, the first thing that occurs to you is that there is only just sufficient room for a six-foot-plus frame to be comfortably accommodated. But one soon forgets that the top of the steeply raked windscreen is a matter of a few inches away from one’s forehead and the overall impression is that the MI cockpit fits the driver like a
high-quality bespoke suit.
Visibility on all central-engined sports coupes tends to be restricted and on this score the BMW MI is no exception, yet LHD has its compensations when manoeuvring down tight country lanes: as DSJ discovered long ago, you just hug the left-hand hedge, knowing full-well that you’ve cut it as close as possible on the near-side, hoping at the same time that the off-side looks after itself. Pirelli Pit, 205/55 (front) and 225/50 VR 16 (rear), provide leech-like grip while damp / wet surfaces prompt reassuringly progressive break away that is easy to cope with at relatively modest speeds. Directional
stability is pretty good, although there is a trace of lightness occasionally through the steering wheel, but nothing really to worry about. Interior trim is businesslike and adequate without being in the least bit flashy, the plain black fascia panels unadorned by undue decoration. Whilst its appealing flexibility makes the BMW MI an excellent “boulevard cruiser”, make no mistake, it is very quick indeed. Pulling the gear lever across through its rearward dog-leg left into first gear and
dropping the clutch at high revs causes for some careful judgement because the level of grip is so effective. The MI squats down slightly at the rear and, as you floor the throttle, the rev counter needle is bouncing against the electronic limiter and it is time to change up into second. In fact, first-to-second is the only difficult change in the gearbox, and as the revs build up in second you reach 60 mph in just about seven seconds, that ratio taking you up to 72 mph and then a shade under 100 mph in third. Our previous experience of an MI on a German autobahn indicated that 124 mph was available in fourth with the tantalising 160 mph only just out of reach in fifth gear under ideal conditions. At all times the MI’s directional stability proved exemplary and no obvious Achilles heel, such as overheating brakes or rising oil temperature, revealed itself. There are those who believe that the central-engined coupe is something of a motoring dinasaur, pointing ‘sat that Porsche has underlined just how perfectly the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive concept can he honed with its 944s and 928s. Some writers have accused the MI
of having all the shortcomings of a central-engined Italian classic with none of their effervescent character and flair. If you accept that a central-engined layout has its limitations, then this might well be a valid point, yet somehow it misses the specific character engendered by the Ml. There are very few cars which, after six years, stand up so well to critical appraisal in this exclusive super-car league. From our own experiences we know how many subtle, worthwhile changes have gone on under the skin of the various members of the ferrari range since 1980, even though their outward appearance remains substantially unchanged. Had BMW continued with the MI, honing it into a prestige flagship for its overall range, rather than consigning it to an anti-climactic and premature demise, it might well be regarded today as one of the very best sports cars in the world. It would have been a worthwhile advertisement for the Munich firm’s overall technical competence, even though the economics of its continued manufacture might have looked like an accountant’s nightmare! — A.H.