Discovering BMW's lost leader

As both racing car and money-making machine, the BMW M1 was an abject failure but, on the road,it proved sublime. Roger Bell unearths the most underrated supercar in the world

Heaving into a three-point turn, I was reminded of TV pundit Martin Brundle’s observation about racing cars being pigs to park and manoeuvre. They’re heavy and cumbersome, he told Murray. Racers are designed for driving fast, not edging slowly. Quite so. The svelte projectile in spirit a born and bred racer I was blindly reversing with straining muscles and cricked neck was momentarily out of its element. Seconds later, heading back the way I’d come for another run past the camera, the M1 was skimming across the Brecon Beacons like a guided missile.

Only at speed does this formidable BMW assume that transcendental quality possessed by a rare breed of roadgoing thoroughbreds. It transports you into a dimension beyond the reach of ordinary fast cars. The quicker you go, the keener the sense of the paranormal, the more remote the crescendo of sound from behind your back. Ensconced in the world’s most underrated supercar, I felt uplifted, loose-knuckled, confident, thrilled. Steering seemed to be more by telepathy than physical effort, gearchanging was the snappy, seamless work of an automaton, not me. The car was dancing on tiptoe, the heather ablur.

When a distant sheep walked, my reverie ended. I caressed the mighty brakes, slowed to a crawl and returned to the real world from which only the rarest of cars can escape. Another day, another fix.

At its purest arid fastest, the mid-engined M1 was to have been BMW’s world beating sports-racer, taking over from the redoubtable front-engined CSL. Something purpose-built for the job, rather than a converted road car, was needed if BMW was to beat the rear-engined turbos of arch-rivals Porsche. Enter, with awful birth pains, the M1 the first all-out racer of BMW Motorsport headed by Jochen Neerpasch, the man who threaded the CSL Batmobile’ through the loopholes in Group 2, to the chagrin of Ford, his former employers.

Sports car racing was in the doldrums in the mid70s. Group 5, for ‘silhouettes’, was designed to revive it. For silhouette read anything goes, so long as the racer retained the outline and layout of the qualifying homologation specials, 400 of which were demanded over a two-year period.

BMW had sufficient power in Motorsport’s 3.5litre twin-cam, 24-valve straight-six, good for up to 1000bhp with twin turbochargers. What was needed was a decent mid-engined chassis to carry it. Drawing inspiration from a 1972 gull-winged twoseater, built by BMW as a showcase concept, Neerpasch and his team conceived a steel-tube chassis that cradled the engine behind a caged twoseater cockpit. Suspension was by double wishbones all round, damped by gas-filled Bilsteins. Ugly Campagnolo alloy wheels carried Pirelli P7 rubber of (by today’s standards) modest dimensions. Drysump lubrication allowed the tall, upright engine to be sunk deep into the chassis, keeping the centre of gravity as low as possible. Drive to the back wheels was through a five-speed ZF transaxle, incorporating a 40 percent limited-slip diff. What else but generous disc brakes all round?

To avoid disruption at Munich, BMW turned to the Italians for help to get the M1 off the ground. Giugiaro’s Ital Design did the long-deck styling, incorporating aids to downforce, stability, cooling and feeding. Marchesi of Modena built the chassis, Transformazioni Italiene Resaine the rippleftee GRP bodies and good they were, too. To begin with, Lamborghini, no less, was heavily involved with design and prototype assembly. Had not financial woes intervened, the Sant’Agata firm would have assembled all 400 road cars as well. As it was, Ital Design united body and chassis, Baur in Stuttgart did the final assembly, and BMW assumed responsibility for testing and quality control.

Production problems delayed the M1’s Group 5 qualification; no homologation, no silhouette racing, the car’s raison d’etre. Unready to compete in 77 or ’78, the M1 ‘s very existence was in jeopardy. Then, from up his sleeve, Neerpasch pulled a fast one by announcing Die Procar Rennserie’ an all-M1 race series supporting the GP world championship. Incestuous though it was, Procar, as you will read on page 96, was a great show. How could it fail, with big-name drivers slugging it out in identical 190mph M1 s built to full Group 4 (470bhp) specification? Not only did Procar keep the M1 project afloat when it looked like sinking, but it turned out to be the highlight of its competition career. Little was heard of the M1 thereafter.

In the period 1978-81, BMW built just 453 M1s, the bulk of them identical road cars like the scarlet gem that enthralled us in Wales. Owned since new by BMW (GB) Ltd (and sometimes to be seen in the foyer of the company’s Bracknell Headquarters), 255BMW, recently resprayed after sustaining skin damage during storage, must be one of the best and most pampered of the survivors, still with less than 10,000 miles on the clock. Would that I could add the next 10,000.

