By on May 16, 2012

It was 1972, 40 years ago, when BMW did something that many would later imitate: Much to the chagrin of its own engineers, who were convinced they already had the hottest cars imaginable, and that to touch them meant to desecrate their creations, BMW decided to put the tuners out of business, and created the M series.

Allegedly, the M stood for “Motorsport.”

“A company is like a human being. As long as it goes in for sports, it is fit, well-trained, full of enthusiasm and performance.” With these words, a barely 40 year young whippersnapper by the name of Robert A. Lutz,  then responsible for sales at BMW, christened the subsidiary called BMW Motorsport GmbH. Today, it is as old as Bob Lutz was then.

Of course, it was a trick. It wasn’t BMW’s racing team. The M stood for more, for macho, for mammoth motors, for money.

Bob Lutz was one of the new young board members Eberhard von Kuenheim had anointed to help him propel the formerly staid Bavarian maker of motorcycles and Isettas into a future as bright as the high beams with which BMW owners signaled: Make way for the king of the road.

1972 was also same year the new head office was (more or less) finished, the BMW Four-Cylinder building. Today, it would have eight towers. Or maybe six.

1972 seemed like a good year to start a motorsport venture: The Olympics came to Munich, housed not far from the Four Cylinder building. It became an event that many want to forget. Many can’t.

BMW’s former in-house sports department launched the widely successful BMW 1800 TI and 2000 TI. BMW itself was able to meet only a fragment of the overall demand for hot Bimmers, a void tuners were more than happy to fill.

Since the mid-1960s, BMW had been involved in Formula 2. BMW’s racing engines powered many racers to the top of the podium.

The telephone list of the young BMW Motorsport GmbH reads like a hall of fame of car racing. The company was headed by Jochen Neerpasch, the former Porsche works driver who moved to Munich after a stint as Ford’s Racing Manager in Cologne.

His team had names like Chris Amon, Toine Hezemans, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester. Björn Waldegaard and Achim Warmbold were hired as rally drivers.

A year later, a 950-kilo 2002 rolled out of the BMW Motorsport GmbH building at in Preussenstrasse. It had a two-liter four-valve four-cylinder, that made (for the time) exhilarating 240 hp.

Then there was the 3.0 CSL coupé. It hinted at the space-age-material era of the future. The doors and lids were made from aluminum, the five-speed gearbox featured a magnesium housing. Overall weight was 1,092 kg or 2,408 lb. Under the hood lurked a 3,340 cc straight-six with 12 valves, fuel injection and a compression ratio of 11:1. Maximum output: 360 hp. It also was the last two-valve engine that BMW built for racing.

With the 3.0 CSL coupé  came a new logo. A complete racing team from car hauler vehicle down to the key tag sported the three blue, violet and red stripes that to this very day tell you that you have been passed by an M-series – if you are quick enough to catch it.

The CSL coupés seemed to be unbeatable. Hans-Joachim Stuck and Chris Amon brought home the Touring Car Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in their very first attempt. BMW was the overall winner of the Touring Car Category in the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans.

The 3.0 CSL became the most successful touring car of its time, dominating the international touring car scene for almost a decade.

The BMW 3.0 CSL pioneered many innovations: It was powered by BMW’s first-ever four-valve six-cylinder. It had a prototype anti-lock braking system, long before it became standard in the BMW 7 Series. At the end of its career, the 3.0 CSL developed maximum output of up to 800 hp.

In 1975, Americans still argued whether BMW stands for “Bavarian Motor Works” or rather “British Motor Works.” BMW Motorsport GmbH wanted to set that straight by focusing on the US IMSA Series. BMW won the Manufacturer’s Category in the IMSA Championship and BMW was a checkered flag on the map.

Well into the second half of the 1970s, BMW Motorsport GmbH focused almost exclusively on the construction of racing cars. This changed when the first “hot” 5 Series came into being from 1974: the 530, 533i, 535i. Initially, they were built and sold in small numbers only, but soon they became popular. 

