Racing to Monterey in BMW’s Spectacular M1

We uncork Bavaria's 35-year-old vintage whine.

BMW M1
BMW

Show some people the BMW M1, and the first word out of their mouth is “DeLorean.” Which makes sense, considering that Italy’s Giorgetto Giugiaro designed both cars in the mid-Seventies. But where John DeLorean’s debacle was powered by a limp 130-hp V6, the BMW’s inline six, in racing trim, generates enough jolt to make Doc Brown soil his lab coat: Roughly 490 horsepower from just 3.5 liters of displacement. I’m excited myself, because even by jaded-journo standards, a chance to race a chiseled hunk of auto history counts as a special day.

BMW’s time-traveling supercar was forbidden fruit in America, back in the day. So I’m getting a first juicy taste of the M1 at its best on a rain-dampened Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. I’m going to need all the practice I can get in this wide-bodied brute, with our next red-letter date coming at August’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. My pre-race instructions from BMW are easy to translate: Don’t do anything stupid, since my M1 will be sharing the Monterey track with a rolling museum of seven-figure vintage racers. And like other manly vintage race cars, the M1 practically sneers: We don’t need no stinking traction control. No paddle shifters or ABS, the electronic doodads that support the modern performance cars I typically drive. Today and in Monterey, I’m on my own.

BMW

On this day, Mid-Ohio’s garages could also pass for museum pedestals. The M1 makes its full-time home in Bobby Rahal’s shop in nearby Columbus, where his crew maintains BMW’s stable of 28 historic racers, hopefully behind a sturdy lock. Sixteen of them will travel to Monterey, where BMW is this year’s featured marque. I walk the garages, and behind each door find another ridiculous prize: A 1970 Alpina 2002ti, an orange-and-black beauty that was stored for 24 years before a restoration, and has since been vintage raced by BMW driving champion Bill Auberlen, Danica Patrick and more. A 1975 3.0 CSL, the storied “Batmobile” that birthed BMW Motorsport GmbH, winning the 12 Hours of Sebring days after the division was formed. (Ludwig Willisch, BMW’s North American president and CEO, will drive the 3.0 CSL in Monterey). And of course the M1, its fiberglass body wrapped in classic BMW livery – those red, light- and dark-blue bands – like an early Christmas present.

As many Bimmerphiles know, the mid-engine M1 has its own rich and tortured history. BMW’s first M-badged road car came into being as a homologation special, with showroom models built only to qualify the M1 for racing. In other words, every last M car, your E36 M3 or E39 M5, owes its good genes to the M1. The M1 itself was received as royalty, an alluring wedge of Germanic muscle by way of Guigiaro’s Italdesign. Several car magazines proclaimed it the best-handling production car they’d ever tested. Writing in 1981, Car and Driver judged the M1 as "the absolute pinnacle of hyperfast street cars." (Evidently, this was before "supercar" was even part of the vocabulary).

BMW

BMW contracted Lamborghini to build 400 M1’s alongside the Countach in Italy. Big mistake. Lambo soon went bankrupt, forcing BMW to cancel the deal and start bailing. Italy’s Marchese would eventually build the steel tube-frame monocoque in Modena, where TIR molded the fiberglass bodies. Italdesign assembled the interior, and the whole kaboodle was shipped to Stuttgart, where BMW prototype builder Baur installed the race-proven CSL engine and other hardware.

As delays mounted, rule changes yanked the racing rug out from under the M1. So BMW created its own warm-up act: The Procar series pitted five top-qualifying Formula One drivers against a field of privateers, all driving M1’s, prior to the F1 main event. Niki Lauda won the series in 1979, Nelson Piquet in 1980, before BMW pulled the plug to focus on its own F1 campaign. The M1 largely bombed in other European racing, though the version that Andy Warhol hand-painted in 24 minutes in Munich – BMW’s first-ever “Art Car” – finished 6th overall at LeMans in ’79.

The M1 did dominate America’s IMSA GTO series for 1980, with nine of the Top Ten drivers piloting M1’s. About 430 M1’s were built between 1978 and 1981, including roughly 40 racing versions. Street models carried a modified version of the racer’s M88 engine but were detuned to 277 European horsepower. That’s Camry-esque by modern standards, but a lot for an era when a Porsche 911 Turbo made 253 horses – and enough to make the BMW Germany’s fastest production car, with a 164-mph top speed.

BMW

Closing the history books, it’s time to drive. Maybe. The morning track is so wet and greasy that a reconnaissance run in the primo new BMW M2 has us breaking loose around every other corner, even on street tires. And the M1 is equipped with rain-allergic slicks. BMW factory racer Bill Auberlen, my coach for the day, figures the track is too hazardous for anyone to chance this treasured beauty. Eyeing a dirty-laundry Ohio sky, I’m both bummed and anxious: This is my first and only chance to get seat time in the M1 before the Rolex Monterey race. And it’s not the kind of car you want to be learning when the starter waves his flag. Compared with the street version, this former IMSA GTO specimen strips away 500 pounds – leaving a still-portly 2,850 or so – and boosts horsepower to 490. That’s good for a roughly 3.5-second blast to 60 mph, an 11.6-second quarter mile and a top speed approaching 190 mph.

Somehow, luck and the M1 are on my side. The rain holds off, the track begins to dry, and I have my go-ahead to practice. Don’t have to ask me twice. Suited up, I squeeze into the racing harness, grab the cracked-and-worn three-spoke steering wheel, fire the start button and roll onto the track.

The course is still treacherous at this point, my heel-and-toe downshifts rusty, thanks to all the new supercars I test – including Ferraris and Lamborghinis – that have given up entirely on manual transmissions. It doesn’t help that the BMW has a dogleg first gear and a reversed H-pattern, with second and fourth gears up, third and fifth down.

BMW

But as the track steadily dries, along with my sweaty palms, I get the hang and the gist of the M1. The car is gloriously mechanical, the clutch and throttle as weighty as barbells, the steering lighter than expected. Even on mile-wide slicks below sinister body flares, the relatively primitive BMW will pull only about 1.1 g’s of lateral force in turns, on par with a modern supercar running street tires. Yet that’s more than enough grip to goose my confidence, and the BMW proves surprisingly forgiving and readable. Oh, and that engine: Entombed just aft of head and below fiberglass louvers, the dry-sump straight six transforms into a bloody Wolfman above 5,000 rpm. With its ultra-tall ratios, the five-speed ZF gearbox demands long climbs up the rev charts. Every corner exit is an aural treat, that old-school transgressive shriek that modern F1 cars (and fans) can only dream of. The powerhouse M88 motor is a naturally-aspirated sensei, knocking sense into my jaded skull.

This M1 will actually rev to a heaven-high 9,500 rpm, but I’m urged to keep it below 7,500. A spooky harmonic in the dual-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder engine – attributed to a lengthy crankshaft design – can still haunt this old engine, as it did 35 years ago. Sustained bouts of high-revving were known to trash the crankshaft or cams, leading to dispiriting M1 failures in all-day endurance tests such as Sebring and Daytona. Final note-to-self: Don’t detonate the M1 on the long straight at Laguna Seca, especially with BMW’s chief exec as my teammate.

Afternoon rain begins to spatter the windshield, but not before I log maybe 25 laps, saying thanks for each one. I can’t wait for my next rendezvous with the M1, where I’ll try to hang with more-powerful Porsche 935s and other cars in a tough vintage class. Here at Mid-Ohio, no one’s looking when I pat the M1’s weathered dashboard, and silently mouth the words: I think we’re ready. See you in Monterey.