Buying Guide BMW M1 E26
The best of the best? Looks, performance, rarity, even its own racing series… is this the ultimate BMW M car? Robert Ladbrook considers the argument.
The case of the BMW M1 is an interesting one. Technically it was a fleeting diversion from the norm, birthed out of the desire to beat Porsche at its own game, built in small numbers and only active for a few years. It’s flash-in-the-pan stuff. But what a few years they were. It was nowhere near the commercial success the M3 was/still is, and not as successful on track as the 3.0 CSL E9 (the first M car), yet the M1 arguably left a bigger impression on the company as a whole than any other model.
The story began in the mid- 1970s when BMW Motorsport director Jochen Neerpasch spotted an opportunity. At the time, Porsche was cleaning up in sports car racing with its 935, both in the hands of the factory and with customer teams. It was stealing headlines, earning serious prize money and selling like hot cakes. BMW wanted a piece of that, so Neerpasch convinced the Munich board to stump up the budget to develop a new, mid-engined sports car capable of taking on the 935. But there was an issue – how to design, engineer and build the 400 road-going examples needed to homologate such as car for Group 5 racing.
BMW needed help, and found it at Lamborghini. A deal was struck for the Bologna firm to assemble the new car, named the Motorsport 1, before handing it back to BMW to finalise the drivetrain. Giampaolo Dallara designed the steel spaceframe chassis, while Giorgetto Giugiaro penned the fibreglass body. Meanwhile, BMW M set about creating a 3.5-litre six-cylinder engine capable of 273bhp. All was going well, aside from Lamborghini’s accounts. With suppliers not being paid and staff on strike, of the 400 cars planned, Lamborghini managed to deliver six before BMW had to intervene and switch production elsewhere.
The M1 was shown to the public at the Paris Auto Show in 1978, where it received rave reviews, but still had almost no purpose. BMW couldn’t homologate it to race and couldn’t produce enough to sell. Fair to say the board was unimpressed on its return on investment. Neerpash needed a plan, so got together with Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, who were keen for F1 weekends to feature some extra content, and it just so happened that BMW had a handful of race-bred cars hanging around.
The BMW M1 Procar E26 series was launched in 1979 and ran for two seasons, featuring star drivers and teams all going hell-for-leather aboard identical M1s. Niki Lauda took the first title, and Nelson Piquet the second. That series alone transformed the M1 from zero to hero before it was scrapped after just two years. M1s were later modified for Le Mans (1981-86) and even Group B rallying before disappearing. A total of 453 were built from 1978-1981, with 399 roadgoing cars, 53 racing units and a prototype. Some three decades later, the design of the M1 sparked the concept for BMW’s other mid-engined sports car, the petrol-electric i8, and as recently as 2019 another M Next concept also drew of the M1’s lines. A flash in the pan it may have been, but the M1’s legend lives on.
BMW M1 E26
- Price new £37,500 (£220,000 today)
- Price now £450,000-900,000
- Engine 3.5-litre straight six twin-cam
- Rivals Porsche 935, Ferrari 512 BB, Lancia Beta Montecarlo
- Verdict It wasn’t the first M car, nor was it the most successful, but it was certainly the most influential
ONE FOR SALE
1980 BMW M1 E26
A stunning original example with just over 2300 miles on the clock. £647,000,
Fewer than 500 road and race E26 M1s were built, but its styling is still referenced by BMW today, most recently through the M Next concept