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BMW’s M1, the Thoroughbred Racer from the Late ’70s: Development

Submitted by on May 27, 2020

By Marcel Hundscheid / Speed-O-Graphica

Forty one years ago BMW released the iconic M1. It was not only the first BMW to wear the letter M, but the first thoroughbred sports car to roll off the production line at BMW. More than four decades after the first presentation, it remains a showstopper both on public roads and on the race track.

In a series of articles we will focus on the history and development of this legendary BMW. In addition, we will look back on a piece of racing history and its popularity during historical motorsport events.

Forty eight years ago BMW established BMW Motorsport with just 35 employees, initially created to facilitate the manufacturer’s own racing programme. BMW Motorsport was founded by German Jochen Neerpasch, a former racecar driver and motorsport manager.

The racing division became famous with the 2002 and 3.0 CSL, but what they really wanted was to achieve success in Group 4 and Group 5. Group 4 applied to sports cars that complied with FIA Appendix C regulations, but series touring cars, improved touring cars and grand touring cars that had been modified beyond Group 1, Group 2 and 3 regulations were recognised.

Group 5 regulations comprised special touring cars and between 1970 and 1971 also to limited production sports cars with an 5 liter engine capacity restriction. The roadworthy M1 had to be able to compete with sports cars like the Ferrari 512 BB or the Lamborghini Countach. At the same time BMW wanted to stay as close as possible to the Group 4 version in the series.

To comply with Group 4 rules, BMW had to design a car of which at least 400 copies were built in 24 consecutive months. Due to the FIA regulations the car could not only be a thoroughbred racing car, but also sports car for use on public roads. Two seats were mandatory and the design had to look similar to the production car. The project ran under the designation E26.

French automotive designer Paul Bracq, who two years earlier had been appointed design director for BMW, designed a study for a gullwing model in 1972 known as the BMW Turbo. Bracq’s BMW Turbo concept car won the ‘Concept of the Year’ award in 1973 and this design was used as an example for model E26.

As BMW Motorsport didn’t have the staff to push the project, Bracq teamed up with Italian Giorgio Giugiaro. He was renowned for cars such as De Tomaso Mangusta, Iso Grifo and Maserati Ghibli. Giugiaro and Bracq were also responsible for the design of the BMW 6 Series Coupe.

Although Giugaro’s designs such as Mangusta, Grifo and Ghible were arched and had curving shapes, his design for Model E26 turned out to be increasingly angular as times had changed and there wasn’t a demand for rounded shapes.

Rumors circulated in the automotive world as early as 1975 that BMW was working on a sports car behind the scenes. Still, it wasn’t until the spring of 1977 that BMW broke silence and confirmed the existence of a sports car. During the autumn of 1977 BMW released the first pictures. The mid-engined M1 was BMW’s first car with the designation “M” on the market.

In our next episode we continue our series with the very first presentation of the M1 back in 1978.

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