BMW M1 lost its race with time
The M1 was originally built to win races and influence customers, but ultimately lost the race against time.
With its mid-engine location, low weight and impressive output, the M1 seemed to have all the right ingredients to make it competitive. And, back in 1975, that's exactly what BMW's motorsports division wanted: a win-at-all-costs machine that could outduel the Porsches and other European makes in production-class track battles.
Under international rules, "production class" meant that BMW had to build a minimum of 400 M1s for the street before the car would be allowed to compete on the track. This process, called homologation, is not only expensive, but time-consuming. BMW hoped to circumvent the latter by farming out most of the work to companies with experience building low-volume exotic vehicles.
Originally, the design and construction of the M1 (The "M" stood for motorsports) was to be an all-Italian affair. For the bodywork, Giorgetto Guigiaro's ItalDesign was given the styling task, while Lamborghini, a company with plenty of experience building exotics for the rich and famous, handled final-assembly chores.
The 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine, installed directly behind the cockpit, was the only major component manufactured by BMW. Based on an existing design, the 24-valve DOHC powerplant developed 277 horsepower at 6,500 rpm.
The street versions of the M1 were fast, but not astonishingly so. Zero-to-60 mph took 5.4 seconds and top speed was pegged at 162 mph. Amazingly, the car's light weight and slippery shape resulted in an average fuel economy (combined city/highway) of 24 mpg.
The first of the M1 prototypes were shown to the public in the spring of 1977 at the Geneva (Switzerland Motor Show). The car displayed all the correct elements that were considered essential - and desirable - for any premium sports car. It featured pop-up headlights, unique alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows and a luxurious interior.
BMW was so confident of its outsourcing strategy that it originally planned to sell 800 - double the number required for homologation - M1s to well-heeled buyers for around $55,000, a price that, at the time, was competitive with the Porsche 911 Turbo.
Immediately, however, the plan began to fall apart.
Lamborghini, BMW's primary contractor, was already on shaky footing and was forced to back out.
Two Italian specialty shops were hired to complete the tubular steel space frame chassis and produce the fiberglass body panels while Baur, a Stuttgart, Germany-based shop, handled the final assembly.
The problems that plagued Lamborghini resulted in a delay of more than a year for the M1, with the first customer car arriving in early 1979. By then it was too late to achieve homologation for the '79 season. In fact, BMW was unable to make it for 1980.
Meanwhile, the company's executives were planning to move into open-wheel Formula One competition as an engine supplier and the original 800-car M1 schedule was pared down to slightly more than half that.
The M1 might have been down, but it wasn't out.
An innovative marketing scheme was hatched that pitted identically prepared competition M1s against each other in warm-up races prior to each Formula One event. The series, called Procar, included a hand-picked field of experienced road-race and F1 drivers.
There was also an attempt at the 1979 French 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. The M1 finished sixth in its class, however even more distinguishing was its paint job that came courtesy of late pop artist Andy Warhol.
It wasn't until April of 1981 that the M1 finally achieved homologation status and competed in production races. Unfortunately, by then it was outdated and outmatched.
The last of the M1s rolled off the assembly line in February of 1981.
Today, these mid-engine German-Italian marvels are revered and appreciated for their superb overall performance and handling as well as their excellent build quality. They also set the tone for what would become a class of BMW M cars that is ranked high on any automotive enthusiast's list of desirable rides.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.
© 2003, Wheelbase Communications