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Gallery: M celebrates its 40th birthday

  1. Forty years ago, ex-Porsche works driver and Ford’s former Racing Manager Jochen Neerpasch - and 35 other wise men - joined forces with one intention: to make BMWs go fast and win races. Like Teutonic Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, they combined power and knowledge to become a singular unstoppable force in racing that would lead to some of the most exciting and accessible road cars… in the world.

    We’ll forgive you if you don’t recognize the individual names. Neerpasch and his team were the founders of BMW Motorsport GmbH, or what we now know by a single, glorious letter: ‘M’.

    Words and Photos: Rowan Horncastle

  2. Since 1972, BMW’s M Division has filled trophy cabinets with race wins and made some of the coolest, most iconic road cars ever to grace tarmac. And to celebrate its 40th birthday, BMW invited TopGear.com to a special bash. The location echoed the cars: German, fast and scary. The Nürburgring Nordschliefe.

    Yes, just a week after an extremely hairy and snowy adventure in James’ least favourite holiday destination, we were back to drool over, drive and be shaken senseless in every M car ever produced.

  3. The first car to greet us in the old pit lane was the genesis for M - the 3.0CSL.

    Before Neerpasch and his gang could make 800hp race cars, they needed to jump through some legislative hoops.

    To get BMW on the grid, the company needed to make a homologation special E9 that superseded the CS, or Coupe Sport. This 3.0CSL was the result.

    If you’re not fluent in BMW, you’d assume the letter ‘L’ would mean ‘long’ - because most other manufacturers use ‘L’ to define a longer limo wheelbase. But this time the ‘L’ designation meant “leicht”, or light. And as Lotus founder Colin Chapman would tell you, lightness is the best way to make things fast. And the CSL’s diet was comprehensive. The steel used for the panels was thinner gauge, and the doors, bonnet and boot lid were all formed from aluminium. The window glass was swapped for racing-style Perspex, and most of the trim and soundproofing was simply chucked in the bin.

  4. But people don’t remember the 3.0CSL for its lack of weight. They remember the way it looked.

    The final 3.0CSLs to be homologated had a - now infamous - aero package. Thanks to a huge air dam, blades running down the front wings, and not one, but two, rear spoilers, it became known - unofficially - as BMW’s ‘Batmobile’.

    The 3.0CSL was M’s first project, and they tinkered the race cars into absolute dominance. No mean feat for relative newbies. It was the most successful touring car of its era, winning the European Championship six times between 1973 and 1979, and sat astride the international touring car scene for almost a decade. Which made Jochen Neerpasch’s splinter cell of speed a new force to be reckoned with…

  5. *Top Gear Fact* If you were lucky enough to buy a Batmobile in 1973, you’d have to employ your own Lucius Fox to fit the wing package for you. They were illegal for use on German roads and left in the boot when you bought the car.

  6. But there may be one car that can trump the 3.0CSL ‘Batmobile’ for design. The M division’s first all-out road car and BMW’s only ever supercar - the M1.

    By all accounts, the birth of the M1 was so complex, painful and expensive it had the makings of a great Jeremy Kyle episode. We’ve covered the subject before in one of our history lessons, but when TopGear.com came into contact with the example above, I wasn’t too concerned about its troubled birth. BMW had given me the keys to the bright red wedge of irreplaceable 70s supercar, and one foggy, wet and cold Nordschleife to test it on. No pressure.

  7. The first thing you notice about the M1 is the low seating position. After limboing down to its 45-inch height, you sit legs straight, bum low and back upright. The second thing you notice is that the pedals have moved. They’re massively off-centre, so you need feet from the 70s (we’re assuming that evolution has grown feet in the meantime). The clutch is in the middle of the steering column and the other pedals go east from there.

    First time up, my foot gets stuck on a ledge next to the clutch when depressing it. Slightly disconcerting, but with a quick wiggle it’s free, and then I face my second problem. My less brawny 21st century arms aren’t quite prepared for the heavy steering. But with a fictitious can of spinach consumed, and an emergency pair of gentlemen’s veg spurred into action, the M1 and its ageing Pirelli P7s are out on track.

  8. Now, when the M1 was released it was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany, a title that comes with the assumption of imminent death with every ounce of pressure applied to the firm accelerator. But actually it’s very easy to drive. Neerpasch always said it would be, “a normal car, but normal at a higher speed than other cars.” and even to this day, it is.

    Once you’re rolling, the steering is precise, there’s great feedback from the brake pedal and with small A-pillars, it feels dainty against modern exotica. But being mid-engined, not weighing much and with less-than-modern aerodynamics, the front end becomes increasingly light at speed; something that made all internal valves tighten and pores dampen when going down the Green Hell’s Döttinger Höhe straight. It’s good, but it definitely isn’t cutting edge these days.

    Like the 3.0 CSL, the M1 was a homologation special and its 3.5 litre straight six was de-tuned for street use. By today’s standards, 266 horsepower sounds feeble: a humble-ish Vauxhall Astra VXR produces more. With 60 mph seen off in 5.4 seconds, and 100 mph in the next 8 seconds, ‘spritely’ is a better description. Back in the day, though, it was genuinely rapid. And there’s another situation in which modern, invariably turbo-boosted fast stuff can’t touch a car like the M1.

  9. Modern cars can’t compete with that noise. At lower revs there’s gruff intake burble, but as the revs wind out it amplifies into something spectacular. As much as BMW are trying with their synthesizers, it just can’t be replicated in our new era of forced induction.

    Still, with only 430 hand-built M1s made, not everyone could sample the pinnacle of M’s road car portfolio. And even though that free-revving, four-valve straight-six eventually made it to the M635CSi Coupé and the M5, there’s one car that brought accessibility to the M division like no other - the E30 M3.

    Which is the next car on our little list…

  10. BMW sold 17,970 units of the first ever M3. They only needed to sell 5,000 to get a golden ticket into Group A racing, so it’s clear how popular the first properly fast 3-series was with the buying public. And none were more sought-after than this limited-edition 2.5-litre M3 Sport Evolution.

    Only 600 of the hottest E30 were ever made. Even the standard M3 only shared the bonnet, roof panel, and sunroof with a normal three, but the Sport Evolution went even further, after a change in rules in German touring cars in 1990 allowed for 2.5 litre engines.

    So the Sport Evo got a bigger engine, bigger bumpers, adjustable front and rear splitters, brake cooling ducts instead of front fog lights and DTM-sized 18-inch wheels. If there’s a car to pop your E30 M3 cherry, this is it.

  11. Like the M1, the Sparco seating position is upright and race-inspired, re-inforced by a nicely-patina’d suede steering wheel. The controls are hearteningly weighty, and once you remember that first gear is where second should be, thanks to the dogleg ‘box nicked from the racing car, it’s straightforward to get going quickly.

    Weighing 1,200kg and with 238bhp at a magnificent 7,000rpm, you’ll see 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds and a top speed of 154mph. But this car isn’t about out and out pace. The feedback you get feels so implausibly natural, returning to a modern car feels like you’ve just undergone heavy sedation. The Sport Evo’s stiff chassis setup means you vibrate and jiggle around the ‘Ring’s broken surfaced Karussell corner until loose change falls out of your pocket and into the footwell. But that doesn’t matter. It just feels right.

    But no matter how right it felt, we weren’t that quick. Mainly because this is someone else’s very precious, very low mileage car. But also because no matter how many times you’ve taken the Foxhole flat while playing Forza in your pants, that elevation change and compression at the bottom requires man parts we simply don’t possess.

    Luckily, there were men in the vicinity who did, so we went to talk to them.

  12. Harald Grohs is a pensioner. But he doesn’t smell of urine-roasted peanuts and drive a CityRover. Instead, he drives a BMW M1 ProCar and smells of burning rubber. We like Harald. And we like his car.

    After it’s convoluted development, the BMW M1 actually missed its opportunity to race entirely - which was what it was designed for in the first place. But in an effort to salvage the M1 racing project, Jochen Neerpasch came up with a plan - ProCar.

    ProCar pitched the stars of Formula 1 against up-and-coming drivers in identically prepared M1s. These events supported regular Formula 1 races and the top-five qualifiers of the F1 race would be entered into this one-make race.