To counteract this trend, the Motorsport GmbH set out to build their first competition car not based on a regular production model: the BMW M1. Lamborghini was supposed to supply the body and the chassis, with BMW supplying the rest. Financial problems at Lamborghini threw the project in disarray. Finally, it looked like there were more companies involved in building the car than cars were initially built.

The spaceframe was manufactured at Marchesi, the glass-fibre reinforced plastic bodyshell was produced at T.I.R., both in Modena. Giorgio Giugiaro’s company ItalDesign assembled them and provided the interiors fittings. The cars were then transported to Stuttgart where Baur installed all the mechanical assemblies.

The minimum production requirement for homologation in FIA Group 4 was 400 units. That made the mid-engined M1 available as a road-going model. It was the first car that sported the soon famous letter “M.”

The price of the 277 hp M1 in 1978 was exactly DM 100,000. This did not dampen the demand. After one year, 130 cars had been completed, and 300 orders were on the books. Right from the start the M1 was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany. In a test conducted in 1979, the M1 reached a top speed of 264.7 km/h or 164.1 mph. The racing version made 470 hp and reached a top speed well over 300 km/h or 190 mph.

In 1980, a second M-model was built. Starting with a regular 5 Series, the M535i was created, powered by the two-valve six-cylinder from the 635CSi. With an engine output of 218 hp, the car owned the left lane.

In 1984 the fast-revving four-valve straight-six originally featured in the M1 made its appearance in the M635CSi Coupé and in the M5.

The M5 was a genuine “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” In the rear-view mirror, the M5 looked like any other 5-series. When it passed with a top speed of 245 km/h or 152 mph on the Autobahn, it caused dropped jaws. In America, it soon was called “Executive Express.”

1986 the BMW M3 was born. A production run of 5,000 units within one year was needed for homologation in Group A. From the start, it was built as both a race car and a road going car.

In the five years to follow, the M3 was the uncontested leader in the international touring car scene, and it was equally successful as a road-going car, reaching sales volumes nobody would have expected.

Sales of the first BMW M3 amounted to more than 17,970 units, including 600 2.5-litre M3 Sportevolution models as well as 765 M3 convertibles built by hand.

To be continued in Chapter 2.

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20 Comments on “40 Years Of The M Series – A Pictorial History. Chapter 1...”

  • avatar

    Look BMW an understated M5 with a straight six, that might be something to think about. Or the four cylinder M3 used for racing.
    I’m assuming that we’ll get loads of pictures of the pinnacle of BMW design and the M5 in the next installment, the E34 M5 3.8 Nürburgring (sans two tone paint), maybe in Touring flavor to? Or is the 3.6 better looking with those understated but over engineered rims? Well it doesn’t matter, all E34s looks better the the bloated corpse that is the E39.

    Thumbs up on the piece, more pictures would have been nice.

  • avatar

    Nice work Bertel – I can’t wait for the subsequent chapters.

    This really reminds me of what a cool and youthful brand BMW once was and far the evolution has come. Looking at the latest M6 it seem much more AMG grand touring coupe than the “race car for the road” attitude of the early M models.

  • avatar

    Great idea and nice start, but you’re missing the e28 M535i, which predated the e28 M5.

  • avatar

    “Right from the start the M1 was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany”

    I’m probably wrong here but was the M1 faster than the baddest Porsche? 930 turbo or other in 1979?

  • avatar

    If I could go back in time and buy any vehicle new for my own personal use (not to resell, etc), it would probably be an e30 M3. Such a brilliant little car. They are sadly at the point where you end up paying near $20k for an unabused, unswapped one. I’ll probably never be able to justify owning one.