Over 14ft long and six feet wide, the M1 is no Lotus Elise. For a two-seater its big and, at 2912lb, heavy with it. The corners are invisible, the view aft badly obstructed by Miura-like slats and flying buttresses, the travel of the seats more embracing than appearances suggest restricted, headroom meagre. Despite the broad cabin, beanpoles with £70,000 (or more) to spare should look elsewhere for kicks. Despite inconveniences, the M1 is a lot more civilised and habitable than, say, its erstwhile Latin cousin, the Lamborghini Countach. You sense that applied science shaped the M1, not engineering whimsy. It may lack the panache and passion of its Italian adversaries, but then it’s far less intimidating and much easier to live with.

Not that the M1 is ergonomically perfect. You sit askew, legs pushed towards the centre by wheelarch intrusion, head brushing the roof. The pedals are properly aligned for heel-and-toe downshifting, and the three-spoke steering wheel, carrying elusive horn buttons, is adjustable for reach. Other concessions to comfort include half-leather trim, air conditioning, powered windows and mirrors, even a decent radio. In roadgoing guise, the M1 is not exactly sumptuous, but it’s no stripped-for action racer, either. Everything you need you’ll find somewhere ahead on the rather muddled and partially obscured instrument binnacle.

Mechanically injected by Kugelfischer-Bosch, the big straight-six fires immediately, hot or cold. With contactless Mardi ignition, a six-branch fabricated exhaust and 9.0 to one compression ratio, power is rated at 277bhp at 6500rpm, torque at 239lb ft at 5000rpm. Peaky though this may sound, the M1’s lovely engine is, in fact, a model of muscular flexibility. It’s as willing and docile low down as it is vivid and strident when extended. Acceleration is strong rather than sensational. In standard trim, the M1 is not in the same rampant league as, say, a Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 or McLaren F1, though its malevolent, hard-edged wail provides exciting aural accompaniment and goose-pimples on demand. It’s the breadth of the power band effectively the whole rev range that makes the car so punchily energetic, so quick to impress.

Besides, from rest to 100mph in 13 seconds is not exactly hanging about. Nor can many cars, exotic or otherwise, better the M1’s genuine 161mph top speed Motor’s two-way maximum recorded on a deserted autobahn (BMW GB’s other M1, since sold, was accordingly registered 161BMW). Confirmation of the engine’s lovely linear delivery is provided by Motor’s fourth gear acceleration times: six seconds dead from 20 to 40mph, 50 to 70mph and 80 to 100mph. Spot-on internal ratios give intermediate maxima just before the 6900rpm limiter of 46, 69, 98 and 131mph.

Like a jabbing boxer, you punch the gearlever through its old-fashioned gate. First is dog-legged in the left-back position, so the route to second requires precise negotiation. Pottering around town out of character but perfectly feasible, given the M1’s civility and lack of temperament shifting feels a mite clumsy. At full attack it’s marvellously crisp and rewarding. It’s the same with the steering. On manoeuvres it’s clumsy, stodgy, heavy. Tanking on, it’s so sharp and lively you could be fooled into thinking there was hydraulic assistance to your elbow. There isn’t.

Being mid-engined, with the car’s mass concentrated in the middle rather than at the ends, dumbbell fashion, the M1 turns into corners with an alacrity that inspires confidence. There’s nothing edgy about it. The closest the car gets to nervousness is when you back off mid bend; tightline tuck-in can then be pronounced enough to demand sharp correction. Roll-free poise and predictability are taken for granted. That the M1 is such a delight to hustle along twisty roads is down to its fluency and impeccable balance. Remember, the chassis was designed for a thousand horsepower. It’s merely toying with a piffling 277bhp. Given the car’s weight and modest boots 205/55’s up front front, 235/55’s behind it’s no surprise to learn that the M1 can be provoked into outrageous oversteer as easily as a boy-racer Escort, indicating a surfeit of handling over grip, especially in the wet. It all adds to the fun. That the car revels so much in opposite lock powerslides says much for its balance, poise and uncorrupted steering.

Dynamic prowess you expect. What elevates the M1 to the top of the supercar league as a refined express is the astonishing smoothness of its ride. I swear few modern luxury saloons ease you over humps and hollows as serenely as the M1’s supple coil-and-wishbone suspension. All right, the tyres roar and rumble on granite chippings, but harsh they are not, nor do they jolt. Another strength is that the exciting wail of the engine assails only when your hearing apparatus is attuned to receive it under hard acceleration. Had 255BMW not had a weak seal round the driver’s door, smooth-road cruising would have been as quiet as in photographer Dawson’s supporting Volvo 850. Even allowing for the imperfect driving position, you’re so comfortable in an M1 that you could drive the length of France without wilting. What’s more the huge 25.5 gallon tank and 28mpg at 75mph economy would just about allow you to do it non-stop. Six years ago, I wrote elsewhere that the M1 was the best supercar of its decade; that after a battle with contemporaries that included a Boxer and Countach both more exciting, charismatic cars than the M1 but neither so usable or civilised. Probably not so well made, either. After our fling in Wales with 255BMW, I see no reason for second thoughts, for ranking the M1 anywhere but among the very best. As a racer, it fell short of BMW’s high expectations, but at least it has competition history. What, after all, did a Countach ever do on the track?