  13. Unfortunately, because BMW wanted to focus on Formula One, it only lasted two years. The first champion was Niki Lauda, the second was Nelson Piquet, and today Harald is driving Piquet’s car. I’ve been installed next to him and - because of my height - I’ve become part of the multi-tubular spaceframe chassis. To fit, the side of my cranium has to be fused to the top of the roll cage and my coccyx has welded to the bottom of the seat. Even if I wanted to complain, I can’t because the cabin is so ridiculously loud. It’s completely stripped and the re-worked six-cylinder M88/1 engine reverberates with astonishing volume so precludes any conversation. But Harald, like our own tame racing driver, doesn’t seem that bothered.

    The race car, obviously, is a completely different beast to the road-going version. The transmission, while still within the ZF casing, has multiple gear ratios and its own oil cooler. The suspension is uprated and has adjustable anti-roll bars, there are lighter brakes and all servos and power assistance have disappeared for the sake of weight.

    These were race cars driven by real men. Give Harald a quick search in the Google picture machine and you’ll see that he’s a man that doesn’t go by half measures on the track.

  14. This is made immediately clear when he ignores the pit lane speed limit to take the M1 out of a chuntering unhappy mood into an oh!-Jesus-Christ-this-is-what-I’ve-read-about force of acceleration down to turn one. Then it’s on the brakes - which are miles better than the road car - and turn in. Harald has to wrestle the heavy wheel, but as he exits the corner he mashes the throttle and applies the same amount of lock he used to turn in to the corner the other way to correct the slide that he’s just provoked.

    My initial feeling was that this must be a mistake. Racing drivers normally hate a bit of the sideways stuff. But not Harald. As the lap continues he gets more outrageous and on the second lap he turns corners four and five of the GP circuit into one by just drifting from one to the other.

    Through turn 13 (the fastest corner) we’re flat and at the top end of fifth. I’d would like to tell you how fast that was, but the speedo wasn’t working. It was quick. Then it was a massive stamp on the brakes, and the best double-D clutching pedal performance I’d seen this side of a Walter Rohrl YouTube video. He may be 68, but Harald can move his feet quicker than Michael Flatley on hot coals.

    He enters the pit sideways, and says nothing. We like Harald.

  15. What followed was a classic case of out of the M frying pan and into the fire. Fresh from being extracted from the M1, I was bolted into a Group A BMW M3 - the most successful touring car in the history of BMW.

    As a special treat, this time there is space for my head. Excellent. Like the M1, it’s completely stripped, but the standard M3 leather and stitched cloth door cards remain, which in a new world of carbon-kevlar makes for pleasant sensory confusion. Next to us is Marc Hessel, reunited with the car he used to race in the 80s.

  16. As soon as we leave the pits we’re overtaken by Harald in the M1 ProCar. Now, this wouldn’t usually be a problem, because we’re not even in a race. But racing drivers don’t like to be overtaken - especially Marc. Even though we’re underpowered, with a 300 hp, 2.3-litre four-cylinder, this doesn’t stop the two veterans rolling back the years for a tussle.

    With a screaming 8,200 rpm redline cheering us on, Marc resorts to vintage DTM tactics: using the kerbs as launchpads to catapult the E30 over, not through chicanes. To my surprise, the extremely rigid E30 gives the M1 a good run for its money - largely because Harald still has a love for looking out of the side window. But where the M1 seems like you’re constantly wrestling with the power, the naturally M3 is a lot more nimble on its feet, staying perfectly flat in the corners. It’s a visceral, violent lesson in the physics of a racing car.

  17. A few laps later I’m back in the pits and left wondering what M should do next.

    Forty years old is dangerous mid-life crisis territory. But even in 2012 there’s no sign of M getting tattoos and buying motorcycles. They’re staying young by sticking to what they do best: winning. After a 20-year absence from DTM, BMW and Bruno Spengler returned this year and won the championship with the slightly stoned-looking matte black M3. Now that’s what we call a birthday present.

    Happy Birthday M.

    Now look through the rest of the gallery and tell us your favourite M car, dotcommers…

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