In the 1970s, Porsche’s 911 dominated the international racing scene, and the Stuttgart engineers proudly represented what Germany had to offer in automotive competition on the track and in the showroom. Yet three hours to the southwest, Porsche’s Bavarian brothers at BMW sought to build Munich’s answer to Group 5 racing: the BMW M1. However, the brand’s creation was plagued by production turbulence and ended up essentially useless for what it was designed to achieve.
Why build a mid-engine supercar?
BMW’s motorsports division, headed by Jochen Neerpasch, emphasized a mid-engine layout for the Group 5 car to outperform its competitors. Paul Rosche, who would go on to design the 6.1-litre V12 in the McLaren F1, was called in to create the M88/1 engine for his racing car, the BMW M1.
Rosche came up with a 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine with six separate throttle bodies, four valves per cylinder, and twin overhead cams to make 277 hp and 243 pound-feet of torque in the road version. That doesn’t sound like much, but since the M1 was made of fiberglass, it weighed just over 3000 pounds. Consequently, it was light enough to achieve 0-60 in 5.8 seconds on the road at a top speed of 161 mph.
Was the M1 a “real” BMW?
Less than five years after the Lamborghini Miura shocked the world as the first mid-engined supercar, BMW was already planning something similar. Developed by BMW’s Paul Bracq, the BMW Turbo Concept has all the aerodynamics of the last M1, but features rear wheel skirts to further enhance its low, aerodynamic stance. Only two models were built, reports Hot Cars, but the final design of the M1 would feature much more Italian DNA.
For the M1 to qualify for racing, FIA rules required BMW to make 400 road-going versions sold to the public, known as homologations. Since the company had to rush to complete the M1, it had to hire Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign, of Miura fame, to design the M1 and Lamborghini to do the engineering and production work.
However, during his work for BMW, Lamborghini went bankrupt for the second time in 1977, meaning BMW had to start over, says US News & World Report. Although the story is unconfirmed, it is said that BMW had to break into the government-blockaded Lamborghini factory in the middle of the night to retrieve the body molds. Otherwise, the receiver would have sold them for scrap.
In the following months, Neerpasch hurried to find new partnerships, and an agreement was reached with Marchesi in Modena to assemble the chassis for the space frame. At the same time, Italian composites maker TIR would attach the body panels, says MotorTrend. Italdesign agreed to clamp the bodies to the frames at its headquarters, and the unassembled M1s would be shipped to Stuttgart for assembly by carbuilder Baur and shipped back to BMW Motorsport in Munich for inspection.
Was the BMW M1 a successful racer?
Once the BMW M1 was completed, a series of mechanical failures plagued the racing division. In its few years in Group 4, Group 5, GTX and Group B, the M1 suffered constant dropouts. The most successful results were at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans when Andy Warhol’s hand-painted Group 4 M1 “Art Car” qualified third but finished sixth, reports Market Motorsports. However, he would go on to take first and second place in the 1981 IMSA GTO class championship.
As the rules for Group 5 changed, the car became less competitive and in 1982, Group 5 ended. To salvage the work done on the M1, Neerpasch devised a one-make championship using modified M1s to help the company build enough cars to enter the Group 4 standings. The Procar BMW M1 Championship served as a series of races for support for Formula One drivers. Meeting the standard for Group 4, the M1 Procars were used for multiple teams.
How many BMW M1s were built and how much do they cost now?
In its short production life from 1978 to 1981, only 453 M1s were built, The Drive claims. Fifty-three examples were used at the various racing companies and 400 were sold to customers. Like all homologation racing cars, the BMW M1 is rare. In fact, many have never seen one in metal. Therefore, like all rare cars, they come with a high price.
Hagerty reports that an M1 in “good condition” can fetch $440,000. Of the 65 previous sales they have accounted for, the highest was $605,000 and the most recent brought in $566,000.
What does the M1 leave behind?
Unfortunately, a troubled birth and FIA rule changes meant that the M1 never really shined as brightly as Neerpasch had hoped. Yet while this car is relegated to the under-the-sink cupboard of automotive history, part of it still lives on. It was the first BMW production car to feature the esteemed “M” badge, the genesis of one of the greatest sports car lines ever made.
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