BMW and the Evolution of ///M
With the all-new BMW M3 and M4 coupe, we thought it was a good time to take a look back at the origins of the Ultimate Driving Machine’s performance division, and how we ended up with hot-rod-SUVs like the X5 M. Some have criticized the move from a naturally aspirated V8 to a turbocharged inline-6 in the new M3 and M4, but as you’ll learn here, everything BMW M starts and ends with the straight-six.
The division that we know today as BMW M was formed in 1972 to take on racing projects. Their first creation was the 3.0CSL “Batmobile” (one of this writer’s favorite cars of all time). As the name suggests, that car was powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6, though technically the engine was bored out to as much as 3.5-liters in later models, making as much as 430 horsepower.
But the first car to wear the M badge was the fantastical M1. It used the venerable M88/1 engine, which displaced 3.5 liters and produced 272 horsepower at the start. With turbocharging for Group 5 Racing, this engine could make as much as 900 horsepower.
The 1978 M1 debuted at the Paris Motor Show, and was essentially a homologation special (meaning that a certain amount of road cars need to be built before it can compete in certain racing classes). Lamborghini was originally supposed to build the M1, but when the Italian supercar maker was on shaky financial ground, BMW brought assembly back in-house.
Even after the production issues, world sportscar racing rules changed, making the M1 obsolete from an international motorsport standpoint, and in 1979 BMW Motorsport assembled its own racing series called the BMW M1 Procar Championship. It ran for two seasons.
The M1 was basically a race car for the road, but the division decided its potent race engine would be far more marketable in its road cars. Enter the 1980 BMW M535i. BMW M took the E12 generation of the 5 Series and fitted it with a version of the amazing M88/1 engine for European markets. (Note: We will be jumping between Euro-spec and U.S.-spec cars, which have different outputs and different debut years. Please bear with us.)