History is littered with automotive cul-de-sacs, but few are as fascinating as the BMW M1. During the mid-’70s, BMW’s motor sport boss Jochen Neerpasch wanted a new race car to replace the flamboyant CSL. His target was simple: to beat Porsche in Group 4 and 5 (silhouette) racing, and therefore continue to build BMW’s sporting image.
To meet these goals the BMW M1, or project E26, needed to be a clean-sheet mid-engined supercar – a configuration of which the company had no experience. BMW also lacked production and development capacity for such a low-volume project (a minimum of 400 were needed to be built for homologation purposes).
Neerpasch took the outsourcing route, assembling an enviable selection of Italian experts to shape the new car. Ital styled it and Lamborghini engineered it. Or should have done. The perilous financial state of the Sant’Agata company was thrown into relief by the project – the £1.1m loaned to it by the Italian Government for component funding and assembly was rapidly engulfed by more pressing day-to-day matters. The company ran out of money in 1977, and the project was frozen.
Neerpasch didn’t give up, though, and ended up contracting Marchesi to weld the spaceframes. Ital Design then mated those to the bodies at its own premises, with the final assembly being undertaken by Baur in Stuttgart. It’s no wonder that money was lost on every M1 sold.
The financial disaster was soon compounded by the fact that BMW realised late on in the project that the M1 was too heavy to be competitive in Group 4 and 5. Even stripped down, it weighed in at 1300kg, and the class minimum was 1005kg. The M1’s short Group 4 career was a disaster, while it never even turned a wheel in anger in Group 5 racing.
Lateral thinking from Neerpasch led to a deal with the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA), along with Goodyear, to run a Procar series in tandem with the high-profile Grands Prix. It was single-make racing at its very best, helped in no small part by the driver line-ups in the two-season spectacular.
Fifteen drivers from the world of touring cars and sports racing would battle against the five fastest Friday GP qualifiers in strictly identical 470bhp M1s. Needless to say, the competition was fast, close and, more often than not, looked more like a contact sport. What BMW’s top brass must have thought of it, one can only imagine.
Niki Lauda won the Championship in 1979, with Nelson Piquet following up in 1980. Undoubtedly, the Procar championship was a PR success, and made the BMW M1 famous. Sadly, despite this the company cut its losses at 454 cars – and chalked it all up to experience.
And all of that gives a bit of context to why the road car is such a special thing. The first thing you notice upon climbing into the M1 today is the utterly uncompromising nature of its interior. ‘Angular’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s equal parts 1970s cool and Cold War, a relic of a time when nobody felt any shame at being seen in a car like this, a time when it was okay to admit that you liked driving fast. Very fast.
There is no fussiness – everything appears to have been drawn with a ruler. The M1 is a supercar without a guilty conscience, a single-minded machine that refuses to pander to its driver. With its 3.4-litre straight-six engine, the M1 is a tiddler compared with some of its Italian contemporaries, and to make the most of its 277bhp you have to wring its neck. Which is a lot of fun…
Since production ended in 1981, BMW has yet to adequately replace the M1 with a fully-equipped supercar. In 2008, the company showed the M1 Homage at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d'Este – a pure concept designed to pay tribute to the original. With V12 power, the 850CSI had the performance, although was much more of GT than supercar.
Perhaps the closest thing to a genuine M1 successor is the BMW i8. Again, it doesn’t really have the performance to be classed as a supercar, but it does have drama. The petrol-electric drivetrain is forward thinking, and much like the M1 it’s an incredibly advanced machine.
Which M1 to buy?
In simple terms there are two types of M1; road cars and racers. With no production changes throughout the short life of the M1, there isn’t much to separate one from another. There were 390 road-going M1s built, all to the same mechanical spec. However, some M1s were personally imported into the US in 1980 and federalised, which meant adding a catalytic converter (which cut power to 235bhp) along with energy-absorbing bumpers and side impact bars (which added 79kg). Unsurprisingly, these cars aren’t sought after now, but the modifications are reversible – at a price.
This leaves the racers, which can throw up all sorts of anomalies. Around 60 track cars were built, 49 of which were official Procar machines. These featured an alloy-block engine rated at 470bhp to give 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds and a 192mph top speed. There was an oil cooler for the gearbox, a stronger diff and rose-jointed suspension along with quicker steering. With these cars worth at least twice as much as a road car, it’s easy to see why you need to check that you’re buying what you think you’re buying if you take the racer route.
Performance and specs
||3453cc, in-line six-cylinder
||277bhp @ 6500rpm
||325lb ft @ 5600rpm
|Price when new
Dimensions and weight
• You won’t see any rust on an M1’s panels as they’re made of glassfibre. That’s the good news – the bad news is that they’re very thin, so cracking and crazing is far from uncommon. The original paintwork was also poor, so if you’re buying an unrestored car, expect to have it resprayed if you want a decent finish on it.
• Underneath those plastic body panels is a steel spaceframe, which rots. To make things worse, checking the spaceframe is tricky because it’s largely hidden by the panelwork and undertray; you’ll probably have to resort to an endoscope to see it properly. Your first ports of call for spaceframe corrosion are the front bulkheads and the tubes along the sills; also look in the engine bay where exhaust heat can take its toll.
• The 3.5-litre straight-six is the same unit seen in the 1974 3.0 CSLs, and it’s pretty highly strung. As a result parts are expensive, but its inaccessibility also means even routine maintenance can cost plenty. Even setting the valve clearances means removing the engine.
• The M1’s engine is pretty tough though, and as long as it’s properly maintained it should easily rack up 100,000 miles (or much more) between rebuilds. It’s at 100,000 miles that a new timing chain will be needed, while head gasket failure is the other weakness, so check the coolant for signs of mayonnaise.
• Be very wary of any M1 that hasn’t been run for a while, because lack of use can cause major problems. Sparing use is a problem particularly for the engine, thanks to the fitment of a dry sump oil tank. Condensation forms in here as the car is left standing; water and rust then fall into the tank and these are drawn into the engine when it’s started. Replacement tanks are available, and they’re very costly – but much cheaper than a new engine...
• The gearbox is strong and rarely gives problems unless it’s been abused – more of an issue is the clutch. Not only do these tend to fail after relatively short distances, but sourcing replacement parts can be a nightmare – so costs tend to be very high.
• As you’d expect, any parts that are unique to the M1 are either unavailable or ludicrously expensive. So check every nook and cranny of the bodywork and interior for damage.
1978: The M1 makes its debut at the Paris motor show
1979: The M1 goes on sale and the first cars are delivered. All road cars get a 277bhp straight-six and a five-speed manual gearbox. Standard equipment includes black and grey interior trim, Recaro seats, air-con, electric windows and a Becker radio/cassette. Most cars come with red, white or black paintwork and all M1s have the steering wheel on the left.
1980: A handful of cars are converted by California-based Automobile Compliance Inc, to meet US regulations.
Owners' clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
The BMW M1 was in many ways ahead of its time. Like the Audi R8 today, it actually offered some semblance of usability, civility and reliability – despite its Italian roots. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, it remains highly regarded and values are rising in line with similar supercars of the era. While poor to average cars can be picked up for between £150,000-£250,000, the better examples are routinely fetching upwards of £300,000 today. An immaculate low mileage example could be worth in excess of £450,000.