There are cars that are faster. There are cars that handle better at super speeds. There are cars that have more exciting styling. But anytime you want to put an end to the argument of which is the best exotic car in the world, drop the name BMW M1. A hush will fall. . . and most enthusiasts who have had the opportunity to drive a variety of the world’s most exclusive automobiles will nod knowingly. They may disagree eventually with your choice, but they will surely pause to consider their arguments. When you make your living as an automotive journalist, life is an ongoing debate of the merits of various cars, particularly exotic cars. And, for most of us in this profession, the M1 holds a special place.
This story originally appeared in Road & Track’s 1986 Exotic Cars: 4 issue.
In the first edition of Exotic Cars published in 1983, Road & Track Motor Sports Editor Joe Rusz told a marvelous tale of one of his most pleasurable driving experiences: piloting an M1 across Europe. Frankly, we felt that would take care of this out-of-production wondercar, but then photographer Jeffrey R. Zwart recently bought an M1 and began living with this dream-on-wheels. His enthusiasm, the unbounded joy he feels for the car, prompted us to re-examine this exquisite piece of automotive sculpture. For those who have seen the earlier story, we hope you will enjoy this replay. For those who missed it, read on, and perhaps you will discover why so much is made of a car that had a production run of only 430.
The M1 was racing born and bred, growing out of the Group 4 battles of the mid-Seventies between BMW and Porsche. The World Makes Championship in those days was a terrific title to win if you wanted to sell relatively expensive sports and GT cars in Europe. BMW’s 3.5 CSL was a beautiful car, but it was having a difficult time beating the Porsches. So, BMW Motorsports devised a plan for an all-new car. Styling was done by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign firm and the job of crafting the simple, purposeful fiberglass body was given to Lamborghini. Unfortunately, that Italian company was in the throes of financial woes, and after building some 10-12 cars, it had to release the contract.
BMW didn’t have the capacity to build the M1 at its own facilities, so production of the bodies was shifted to ItalDesign. The bodies were then shipped by truck over the Alps to Stuttgart, and the Baur company fitted the chassis, engine and drivetrain. The final stop on the international assembly line was Munich, where BMW put the finishing touches on the M1 and made sure it was properly assembled.
This is not the usual scenario for building any car, much less an exotic, but the system certainly worked, judging by the resulting cars. Of the 430 M1s built, 26 were slated into the racing program, and the rest were sold to discriminating enthusiasts around the world.
The heart of the M1 is an inline 6-cylinder engine displacing 3453 cc and featuring double overhead camshafts and a 24-valve crossflow head. Fuel injection is by a Kugelfischer/Bosch mechanical system and there is a digital electronic ignition. M1s were never certified for sale in the U.S., but, of course, a number of these gorgeous coupes immigrated via the gray market. In European form the BMW six pumps out a scintillating 277 bhp DIN at 6500 rpm and 242 lb-ft of torque at 5000.
Noting the relatively high rpm figure for maximum torque, it’s clear that the M1 is not a car with an enormous amount of low-end power, but it will move off from rest and get to 60mph in just about 6.0 seconds. What makes this exotic a superb driving machine, however, is its wonderful engine flexibility and willingness to do whatever is asked of it. You can drive an M1 around town, humming along with the stereo system while waiting for traffic jams to clear, and the BMW seems perfectly happy. Or you can motor sedately among the suburbanites, the M1 loping like a purebred out for an easy jog. Or, and this is where the fun factor takes wings, find an open, winding road, uphill and down, and put this supercar to work.
The 5-speed manual gearbox is standard BMW fare and will be your ally in brisk motoring. Shifts are smooth, effort is just right and the gear changing is so precise you’ll never wonder if you’ve hit the right slot. The gear ratios are so nicely mated to the engine’s power that the M1 has no trouble accelerating with the best, while still having sufficient top end to rack up a top speed of better than 155 mph.
As the road unfolds before you, the Bimmer reacts like a fighter looking for a knockout—no hesitation, no tippy-toeing. The independent suspension is race-bred and ready for any demands placed on it. There is minimal body roll in even the sharpest curves, and the basic handling trait is mild understeer. Nail the throttle and the rear end will kick out in a very controlled fashion—no surprises lying in wait for the M1 driver—while lifting off the gas will tuck the front end into the turn. This is a car that is so good, so well designed, that the truly expert driver will find it as marvelous as it is fast, and the less skillful will get a taste of what it’s like to be really good.
Jeff Zwart, who falls into the class of expert drivers, took his car up California’s famous Highway 1 through the Big Sur country to do the photos. Zwart, who has owned a variety of impressive cars, found the M1 everything he had hoped for一willing to perform, eager to handle the switchbacks as well as the long straights, and eminently comfortable for longdistance touring. The ride is supple and the comfort level is unmatched by most exotics.
The accommodations for driver and passenger are first-class, but without much of the opulence found in other exotic cars. Remember, this is a German car, despite its Italian birth, and it is engineered to be ergonomically correct. The seats are contoured to hold you securely in place and are firm enough to give support for long hours on the road. Leg and headroom are adequate for most adults and the quality of the fit and finish is unblemished. This is an honest-to-God car, not a thrown-together blend of exciting performance and substandard creature comforts.
I suppose that over the course of the past 12 years I have driven 75 to 100 exotic cars, from Ferraris to Lamborghinis to Porsches to you-name-it. And every one of them has been exciting in one way or another. Who can deny the visual appeal of the Countach or Testarossa, the punch-in-the-back oomph of the Porsche 911 Turbo, or the gentlemanly motoring luxury of an Aston Martin Volante? But, if I were to walk out to my garage and find that my ship had come in, I would fervently hope that it took the form of the BMW M1. It is, when all is said and done, the no-compromise exotic car—comfortable, reliable, beautiful and exhilarating to drive.