The 1978-81 M1 was BMW's first (and, so far, only) mid-engined production car. The plan was to build the M1 in numbers just sufficient to homologate it for the FISA Group 5 "Special Production Cars" racing series. In a just and rational world, its creation and debut in the motorsports world would be followed by a string of victories, a manufacturer's championship or two, fat profit margins on sales of the street edition, a halo-car boost to sales of lesser Bimmers, product placement deals with the Bond movie franchise, and eternal glory. Alas, the world is neither just nor rational, and the M1 never got the place in the pantheon it truly deserved. It languishes in relative obscurity in the collective memory of '70s exotics, overshadowed by various Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and the odd De Tomaso Pantera.
I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the Car Lust jury, that this is an outrage which must be redressed. The evidence we present today will show that the mid-engined M1 is nothing less than the baddest BMW, and one of the baddest cars, period, ever to roll on public roads, and therefore a worthy object of Car Lust.
This is the fruit of one of Georgetto Giugiaro's best days at the office, ever. Just sitting there, it exudes Teutonic über-competence and 95th-percentile self confidence. ("Es ist nicht eine Prahlerei, wenn Sie sie wirklich tun können!") It's futuristic and aggressive, yet also tastefully understated. (If ever a supercar could fly under the radar, this is the one that could pull it off.) And the good looks aren't just for looks, either. Under Giugiaro's gorgeous fiberglass body panels are Exhibits B and C in the case for the M1, the chassis and drivetrain.
The M1 used a spaceframe and suspension designed by Lamborghini, and those who have driven M1s have described it as perhaps Lamborghini's finest hour. It has double wishbones and sway bars front and rear, tuned specifically for 55-series Pirelli P7 tires (the state of the art at that time, and still a darned good tire by any measure), and is guided by quick-ratio (2.35 turns lock to lock!) rack and pinion steering gear.
As for the drivetrain, the prime mover is (unsurprisingly) a BMW straight six; specifically the DOHC 3453cc M88/1 with Kugelfischer-Bosch fuel injection and six--count 'em, SIX--separate throttle butterflies beneath bright orange velocity stacks. In production trim, this engine made 277 horsepower at 6500 RPM, and 239 pounds of torque at 5500 RPM, transmitted to the wheels through a 5-speed close ratio ZF transaxle. In a car weighing just 2,870 pounds, this combination was good for a 5.8 sec 0-60 time and a top speed well north of 140. (BMW claimed 160, but independent testers could never quite confirm that.) This would be respectable straight-line performance even today; by the Malaise Era standards of 1978, it was mind-altering.
(If you are still somehow unimpressed, please keep in mind that we are talking about the normally aspirated base model of an engine that had a lot of hop-up potential. The turbocharged "M88/2" built for Group 5 use put out as many as 900 horspower. A competent tuner could probably get at least 300 ponies out of the street version without having to work too hard.)
Consider, also, the uncontradicted testimony of those who have been fortunate enough to drive an M1. Steve Cropley, a writer for the UK's Car magazine, had the use of an M1 for a weekend of Autobahn cruising and corner-carving, which he wrote about for the August 1980 issue.
Mr. Cropley found the engine to be remarkably smooth and unobtrusive for a racing engine. When loping along at a leisurely 85 or 90 miles per hour on the Autobahn, the car was almost unnaturally quiet, even though the timing chain and cam lifters were right behind the driver's head.
While the straight line acceleration was good, and the brakes even better, the car's real strength was its handling. It could take a curve about 25 MPH above what you'd think would be the maximum and feel like it was running on rails, yet it handled the bumps like a luxury car. The squiggly parts of the road or the track were described as "where euphoria lurks."
We would also move to submit into evidence a non-embeddable video deposition, in which the deponent completely corroborates Mr. Cropley's testimony (in Dutch, no less!), and some other video taken last August, of turbocharged M1s running on the Nürburgring in the AvD Oldtimer Grand Prix.
That's not to say that the M1 was perfect, for nothing fashioned by the hand of man truly can be (with the possible exception of the first-generation CRX). The cabin was a tight squeeze for larger individuals, a little darker than it needed to be, and with a dashboard that could have done with some sprucing up. Still, by any measure, the M1 was one of the greatest cars of its era.
At this point, you may be asking yourself how a car that got so many things right could possibly have failed to become the dominant two-seater of the late 1970s. Well, it wasn't the M1's fault; the liability rests with others.
As we mentioned, BMW subbed out the engineering under the fiberglass to Lamborghini, which designed the spaceframe and suspension. Lamborghini was also contracted to do the final assembly--the frame and body panels were to be fabricated by other Italian subcontractors, and BMW would of course provide the drivetrain. Lamborghini was in financial difficulties at the time, and had to go to the Italian government for a loan of 1.7 billion lira (about $1.9 million at the prevailing exchange rate, which inflation-adjusts to $6.75 million today) to pay for the tooling, equipment, and raw materials necessary to build the M1.
No sooner had the government's check cleared than Lambo's management diverted the money to other uses, thereby breaching the loan agreement and the contract with BMW--and probably comitting a felony or two along the way. The M1 project ran out of funds and ground to a halt after only six or seven prototypes were assembled.
BMW was in a bit of a tight spot. It couldn't let the project just die, that would be too embarassing--but it wasn't about to entrust so much as another Pfennig to bankrupt Lamborghini's sticky-fingered (mis)managers, either! There were bitter arguments, nasty letters, and threats of lawsuits. Legend has it that BMW production engineers slipped across the Alps and staged a corporate commando raid to repossess the blueprints and tooling. However it happened, BMW got the tooling back and delivered it to Sr. Giugiaro's ItalDesign facility, which took over the job of assembling the car.
While all of this was going on, the FISA raised the eligibility threshold for Group 5, and there were suddenly not enough M1s in existence or on the assembly line to homologate it for the racing series it was built for! As GQ's automotive blogger put it, "The result was a beautifully designed car, immaculately engineered and built around a marvel of a 3.5-liter straight-six engine, with hardly anywhere to race."
BMW started up its own one-make competition series, called the "BMW M1 Procar Championship," so that it would have an excuse to build the minimum of 400 cars necessary for homologation into Group 4, which was now a prerequisite for Group 5 eligibility. The Procar Championship ran for two seasons, and managed to attract some top-rank F1 drivers. At the end of the 1980 campaign, there were enough M1s on the ground to make them eligible for Group 4, and so, having fulfilled its purpose, the Procar series came to an end.
I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the Car Lust jury, that we have proved the case for the M1's basic badness, and Lust-worthiness, not merely by a preponderance of the evidence, but beyond a reasonable doubt--beyond all doubt. The verdict, however, is in your hands; you may render it in the comment section below.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The semi-cutaway poster image comes from the design website Megadeluxe. The shot of the M1 at a car show in sunny Tacoma last summer was taken by Amazon Automotive editor Bernard Bolisig. The images of the M88 engine and of Nelson Piquet's 1980-season racer come from Wikipedia.