Car Features

50 years of BMW M models


“A company is like a human being: as long as it goes in for sports, it is fit, well-trained, full of enthusiasm and performance,” so said Robert Lutz, BMW AG board member, back in 1972. Thus was christened the youngest subsidiary of BMW AG at the time, BMW Motorsport GmbH. 




Today, in 2022, this subsidiary company is called BMW M GmbH, but it is just as fit, well-trained, full of enthusiasm and performance as it was 50 years ago, the Bavarian-based car maker claims.

The early 1970s were the dawn of a new age for BMW, with a younger board of management; a new head office and the ‘M’  in-house sports division.

Already, the BMW 02 Series was a popular competition car range, winning one race after another. Also, BMW engines were dominant in Formula 2 racing. But the vast majority of these cars were prepared, run and sold by tuning companies. 

BMW Motorsport GmbH began on 1 May 1972, with 35 employees under MD,  Jochen Neerpasch, an ex-Porsche works driver. He immediately attracted a group of racing drivers, including Chris Amon, Toine Hezemans, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester. Björn Waldegaard and Achim Warmbold were hired by the Company as rally drivers.

The new company’s racing workshop, racing engine production shop, toolmaking and engine dynamometer were installed in the immediate vicinity of BMW’s Munich Plant and this is where the sports machines for 1973 saw the light of day: a 950kg 2002, powered by a two-litre, four-valve, four-cylinder, with maximum output of 240 bhp; and a new touring coupé – the 3.0 CSL. 



The CSL doors and lids were made of aluminium and the five-speed gearbox had a magnesium housing, for an overall weight of 1092kg. Under the flyweight bonnet sat a 3340cc straight-six with 12 valves, fuel injection, a compression ratio of 11:1 and maximum output of 360bhp. This was the last two-valve engine that BMW built for racing.

The three blue, violet and red colour stripes on a brilliant white background on these cars still characterise the look of BMW Motorsport to this day.

The CSL coupés were unbeatable. Hans-Joachim Stuck and Chris Amon won the Touring Car Grand Prix at the Nürburgring at their first attempt and BMW was the overall winner of the Touring Car Category in the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans.

The 3.0 CSL won the European Championship six times between 1973 and 1979 and dominated the international touring car scene for almost a decade. From 1974 it acquired BMW’s first-ever four-valve six-cylinder and prototype anti-lock braking. 

At the end of its career, as a turbo coupé, the 3.0 CSL developed maximum output of up to 800bhp. 

In the second half of the 1970s, BMW Motorsport GmbH focused almost exclusively on the construction of racing cars, but many customers wanted M Power in their road cars. Hence came the first ‘hot’ 5 Series cars from 1974: the 530, 533i, 535i. These cars also had superior suspension and brake technology.

Initially these were built and sold only in very small numbers, but soon the performance philosophy became increasingly popular. By 1980, 895 units based on the first 5 Series had been purchased.


BMW M1 – Mr Choppers


The next project was the BMW M1 that wasn’t based on a production car. BMW built the technical components and Lamborghini was supposed to supply the body and the chassis. However, financial problems at Lamborghini resulted in significant delays. 

Ultimately, a new production chain had to be found and the manufacture of the BMW M1 turned into something of a patchwork puzzle. The space frame was manufactured at Marchesi and the glass-fibr- reinforced plastic body shell was produced at TIR. Giorgio Giugiaro’s company, ItalDesign, assembled them and provided the interiors fittings. The cars were then transported to Stuttgart where Baur installed all the mechanical assemblies.

Since the minimum production requirement for homologation in FIA Group 4 was 400 units, the ultra-low, mid-engined M1, measuring a mere 1.14 metres in height also came as a road-going model, so the first car with the famous letter ‘M’ made its debut. 

The price of the 277 hp M1 back in 1978 was exactly DM100,000, but demand exceeded supply by far. When 130 cars had been completed after one year, there were still more than 300 orders waiting to be fulfilled. 

In a test conducted in 1979, the M1 reached a top speed of 264.7km/h and many customers appreciated this, as did the subsequent Formula 1 world champion Alan Jones.

Developing 470bhp, the ProCar racing version had a top speed well over 300km/h and it was in one of these cars that Niki Lauda, already two-time winner of the Formula 1 world championship, won three out of eight M1 ProCar races in 1979 and finished second on another occasion. 

Motivated by the outstanding success of the M1, Motorsport GmbH built the M535i in 1980, based on the 5 Series, powered by the two-valve six-cylinder from the 635CSi, with 218bhp on tap.



