Today it’s a million-dollar car but in the Seventies the BMW M1 never quite reached its potential of ultimate homologation special. Built to go racing in a new global series with silhouette rules allowing heavy modifications called Group 5, the M1 appeared too late to take part, and too early to be understood as the original NSX, the first truly usable supercar ever.
Instead of winners’ podiums and fables of 360kph down the Mulsanne straight, the M1’s footnote in history is that of simply the first M car. Not only that but the M1 almost never happened, thanks to Lamborghini.
BMW M boss in the Seventies Jochen Neerpasch needed a new race-winning car to replace the iconic ‘Batmobile’ CSL and remembered a Paul Bracq mid-engined design study from 1972 featuring a 2002 Turbo four-cylinder engine. That would do as inspiration…
For production the styling was entrusted to Giorgetto Giugiaro, who at the very same time was also busy with the quintessential wedge design, the 1976 Lotus Esprit. Manufacture of the M1 was contracted out to Lamborghini who claimed expertise in the car’s exotic materials and reinforced lightweight plastics.
Unfortunately, Sant’Agata Bolognese couldn’t back its claims, and the original 1977 production dates were missed — BMW was forced to hastily put together an in-betweener racecar to contest in the meantime. Although it was a highly lucrative deal for the small Italian carmaker, Lamborghini couldn’t handle M1 and Countach construction at the same time and when they asked the Germans for a large loan to help things progress, BMW lost faith in the project and pulled out. Lamborghini filed for bankruptcy the following year.
BMW was left to salvage the M1 with Italdesign and Baur (BMW’s preferred German partner in bodywork) but the damage was done and deadlines were missed, and the M1 missed its chance to go Group 5 racing.