After a traumatic birth and instant redundancy, it was saved by a clever business plan and a brilliant promotional idea
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Howard Simmons

For years, at the very least a decade, all mention of its nomenclature within BMW’s corridors of power was strictly verboten. It was the Bavaria Motor Works’ Scottish Play. You didn’t dare mention the name M1. Only 455 of these junior-league supercars were made from 1978-80, and the entire episode represented a bad dream from which, for some of the principals behind it, there would be no awakening. Heads rolled, and it all got very messy. It is therefore ironic that this commercial disaster would in time cast a very long shadow in marque lore, for all the right reasons.

On paper at least, the M1 had a lot going for it. In 1976, Jochen Neerpasch, general manager of BMW Motorsport GmbH (and former works Porsche driver), together with his chief design engineer Martin Braungaut, hatched a scheme to build a limited-edition supercar that would handily double as a competition tool. After almost a year’s study, a proposal was put before the men in suits – known as the Vorstand – for a batch of 400 road cars to be completed in order to satisfy the FIA’s Group 5 race regulations. Powering them would be a bespoke 3-litre V10 engine designed by supremely gifted horsepower wizard Paul Rosche.

BMW’s board acquiesced to the persuasive Neerpasch, although the firm’s production facilities in Munich were deemed unsuitable for such a small-series run. No matter, the build phase would be subcontracted out to Lamborghini, with Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro providing the styling.

Then it all began to unravel. And how. Calamity-prone Lamborghini, undergoing one of its cyclical downturns, inconsiderately lurched into receivership after only the first four prototype M1 chassis had been completed: it had blown money received from the Italian government in its bid to land the BMW gig on the Cheetah military vehicle project. By this time, Giugiaro had finished the exterior brief, based if only in spirit on the brace of 1972 Turbo concept cars styled by sometime artist Paul Bracq, and built by Michelotti.

The results were shown at the 1978 Paris Motor Show where the reception bordered on euphoric. Everyone loved it, with would-be punters clamouring to buy one. All of which only heightened the sense of unease for the project leaders who, with the knowledge that orders were being accepted, had yet to find a replacement contractor for the haemorrhaging Lamborghini. And just to heap on the misery, the mooted V10 engine was simultaneously canned on cost grounds. Instead the M1 would house a modified version of the M49 in-line six, romantically dubbed the M88. Of even greater concern was the paucity of entries for the Group 5 class. Grids were dwindling in what was surely sports car racing’s nadir and there was the very real possibility that BMW’s brave new challenger would be out there by itself. The M1 was swiftly becoming a liability.

Into the breach stepped Giugiaro. An astute businessman as well as a design divinity, he had previously rescued Ital projects from oblivion by prototyping in-house. Rather than let the M1 die, he undertook to go one step further in this particular instance and manufacture the car on BMW’s behalf. Sort of.

All this reorganisation took time and Giugiaro’s consultancy was simply too small to build the cars in volume, so he enlisted Transformazione Italiana Resina to mould the M1’s glassfibre body with Modena’s Marchetti constructing the chassis. Shells were then bonded to their frames at Italdesign in Turin, before being transported to Baur in Stuttgart to have their drivetrains installed. This torturous route ended at Munich for what turned out to be a fair amount of rectification work to meet BMW’s lofty quality control standards.

With production finally underway, albeit hesitantly, the many hold-ups had resulted in orders being cancelled and the squeeze being put on Neerpasch to get results. This swiftly became a chokehold. The ’78 season had been and gone but it appeared as though the M1 would be out the following year. Then the FIA changed the homologation rules, requiring that 400 cars not only be built to qualify, but sold too. Not a prayer.

Fortunately, Neerpasch was able to save some face with his inspired plan to create the ultimate one-make series. Procar would be the support act to Formula 1 with the top five qualifying GP drivers – or those whose contracts would allow them to race other manufacturers’ cars (so no Ferrari or Renault players) – driving works-prepared M1s against an army of privateers. The series was a smash in every sense, the public clamouring to enjoy very close – sometimes too close – racing in the bespoilered 450bhp monsters, with Niki Lauda winning the inaugural title. Into 1980, the series returned with Nelson Piquet in only his second full year of F1 taking the overall spoils, coinciding with the completion of the last of the 399 road cars.