In parallel, Motorsport GmbH was given the green light to develop BMW’s first Formula 1 power unit. Taking a four-cylinder, 1.5-litre, standard production block, the team of specialists around engineer, Paul Rosche, created a Formula 1 power unit developing staggering output of 800bhp. The secret was the combination of 16-valve technology and a turbocharger from Digital Motor Electronics.

Just 630 days after BMW’s Formula 1 engine had made its first appearance in 1982, Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet won the World Championship in a Brabham-BMW. 

In 1984, the high-revving, four-valve, straight-six originally featured in the M1 made its appearance in the M635CSi Coupé and in the M5. The M5 was a genuine ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, with output of 286bhp almost trebling the power of the 518i.

After winding up its in Formula 1 activities, Motorsport GmbH focused its energy on touring car racing. In 1986 came the BMW M3 compact, two-door, sports saloon. The M3 road version needed a production run of 5000 units within one year for recognition as a touring car to race in Group A, dictating a move to larger production facilities.

Developing maximum output of 195bhp from its four-cylinder, 16-valve power unit the high-performance saloon became the benchmark in motor sport. In 1987, Italian driver Roberto Ravaglia won the World Touring Car Championship at the wheel of a BMW M3.



The M3 was the uncontested leader in the international touring car scene, bringing home two European Touring Car Championships, winning the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) twice as well as a large number of international events and championships.

Sales of the first BMW M3 amounted to 17,970 units, including 600 2.5-litre M3 Sportevolution models and 765 hand-built M3 convertibles. 

The M5 entered its second generation in 1988, with the straight-six power unit originally displacing 3.6- and subsequently 3.8-litres, with output increasing first to 315bhp and then to 340bhp. The letters ‘BMW’ were replaced by ‘M Power’ on the valve cover, as on the M3 four-cylinder. 

The 1992 M3 was no longer adorned with a spoiler and widely flared wheel arches, but the new M3 came with a more discreet look, but had the unmistakable sound of the three-litre, six-cylinder, four-valve power unit that developed 286bhp. This M3 six-cylinder was BMW’s first engine with VANOS variable valve timing. 

Customers and the media loved this M3 right from the start, particularly as a convertible and a comfort-oriented saloon had been included in the planning process. Developing a maximum output of 295bhp, the M3 GT was produced in a small, special series. 



Between 1992 and 1996 Motorsport GmbH built more than 85 four-door racing 3 Series based on this M3, with Johnny Cecotto winning the ADAC GT Championship in 1993. The 400bhp PTG M3 won the IMSA title in 1996.

BMW Individual was established by Motorsport GmbH in 1992, fulfilling the most individual customer wishes and preferences. Demand for unusual paintwork or interior equipment was high, as well as for individual features and professional communication electronics. 

The company name was simplified and since 1 August 1993, the former Motorsport GmbH has been BMW M GmbH.

In 1995, the best-selling BMW M3 received extra power – 321bhp from 3.2 litres –  thanks to double VANOS variable timing. Another feature was the introduction of a six-speed manual gearbox and BMW M GmbH also  introduced the Sequential M Gearbox (SMG) to the M3. Based on the conventional M3 gearbox, SMG activated the clutch electro-hydraulically, so the driver could shift gears instantaneously simply by pulling or pushing the gear lever up and down one level. 

Also in 1995, another M Power engine  – the six-litre, 12-cylinder based on the 750i engine  – powered a closed-top McLaren sports car to a class victory in the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans. Four-valve technology, a titanium crankshaft and an aluminium clutch helped to give the V12 maximum output of more than 600bhp. In 1999, the BMW V12 scored an overall victory in Le Mans.

In 1997 came the M roadster that combined the Z3 model with the 321bhp power unit of the M3. The M coupé followed shortly after.



In 1998 came the third generation BMW M5, powered by a 400bhp/500Nm V8, driving through a six-speed manual gearbox.

Making its debut in 2000, the M3 featured compound brakes, with floating brake discs that gave longer service life. It had 343bhp and 365Nm that provided acceleration from 0-100 km/h in 5.2 seconds. 

One year later, the M3 GTR boasted a four-litre, eight-cylinder under the bonnet for the first time. The racing car with the characteristic air scoops in the bonnet and rear aerofoil proved superior on the race tracks of the USA and won the Championship in the GT Class – an appropriate prize to celebrate the 30th birthday of M GmbH in 2002.



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