    • 0 avatar

      What year would you go to? I think the original MSRP was over $30k, and thats in 1980’s dollars. $20k today might be a bargain…

      • 0 avatar

        My hypothetical was assuming that money wasn’t an issue. I was 6, afterall, in 1988, so it wasn’t like I’d be able to get a loan from myself. $20k for a car that is over 20 years old and I really wouldn’t want to daily drive is a little tough to swallow… in the real world, anyway.

  • avatar

    I am totally in love with my E36M3, even if I have to spend a lot of time wrenching on it to recover from 16 years of abuse. I almost got rear ended a few days ago and while I was wondering if the guy behind me was going to stop I thought, “I would buy another one of these to replace this one”…

  • avatar

    I never really understood the mystique around the M1. It wasn’t a huge success in racing (aside from it’s spec series) and like someone else said, the porsche 930 was just as fast on the road. The art cars were pretty slick but I think the overall look didn’t age well.

    BUT, it did set the stage for the M3 which rules my world.

  • avatar

    “I never really understood the mystique around the M1”

    It is BMW’s first and only mid-engined super car, excluding the yet-to-launch i8. It packed a 3.5L inline-6 that made a whopping 277hp – in 1978! As Bertel mentions, that engine went on to power other M road cars well into the ’80s. The M1 was very limited in production. Don’t forget it also has 2 roundels on the back of the car.

  • avatar

    240hp from 2.0L 4-cyl is STILL impressive.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the article. I didn’t know BMW built a 240 hp 2 liter 16 valve for the 2002. Would it have been a group x homologation? The power to weight ratio alone sonds exhilarating. If there still exists a restored unit it must be worth a lot f money. I would imagine more than an E30 M3. Reminds me of the Ford Escort 1800 BDA (not available here in the US). That thing screamed to 9K rpm with 250HP from the factory (may have been Cosworth) As a young kid I was in awe watching those live in rally racing. No AWD then just pure driving skill.

    Fast forward to today, the new Bimmers are definitely faster, quieter, heavier, yet probably more fuel efficient but they seem to have less soul. Must be the flavor of the times.

    • 0 avatar

      I would argue that cars today have less soul because they are so controlled by engineers you only feel/hear exactly what they want you to hear.

      Soul for a vehicle I think is all the little shakes/vibrations and noises that they didn’t use to eliminate. Vehicles also flexed more, so there was more “life” in the vehicle. Now they are just stiff shapes with no bend.

      You can see this when you talk to bicycle fanatics and how many people will tell you about how great a steel bike is compared to carbon fiber/aluminum/exotic material. All because of the flex and give that a steel bike will have.. which they argue produces a smoother more enjoyable ride.

      • 0 avatar

        I can’t see why flex in a bicycle would be good…isn’t that just your energy being used to flex the frame instead of propelling you forward? it might dampen some of the harshness of the road but if performance is your thing I would think stiffer is better.

        Compare cars back to back and the stiffer one should feel much better. I drove back to back a new Lincoln LS and a new Continental with my father. The stiff structure of the LS made the car feel much more secure. And I am not confusing suspension stiffness. Of course, back to back driving makes for a lot of comparisons. It was interesting to note that the Conti’s brake pedal felt far firmer than that of the LS. But I do agree that sometimes the designers have removed too much mechanical feedback from a car. Anybody who drive a car with stability control in the snow can feel how lifeless it feels when you try to have some fun with it….

        BMW being “British Motor Works” is pretty funny, yet ironic at the same time. Anybody who recalls 70’s era BMW products – long before Reagan era yuppies- remember the initials meaning “Bring Me a Wrecker” or “Breakdown Motor Works”…

  • avatar

    Interesting article. Only one nit to pick, the M3 did not rule touring car racing for 5 years, the Ford Sierra RS500 had it beat from 1988 onwards. It is a credit to the M3 though that it could still come out on top on a tight track on its day.

  • avatar

    Wow! Thank you so much for writing this!

  • avatar

    A great read, but a depressing one considering the direction the company is going. That legendary tricolor stripes doesn’t mean what it used to.

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