Sadly, there would be no Procar in 1981. Principal sponsor Goodyear pulled out and the turf war between F1 bodies FISA and FOCA spilled over into a pitched battle: a one-make series was just a distraction. Instead, BMW regrouped and focused on its Grand Prix engine programme. The M1 represented an expensive flirtation with hubris and there were casualties, Neerpasch being among them; he would go on to find great success with Mercedes-Benz, boosting the career of Michael Schumacher among others thanks to its Group C Junior Team programme.

And while the M1 ultimately failed to find success as a front-line weapon in BMW’s armoury, it did garner several class wins at international level, many of them with Danish racer Jens Winther. Stateside, the car was also a consistent challenger, with David Cowart and Kenper Miller winning the ’81 IMSA GTO crown with their Red Lobster-liveried car.

Yet it’s as a road car that the M1 is now feted, although few will ever have seen one up close in Blighty as it was never officially imported here. A pity, as it’s gorgeous: for what is by definition a flamboyant genre, the outline is flash without being clichéd. And the M1 manages to look like a BMW despite being visually dissimilar to anything the Bavarian marque had produced up to that point. The reliably brilliant Giugiaro pulled it off.

And having finished admiring the uniformity of the shut lines (a supercar first) and those delicious 16in Campagnolo alloys, the mood nonetheless ebbs ever so slightly once inside: the cabin proves a bit of a let-down. On opening the surprisingly long door, the first thing you notice is the narrow sill which makes entry much easier than in most cars of this type. However, the wheel housing encroaches into available space, forcing the pedals to the centreline. The seats – originally offered in houndstooth cloth or leather – comfortably embrace you but the longitudinally-mounted engine and transaxle naturally take up a lot of space so there isn’t much room for rearwards adjustment.

Worse still, there’s no flair. The period brochure gushed: ‘Racing cars are usually modified versions of standard production models. The BMW M1 is a racing car modified for standard production’. This doesn’t explain the halfway-house approach to interior décor: neither stripped-out racer or proper road car. A stylish Jaeger speedo that runs to 280km/h in increments of 40km/h is groovy; seeing all of it would be better.

This is, however, an absolute jewel of a car. That glorious 24-valve chain-driven 3423cc straight-six barks into life at the first turn of the key: there’s no priming as it’s all sorted by Kugelfischer-Bosh mechanical fuel injection. Biting towards the end of its movement, the clutch is surprisingly light while biasing on the dog-leg ZF ’box is strong, and requires a gentle push until warm.

For what is essentially a track weapon, piloting an M1 is near-effortless. You can drive one in traffic without it getting testy, pulling from as little as 1000rpm on only partial throttle. Once clear of hectoring commuters its true character emerges. The engine remains smooth past 3500rpm as it comes on cam – and then it just goes. Never known for plucking figures out of the air, BMW claimed a 0-60mph time of 5.4sec, which seems reasonable. Acceleration is immediate whatever the gear but what impresses more is the civility that comes with it. You can sit happily at three-figure speeds without testing your nerve.

Best of all is the handling. Eschewing BMW’s tradition of MacPherson struts and rear semi-trailing arms, the M1’s tubular spaceframe accommodates Dallara-refined double wishbones all round and concentric coil springs along with front and rear anti-roll bars. Staggered front and rear tyre sizes allay the threat of lift-off oversteer, the result being a car with near unshakable resolve. There’s none of the expected skittishness over undulating surfaces, just a pliant(ish) ride quality and a sense of security.

For a supercar that emerged 30 years ago, it’s astonishing how well the M1 stacks up. It’s undoubtedly soft around the edges by comparison with today’s elite, but the fact that it’s so attuned to the pilot’s directives without relying on driver aids is telling.

The M1 matters because it created a lasting legacy. Having licked its wounds, BMW’s motor sport division inserted the M1’s engine into a 5-series hull and invented the super-saloon market. Then there’s the M3 which in captivating M30 form was an all-conquering touring car racer. It all started here. With arch-rival Audi garnering plaudits for its mid-engined R8, maybe BMW should consider reviving the M1 concept and earning back some bragging rights. And just imagine Procar 2…