Those creative Bavarians — calling their first car an M1 just because it was, well, the first M car. Thirty-some years later, that inspired deviation from BMW’s naming norm has cost the newest M car the name it should have had. So if you think today’s 1-series M coupe is awkwardly named, blame the 1978-1981 BMW M1.
In the 1970s, BMW’s newly formed racing subsidiary was toying with the idea of entering Formula 1. Instead, the company decided to enter Group 5 — a series that kept the racing cars closer to the road cars. Or rather, required the models to be sold to the public — a minimum of 400 cars — to be eligible to race.
Unfortunately, the development of the M1 was a bit of a disaster. The spaceframe chassis was engineered by Lamborghini, which was to build the car — except the Italians were tremendously delayed by a little problem called bankruptcy. The Italians eventually completed the engineering but never built any cars. BMW finally enlisted coachbuilder Baur to assemble the M1, which consisted of pieces from seemingly everywhere, including fiberglass body shells produced by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign. (Giugiaro himself designed the M1, but it was effectively only an update on Paul Bracq’s 1972 “Turbo” concept car.)
The engine came from BMW Motorsport GmbH. It was M’s first production engine, a 3.5-liter straight six making 277 hp. In the 3100-pound M1, that was good for a run to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds and a jaw-dropping 162-mph top speed. In racing trim, the straight six made 470 hp (at 9000 rpm!) and was good for almost 200 mph. Unfortunately, by the time the M1 entered production it no longer met Group 5 regulations and couldn’t be raced in that class. Undeterred, the creative types in Munich invented a series where the M1 could race against itself. It won! Fancy that.
Innovative one-marque racing history aside, it’s the way the M1 drives on the street that makes it so appealing. Lauded for being the most civilized and possibly the best supercar of all time when it debuted, the M1 actually had a hard time finding an audience. It appeared that buyers wanted a more prestigious brand name and more than six cylinders in their supercars, no matter how fast it was and no matter how good the engine sounded. (Cough. Acura NSX. Cough.)
And the M1 sounds really, really good. A Bosch fuel-injected version of its 24-valve straight six later found its way into the E28-chassis M5, but that M5 never sounded like this. The M1’s Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection doesn’t muffle the diabolical wail coming from the six individual throttle bodies, and equal-length spaghetti headers make the exhaust positively sing. Quietly, that is — you can barely hear an M1 idle.
You might hear its driver curse a bit while trying to turn the unassisted steering or when he hits the wrong pedals. (In typical Italian mid-engine style, the front wheel wells intrude into the cabin, and the pedals are so offset that even the clutch is to the right of the steering column — which itself is shoved far to the right.) You’ll never hear a passenger complain, though, because the M1 is quiet, smooth, and civilized. It’s not supercar fast by modern standards, but it’s the car that put M on the map. And, like the new 1M coupe, it looks incredible in orange.
BMW M1 //The Specs
Price: $87,000/$200,000 (then/now)
Engine: 3.5L I-6, 277hp, 243 lb-ft