BMW M1: Making A Race Car The Hard Way

Ah the 70s. The decade of discos, Watergate and V8 Corvettes with less hp than a VW Polo GTI. But aside from all the not so bright moments it was also the decade that gave the world the Group 5 racing class. "But Dennis what is the Group 5 Racing Class ?" I hear you asking. Well, think of Group 5 as the predecessor to the FIA's GT1 spec cars of the mid to late 90s; cars like the Porsche 911 GT1 and the Mercedes CLK GTR that only shared the name and some basic trim pieces with the production cars they were "based" on. Group 5 gave us some historic cars like the Zakspeed Ford Capri Turbo, the Ferrari 512BB LM and most notably the Porsche 935 (otherwise known as Moby Dick) and the historical 917. Porsche were at the top of their game in Group 5 and that made bitter rivals BMW very angry and so the M1 project was initiated with the goal of beating Porsche at their own game.

The plan was relatively simple. Make 400 cars of the road going version and then obliterate the enemy from Stuttgart. But things weren't going to go that smoothly. To start, the head of the project and of BMW's motorsport division in general Jochen Neerpasch wanted the car to be mid engined in order to have an advantage over the competition. The problem with that though was that BMW just couldn't make the 400 mid engined M1s in the specified time frame and so they had to partner with mid engine specialists Lamborghini. It seemed like a soild deal. Gianpaolo Dallara was going to make the tubular steel space frame, Giugiaro would dress it in a beautiful body that took inspiration from the BMW Turbo concept car and Lamborghini would assemble the whole thing while being closely watched by the Bavarians. That way BMW got its car and Lamborghini got enough money to stay afloat for another year. Finally it seemed like everything was going according to plan for once. Well...

There are many similarities between the M1 and the Turbo concept car.

Indeed for what can only be described as 10 seconds the plan worked and 7 M1s were made in Lamborghinis Sant'Agata factory in Bologna. But the year was 1978 already and soon after the 7 cars were made Lambo went bust. The Italian courts that got the factory almost sold the cars for scrap so BMW was forced to continue production themselves which caused even more unexpected delays. So the plan that finally worked went like this. The fiber glass bodies and the chassis were manufactured by Italina Resina and Marchesi respectively in Modena. After that the bodies and the interiors were completed by Italdesign in their factory in Turin and from there the cars went to Baur in Germany for final assembly. So while the car was effectively 90% Italian it was still very German when it came to the oily bits.

First the engine. It was a hand built 3.5 lt. straight six with Bosch mechanical fuel injection that was capable of 274 hp, 330 Nm of torque and a top speed of 260 km/h (or 162 mph) courtesy of six separate throttle bodies and 4 valves per cylinder. All this was mated to a 5 speed ZF transmission that also had a locking limited slip differential while double wishbones with adjustable coil springs and gas filled Bilstein dampers guaranteed that the car turned as well as it accelerated. Ventilated steel brakes and Campagnolo alloys with Pirelli P7 tires completed what definitely was one of the best handling supercars of its day. Just last year, EVO magazine noted that the M1 is exceptionally balanced with loads of grip, which is needed cause the engine is so smooth and strong you'll keep pushing it. But sadly it was already too late.

A "naked" M1. Notice the tubular steel space frame and that straight six. This car was very serious.

By the time BMW got the hang of building the M1 in 1979 Group 5 regulations had changed which meant that the M1 was now obsolete. Still it had a successful racing career both in Group 4 GT racing and also in Le Mans where it raced from 1981 to 1986 proving very competitive. Most importantly though the M1 had its own championship, the "Procar BMW M1 Championship", which was devised as a way of helping BMW build enough cars to be eligible for Group 4. The championship featured F1 titans like Niki Lauda who won the inaugural championship in 1979 and Nelson Piquet who won in 1980. But the dream of destroying Porsche remained just that. A dream.

Nelson Piquet driving the M1 during the Procar BMW M1 championship in 1980.

Still though saying that the M1 was a failure would miss the point. Not only was it a competitive race car but it also established the M division as a force to be reckoned with when it came to fast cars. 40 years later the M division still makes some of the best handling cars in the market and it's all thanks to this. Legends like the E30 M3, E36 M3, E34 M5 and the E39 M5 amongst many others exist because of the M1 and for that reason all car fans respect and admire this car as an example of everything that was good about BMW. It's the genesis. It's special.

This post is dedicated to the legend Niki Lauda that recently passed away. It's the least I can do to pay my respects as a fan and as a petrolhead. Rest in peace Niki.

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