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BMW M1

BMW M1

By Jack Nerad

BMW M1 The premise was simple. In the mid-1970s BMW was doing very well in its battle with Ford in the European Touring Car ranks, so the powers who were at the company decided that it would be a good idea to step things up a notch and attack the much more prestigious arena of World Sportscar racing. After all, Frankfurt-based Porsche was reaping abundant amounts of prestige from its dominance of that well-regarded series, and Munich-based BMW figured it had the expertise to knock Porsche off its throne and grab some of that prestige for itself. Compared to BMW, Porsche was a relative upstart.

There was just one catch. At the time, BMW didn't produce a car that had nearly the capabilities needed to compete in the hot and heavy caldron of World Sportscars, a series that had spawned the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe among others. A builder of well-respected sedans and coupes, the Bavarian manufacturer didn't even build a vehicle that could legitimately be called a "sports car." Despite that, its brass decided, rather suddenly, that it should be a player in this highly visible, highly competitive arena.

In essence, BMW had given itself two separate projects. Building a successful racecar to compete with the top-ranked Porsches was intimidating enough, but the World Sportscar homologation rules of the time also required that 400 street versions of the vehicle had to be built, so that the model would qualify as a "production" car. BMW decided that its own Motorsport department could handle the design and construction of the racing cars. Its success in "saloon" racing under BMW racing maven Jochen Neerspasch had emboldened the company on that front. But what to do about building the 400 special street-going versions of the racer? BMW Motorsport didn't have nearly the production capabilities to handle that task, and, aside from a show car, BMW had never built a mid-engine vehicle of any type.

Some car companies might have charged ahead and decided that they could design a mid-engine car with no help from more experienced hands, but BMW was humble enough (and rushed enough) to contract out much of the design and development work on the street version of the car. The decision made sense, because the BMW Turbo, a gull-wing-equipped experimental model the company had toyed with in 1972, was the only mid-engine car with which the company had ever been associated. Scoping out suspects to help with the engineering on the car that would be its leading light, the company picked none other than Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini.

At first blush it seemed to be a brilliant choice. Lamborghini certainly knew its way around mid-engine machines, having set the world on fire with the Miura, then starting a new flame with the irrepressible Countach. Lamborghini had the experience and the production capacity to turn out 400 street-legal cars. At the same time, ItalDesign, headed by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro, was tapped to pen the body as well as help with the interior styling and the actual body construction.

What came from this collaboration of BMW Motorsport, Lamborghini and ItalDesign was a car that, in many ways, was the precursor of the Acura NSX, in other words, an exoticar that was reliable and comfortable enough to be an everyday driver. At the heart of its reliability was the 3453cc in-line six cylinder derived from the engine that powered the much-lauded 635Csi coupe. The cast iron block remained the same, while a new aluminum head that housed dual overhead cams and a forged aluminum crankshaft were the most important modifications. In street trim, the four-valve powerplant was said to produce 277 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 243 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. A Group 4 racing version of the car offered 470 horsepower, and a Group 5 version used a turbocharged 3.2-liter modification of the normally aspirated engine to develop something like 850 horsepower - certainly super-potent in that or an other era.

In typical Lamborghini fashion, the terrific engine was mounted longitudinally behind the snug cockpit. It powered the 16-inch alloy rear wheels through a five-speed ZF transaxle complete with limited-slip differential. The suspension was pure racecar; the all-independent arrangement used double wishbones, coil springs and gas-pressure shock absorbers at each corner. In part because the vehicle was destined for the track, huge power-assisted disk brakes were fitted all around. Steering was done by rack-and-pinion.

The result of this highly competent if very conventional design was a very easy car to drive fast, something that is also said of the NSX. With big tires and a racing suspension, cornering grip was excellent, and though BMW engineers like cars with a trace of oversteer, the M1 certainly didn't have the frightening drop-throttle attributes of its Porsche contemporaries.

The car's fiberglass body was certainly not as arresting as the Countach and not nearly as voluptuous as the Miura, but its no-nonsense "origami" creases are handsome and restrained. Some might argue that the M1 lacks "presence," but it was designed to make a statement as a BMW, so it uses the dual kidney trademark grille and even stock BMW taillights. Inside, the M1 featured creature comforts like full carpeting, air conditioning and power-operated windows with gauges and controls in the BMW idiom. Many compare it unfavorably to its precursor, the Paul Bracq-designed 1972 Turbo show car, but be that as it may, on the street everything about the car worked - not an easy accomplishment in an exoticar, especially right out of the box.

So with all this pure goodness amply documented by the automotive press of the day, why didn't the BMW M1 acquire the supercar status of the Countach or Ferrari's BB Berlinetta Boxer? Well, in this instance, timing was everything. The M1 project was given the green light in 1975, but the first prototype didn't appear until 1977, and the production M1 failed to debut until the Paris auto show in the fall of 1978. While that doesn't seem overly long in production car terms, it was interminably long in a car meant first for the racetrack.

Of course, the project wasn't helped by the fact that Lamborghini was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when BMW issued its contract. The development deal looked like a way out of the financial woods for the Italians, but instead it proved to be yet another burden. Lamborghini had always had difficulty getting its own vehicles out the door. With a demanding German company as its customer, things got even harder, and Automobili Lamborghini tumbled into receivership.

The unexpected collapse of its key supplier, even though temporary, put the entire M1 project in jeopardy. BMW scrambled to find other sub-contractors who could make the required sub-systems. Two Italian firms were tapped to provide the tube chassis and the fiberglass body, respectively, while German specialty coachbuilder Baur was signed on to do final assembly. When all was said and done, the combination of suppliers resulted in surprising well-built cars that gained a reputation as "an exotic that worked."

But the scrambling had resulted in so many delays that by the time the 400 street versions of the M1 had been built, qualifying the car for the World Sportscar series, the vehicle was woefully uncompetitive. So instead of winning a World Sportscar title, as BMW had envisioned, the M1 became the vehicle of choice for the 1979 and 1980 Procar series, in which Formula One drivers competed against one another in identically prepared vehicles. The series did give the M1 some visibility, and the two Procar champions were top Grand Prix drivers Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet, but the result was nothing like what BMW had originally planned for the costly project.

To add insult to indignity, the second world fuel crisis struck in 1979, making another exoticar extraneous to the market, at least in BMW's eyes. Instead, they set some of their sites on Formula One racing as an engine supplier and began to build environmentally themed powerplants for their passenger cars, lowkeying their performance heritage.

Including both street and competition versions, fewer than 475 BMW M1s were built before the company shut down the project. To many, the end came much too soon for a reliable exotic coupe that could jet from 0-60 miles per hour in just 5.4 seconds and had a top speed of 163 mph.

 

Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

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