Some cars don't get the chance they deserve. The BMW M1, BMW's first -- and so far only -- mid-engine production car, was one of them. Though conceived as a "homologation special" for production-class sports-car competition, it was never actually campaigned by the factory, whose motorsport policy veered toward building Formula 1 engines soon after the Ml was finalized. In the end, only 450 examples were built, almost all of them fully equipped road cars. Needless to say, they've already become prized collector's items.
The BMW M1 (which stands for "mid-engine car, first type") originated in 1975 as BMW's counterattack against the Porsche 911s then cleaning up in various sports-racing series. Even so, the only part BMW actually contributed was the engine: a much-modified 4-valves-per-cylinder version of its straight six, designated M-88.
Aside from the gullwing Turbo experimental of 1972, BMW had no experience with "middies," so it hired Lamborghini in Italy to design, develop, and produce BMW M1. Giorgetto Giugiaro's Ital Design (then also involved with the ill-starred DeLorean) was contracted for bodywork styling and construction.
Ital was told to retain some "BMW identity," which explains the use of the familiar "twin-kidney" grille motif. Still, the overall result was somewhat heavy-handed compared to Paul Brache's Turbo (especially around the rear quarters), lacking its grace and excitement. Perhaps Giugiaro's staff had had an off day.
The use of Italian specialist know-how should have worked brilliantly, but it didn't. Lamborghini welcomed contracts like this because it was on the financial brink at the time. As if by design, it slipped over the edge shortly after the Ml was locked up, leaving BMW no choice but to regroup. Accordingly, construction was farmed out to two other Italian firms: Marchesi, for the multi-tube chassis, and Trasformazione Italiana Resina, for the fiberglass body. Final assembly was shifted to Baur, the German coachbuilder long associated with BMW.
But by then it was 1979 (the BMW M1 debuted at the Paris Salon in October '78) and BMW was wearying of a project that wasn't likely to generate the publicity -- or victories -- expected of it. The BMW M1's sole moment in the competition spotlight came with the 1979-80 "Procar" series, a sort of European International Race of Champions staged before major Grands Prix. In it, F1 drivers competed against each other and a few non-GP pilots in identically prepared BMW M1s, a sort of pre-race side show. It was almost as if BMW was ashamed of what it had done.
And more's the pity, because the BMW M1 was a superb modern supercar by any standard. As in Lamborghini's Miura and Countach, the engine sat longitudinally behind a two-seat cockpit to drive the rear wheels via a 5-speed transaxle (by ZF). Suspension was naturally all-independent, with coil springs and twin A-arms at each corner.
Brakes were big discs all around, while massive 16-inch-diameter wheels and tires were wider at the rear than at the front, as is common in tail-heavy high-performers. The results of all this were vice-free handling, very high cornering grip, and excellent stopping power -- in short, real racetrack ability.
That's hardly surprising when you consider that the BMW M1 was developed in three versions: a 277-horsepower road car, built mainly to satisfy the 400-unit homologation minimum; a Group 4 racer with 470 bhp and suitable body and chassis modifications; and a Group 5 car with about 850 bhp from a reduced-capacity (3.2-liter) turbocharged engine (the others had normally aspirated 3.5-liter powerplants). The Group 4 version was the one run in Procar.
"Production" BMW M1s were pretty plush, their comprehensive equipment running to air conditioning and full carpeting. They were -- and are -- as nice on the road as any Ferrari Boxer and probably better built. The highly reliable 24-valve M-88 engine is another plus for would-be owners. In fact, this is a pretty young power unit with a lot of development potential as yet unexplored. As proof, a revised rendition powers the limited-production M5 sedan and M635CSi/M6 coupe built by BMW's Motorsport division.
The tragedy of the BMW M1 is that this great car was abandoned before it could prove itself. Will BMW again attempt something so specialized? At this writing, indications are that it will, but the car won't necessarily be mid-engined, and you can bet it won't be built in collaboration with a shaky outfit.
To learn more about BMW and other sports cars, see: