The company’s first mid-engined sports car

Although BMW had been racing its cars since the 1920s, it didn’t develop its first true-blue sports car until the late 1970s. A few years after the M division started making headlines with its beefed-up sedans and coupes, BMW signed an agreement with Italian manufacturer Lamborghini to build a mid-engine sports car in sufficient quantity for racing homologation. The collaboration didn’t go as planned, and BMW eventually decided to produce the car itself with input from its Motorsport division. The M1’s body was designed by Giugiaro, which explains its very Italian cues, while production was handled by Baur. The end result was sold to the public from 1978 to 1981, with only 453 examples built.

To this day, the M1 remains one of BMW’s rarest models. Likewise, it is also one of the company’s most successful race cars, with its track career surpassing that of the road car’s well into the 1980s. Unfortunately, the M1 is also BMW’s first sports car, which makes it that much more important to the Munich’s storied history as an automobile manufacturer.

The M1 Homage Concept launched in 2008 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the M1 spawned rumors that BMW might build a successor, but a modern-day M1 has yet to arrive as of 2014.

Updated 08/23/2016: RM Sotheby’s auctioned a very well preserved Ferrari Enzo during the 2016 Monterey Car Week. Check out the "Prices" section to see how how much it was auctioned and the "Pictures" tab for some images taken during the event.

Continue reading to learn more about the 1978-1981 BMW M1.

  • 1978 - 1981 BMW M1
  • Year:
    1978- 1981
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    inline-6
  • Transmission:
    5-speed manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    277 @ 6500
  • Torque @ RPM:
    243 @ 5000
  • Displacement:
    3.4 L
  • 0-60 time:
    6.5 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    164 mph
  • 0-100 time:
    13.3 sec.
  • Price:
    60000 (Est.)
  • Price:
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Exterior

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574592
1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574593
1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574597
Unlike most supercar manufacturers of the 1970s, BMW used massive taillights and an integrated bumper.

At the time of its unveiling, the M1 was unlike anything else BMW had built. Its mid-engine configuration was unique and Giugiaro’s wedge-design approach made it look less German and more Italian. It’s because of its styling that many people still believe the M1 is a Lamborghini underneath.

The front kidney grille is the only BMW trademark Giugiaro kept while drawing the M1. The flat nose, the low stance, the pop-up headlights and the soft body creases gave the M1 a look usually reserved for the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the era, which increased its appeal and popularity among enthusiasts.

The sports car’s design was equally enticing around back. Unlike most supercar manufacturers of the 1970s, BMW used massive taillights and an integrated bumper. Quite modern for a vehicle built in several different facilities. Another feature unique to the M1 are the two BMW emblems mounted on its rear fascia, as opposed to the single, center-mounted logo seen on other Bavarian vehicles.

Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase 2,600 MM (102.4 in)
Length 4,361 MM (171.7 in)
Width 1,824 MM (71.8 in)
Height 1,140 MM (44.9 in)
Curb weight 1,300 KG (2,866 lb)

Interior

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 Interior
- image 574591
Granted, there's nothing dramatic about the M1's interior, but such was the standard for late-1970s supercars.

The M1’s interior was typical to 1970s sports cars and somewhat luxurious for the era. The sporty seats came wrapped in cloth and leather, a layout that was shared with the door panels. A massive center console separated the seats and included a small storage compartment, the handbrake lever, the gear shifter, and various buttons and switches.

A simple dashboard provided all the essential data to the driver, while the center stack consisted of air conditioning switches and the standard radio with cassette player. Granted, there’s nothing dramatic about the M1’s interior, but such was the standard for late-1970s supercars. On top of that, both headroom and legroom were very restricted. All road-going examples came with a predominantly black interior and BMW didn’t offer any of the customization options available today.

Drivetrain

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574616
The M1 needed about 6.5 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standing start -- an impressive figure for the era -- while top speed stood at 164 mph.

The M1 hit the streets with a twin-cam, 3.5-liter, inline-six engine behind the seats. Dubbed M88/1, the unit was developed by the company’s M division and featured Kugelfischer-Bosch mechanical fuel injection, six separate throttle bodies and four valves per cylinder. The six-banger cranked out 273 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, and used a ZF, five-speed manual gearbox to send all the power to the rear wheels.

The M1 needed about 6.5 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standing start — an impressive figure for the era — while top speed stood at 164 mph. Granted, the M1 wasn’t the quickest sports car of the 1970s, but it is regarded as one of the most refined and civilized performance vehicles of the era. It was easy to drive and had exceptional handling, two feats Ferrari- and Lamborghini-badged vehicles didn’t offer.

Drivetrain Specifications

Configuration M88 in-line six
Location Mid, longitudinally mounted
Displacement 3.453 liter
Bore / Stroke 93.4 mm (3.7 in) / 84.0 mm (3.3 in)
Compression 9.0:1
Valvetrain 4 valves / cylinder, DOHC
Fuel feed Bosch / Kugelfischer Fuel Injection
Aspiration Naturally Aspirated
Power 273 HP @ 6,500 RPM
Torque 243 LB-FT @ 5,000 RPM
BHP/Liter 80 bhp / liter
Power to weight 0.21 bhp / kg
Top Speed 264.7 km/h (164.1 mph)
0-60 mph 6.5 seconds
0-100 mph 13.3 seconds

Prices

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574586

The M1 was the most expensive Bimmer at launch. Due to its rarity and appeal, the M1 is also the most expensive road-legal BMW today, with several examples auctioned for more than $150,000 the past decade. In 2014, an Inka Orange-painted model with just over 2,700 miles on its odometer and coming from a single-family ownership for over 20 years traded for $440,000, setting a new record. A new benchmark was achieved at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where pristine model changed hands for $577,500.

Competition

Ferrari 308 GTB

1975 - 1985 Ferrari 308 GTB
- image 321827

Although the 308 GTB wasn’t the most powerful and fastest Ferrari of the 1970s, it was the most important Maranello-built sports car available when the BMW M1 was launched. Designed to replace the Dino 246, the 308 GTB was penned by Pininfarina and shared the same mid-engine configuration with the M1. Similarities between the two stopped here, as the 308 had a 2.9-liter V-8 mounted under its hood.

The most powerful version of the 308 came with 255 horsepower on tap and performance figures similar to the M1’s. The 0-to-60 mph sprint took 6.4 seconds and top speed was reached at 159 mph. The U.S.-spec version, however, had its engine detuned to 240 ponies due to emission-control devices. Production of the 308 GTB lasted for 10 years, but power dropped to 214 horsepower in the early 1980s before increasing to around 240 horses in its final years.

Read more about the Ferrari 308 GTB here.

Conclusion

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574584

With so many benchmarks on its resume — the first M-branded car, the first BMW sports car and the first mid-engined Bimmer — it makes a lot of sense for the M1 to be the most desirable BMW ever built. Bring its Italian design, tremendous performance, and low production numbers and you have a genuine collectible on your hands. Sure, it doesn’t have the aura of a Ferrari and it doesn’t attract millions of dollars at auctions, but it represents one of BMW’s most tremendous effort in the industry. The direction of the M cars changed right after the M1 was launched, leaving the sports car the sole M-branded vehicle that’s not a performance version of a plebeian BMW.

  • Leave it
    • * It can get expensive in tip-top shape
    • * You can buy a classic Ferrari for the price

Update History

Updated 10/06/2015: Ferrari Of Long Island just listed a very cool, blue BMW M1. Apparently this particular M1 features only 24,472 total miles on the odometers and it is largely regarded as one of the most original and correct examples known to still exist. Still, do you think it worth paying $600k for it? Read our full review and let us know!

Press Release

The next project to come along was geared towards producing Motorsport GmbH’s first competition car not based on a regular production model: the BMW M1. While BMW built the technical components, 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 spaceframe was manufactured at Marchesi, the glass-fibre reinforced plastic bodyshell was produced at T.I.R., both companies were based in Modena. 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.

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574570

Jochen Neerpasch, the Managing Director of Motorsport GmbH, joined forces with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley to create the ProCar Series as the opening race leading into most European Formula 1 Grand Prix during the 1979/80 season.

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. The first car with the famous letter “M” made its debut in the market. The price of the 277 hp M1 back in 1978 was exactly DM 100,000, but demand exceeded supply by far. When 130 cars had been completed after one year, there were still more than 300 firm orders waiting to be fulfilled. Right from the start the M1 was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany, as timed by a leading car journal: In a test conducted in 1979, the M1 reached a top speed of 264.7 km/h or 164.1 mph. “You only have to shift up from fourth to fifth at 213 km/h or 132 mph, and then keep on accelerating all-out up to the top speed of the car,” according to the testers. Lots of customers appreciated this, as did the subsequent Formula 1 World Champion Alan Jones.

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
- image 574572

Even this was very little compared with the racing version: Developing 470 hp, the ProCar racing version had a top speed well over 300 km/h or 190 mph. And it was in one of these cars that Niki Lauda, already two-time winner of the Formula 1 World Championship, made his big appearance in 1979, winning three out of 8 M1 ProCar races and finishing second on another occasion. In the USA the Red Lobster Team Ml’s quickly became genuine cult cars wiping out the competition in the IMSA GTO Class.

Motivated by the outstanding success of the M1 and its great image, Motorsport GmbH decided to build another model: Proceeding from the regular 5 Series, the engineers developed and built the M535i in 1980, carrying over the two-valve six-cylinder from the 635CSi. With engine output of 218 hp, this 5 Series quickly became the king of the fast lane.

View the full press release Hide press release
Press release
What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: