The principle was simple. In the mid-1970s, BMW was doing very well in its battle with Ford in the European Touring Car ranks, so the authorities 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 plentiful amounts of prestige from its dominance of that well-regarded series, and Munich-based BMW presumed it had the expertise to knock Porsche off its throne and grab some of that prestige for itself. Matched up to BMW, Porsche was a relative upstart. There was simply one catch.
At the time, BMW didn’t produce a car that had nearly the capabilities required to compete in the heavy and hot caldron of World Sportscars, a series that had spawned the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe and the Ferrari 250 GTO among others. A builder of well-respected coupes and sedans, the Bavarian manufacturer didn’t even build a vehicle that could legitimately be dubbed a “sports car.” Despite that, its brass decided, rather quickly, that it should be a player in this highly evident, highly competitive arena. In essence, BMW had given itself two separate ventures. Building a successful race car to compete with the top-ranked Porsches was intimidating enough, but the World Sportscar homologation guidelines of the time also required that 400 street versions of the vehicle had to be assembled, so that the model would qualify as a “production” car. BMW decided that its own Motorsport department could manage the design and construction of the racing cars. Its success in “saloon” racing under BMW racing maven Jochen Neerspasch had bolstered the company on that front. But what to do about producing the 400 special street-going versions of the racer? BMW Motorsport didn’t have nearly the assembly capabilities to handle that task, and, aside from a show car, BMW had never built a mid-engine vehicle of any kind.
Some car companies might have stormed ahead and decided that they could design a mid-engine car with no assistance from more experienced hands, but BMW was modest enough (and rushed enough) to contract out much of the development and design work on the street version of the car. The decision made sense, because the BMW Turbo, a gull-wing-equipped experimental version the company had toyed with in 1972, was the only mid-engine car with which the company had ever been linked. Scoping out suspects to assist with the engineering on the car that would be its leading light, the company chose none other than Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini. At first blush, it seemed to be an intellligent choice. Lamborghini definitely knew its way around mid-engine machines, having set the world on fire with the Miura, then starting a new flame with the unmanageable Countach. Lamborghini had the production capacity and the experience to turn out 400 street-legal cars. At the same time, ItalDesign, headed by the fabled Giorgetto Giugiaro, was employed to pen the body as well as help with the interior styling and the actual body construction. What came from this partnership 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 comfortable and reliable enough to be an everyday driver. At the heart of its consistency was the 3453cc in-line six cylinder derived from the engine that powered the much-lauded 635Csi coupe. The cast iron block stayed the same, while a new aluminum head that housed dual overhead cams and a forged aluminum crankshaft were the most important innovations. In street trim, the four-valve powerplant was said to supply 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 changes of the normally aspirated engine to develop something like 850 horsepower – certainly super-potent in that or an other period.
In typical Lamborghini style, the remarkable engine was mounted longitudinally behind the snug cockpit. It powered the 16-inch alloy back wheels through a five-speed ZF transaxle complete with limited-slip disparity. The suspension was pure racecar; the all-independent arrangement used double wishbones, gas-pressure shock absorbers and coil springs at each corner. In part, because the vehicle was intended for the track, huge power-assisted disk brakes were fitted all around. Steering was completed by rack-and-pinion. The result of this highly competent, if very conservative 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 perfect, and though BMW engineers like cars with a trace of oversteer, the M1 certainly didn’t have the terrifying 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 restrained and handsome. Some might dispute that the M1 lacks “presence,” but it was designed to make a statement as a BMW, so it utilizes the dual kidney trademark grille and even stock BMW taillights. Inside, the M1 featured creature comforts like air conditioning, full carpeting, and power-operated windows with gauges and controls in the BMW idiom. Many evaluate it unfavorably to its predecessors, 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.
Failure to inaugurate on time
So with all this pure goodness amply documented by the automotive press of the day, why didn’t the BMW M1 obtain the supercar status of the Ferrari’s BB Berlinetta Boxer or Countach ? Well, in this example, timing was everything. The M1 venture was given the green light in 1975, but the initial 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 endlessly long in a car meant first for the racetrack. The project, of course, 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 liability. Lamborghini had always had stumbling blocks getting its own vehicles out the door. With a demanding German company as its client, things got even harder, and Automobili Lamborghini plunged into receivership. The unexpected fall down of its major supplier, even though temporary, put the entire M1 project in jeopardy. BMW scrambled to find other sub-contractors who could make the needed sub-systems. Two Italian companies were tapped to provide the tube chassis and the fiberglass body, respectively, while German specialty coachbuilder Baur was signed on to do final production. When all was said and done, the combination of suppliers resulted in surprising well-built cars that obtained a reputation as “an exotic that worked.” But the scrambling had resulted in so many delays that by the time the 400 street models of the M1 had been manufactured, qualifying the car for the World Sportscar series, the vehicle was woefully uncompetitive. So instead of winning a World Sportscar title, as BMW had forecasted, the M1 became the vehicle of choice for the 1979 and 1980 Procar series, in which Formula One drivers rivaled 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 Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda, but the result was nothing like what BMW had originally planned for the expensive project. To add insult to indignity, the second world fuel catastrophe 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 provider and started to build environmentally themed powerplants for their passenger cars, lowkeying their performance heritage. Including both street and competition models, fewer than 475 BMW M1s were built before the company closed down the project. To many, the end came much too soon for a dependable exotic coupe that could jet from 0-60 miles per hour in just 5.4 seconds and had a top speed of 163 mph.
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