the history of bmw's m division

dial m for motorsport

Responsible for some of the most iconic sports cars in recent history, BMW's M division established a template that other manufacturers have tried in vain to imitate. Andy Enright reports.

BMW calls it the world's most powerful letter. To most of us, the M designation designates a fearsomely rapid BMW model born from the origins of racing success. Purists will always prefer those M cars that have cut their teeth in the crucible of competition but it hasn't always been so, despite some believing that the M badge has recently encountered a little mission creep from its motorsport roots. It has allowed a wider participation in the worldwide M fraternity and with intently driver-focused models constantly appearing, there's now an M car to suit virtually all tastes.

Unbeknown to many, the first BMW M car didn't even wear the hallowed badge. BMW M GmbH was established in May 1972 as a division of BMW AG, incorporated to formalise what was previously a loose collaboration of employees who overlooked BMW's racing programme during the late 1960s. With just eight staff on board, BMW M GmbH set to work developing the BMW 3.0 CSL road car which sold 1265 units between 1972 and 1975 as well as the massively successful 'Batmobile' racing car which mopped up seven European Touring Car titles.

The next step for the M division was ambitious and not without its challenges. Developed in conjunction with the cash-strapped Lamborghini and styled by Giorgio Giugiaro, the mid-engined M1 was delayed by Lamborghini's inability to complete the project. This hiatus coincided with rule changes by FISA, the world motorsport governing body and effectively meant that BMW would need to build 400 road cars before it could start racing the M1. It was at this point that Jochen Neerpasch, the head of BMW's M division hit on an idea. Instead of campaigning in sportscar racing, he developed the Procar series. This was a one-make series that pitted pitted professional drivers from the Formula 1 World Championship, World Sportscar Championship, European Touring Car Championship and other international series against one another using identically modified M1 racing cars. Supporting the F1 calendar, Procar was a big success and ran for the 1979 and 1980 seasons, during which time BMW built 456 customer cars.

The M1 was a rare and specialist thing and for many, the first 'true' M road car was the 218bhp BMW M535i, launched in 1979. With better brakes, Recaro sports seats and grippier tyres, this was a 1410-car toe in the water for BMW's M division. Better things were to come in 1983 with the M635CSi and in 1984 with the M5, power-packed versions of the 6 Series coupe and 5 Series saloon respectively, powered by a version of the M1's straight-six 3.5-litre M88 engine good for 286bhp. Rapturously received, these vehicles paved the way for the first M3.

Launched in 1986, the E30 generation M3 is the archetypal M car. Light, beautifully poised and with an engine that loves to rev, designed by Paul Rosche, the man responsible for the powerplant in Nelson Piquet's 1983 F1 World Championship winning BMW Brabham (and later the engine in the McLaren F1 road car), it was an instant success. BMW quickly sold the 5,000 units it needed to homologate the car for racing and started clearing up on track, winning the European Touring Car Championship several times, victorious in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) twice, and scoring a number of victories and championships on an international level, the BMW M3 laid claim to being the most successful touring car of all times. The original 195bhp M3 road car developed over the course of its life until it was retired in 1991 in 238bhp Sports Evolution guise, having shifted 17,970 cars, 786 of them convertible models.

Its replacement was the massively successful E36 M3. Bigger, more powerful but less immediately intense than the E30, the 286bhp E36 received a sniffy initial reception, many commentators feeling that this car was more of a CS model than an M car. It seems the public didn't agree, and between the original and the later 321bhp Evo model which encompassed saloon, coupe and convertible models, the E36 M3 sold 71,242 units until production ceased in 1999.

In the meantime BMW had been busy with the M5. The second generation (E34) M5 arrived in 1989, powered by an evolution of the 24-valve straight six found in the E28 M5, with 315bhp at its elbow. That engine only lasted a couple of years before being replaced by the 340bhp 3.8-litre unit with the M5 Touring, BMW's first estate car, arriving in European markets in 1992. Adored by all who drove it, the E34 M5 still feels fantastic today, offering impressive body control and the ability to notch off the 0-60 sprint in just 5.7 seconds. The last E34 M5 rolled off the line at Dingolfing in 1995, the M Division planning to replace it permanently with the M3 saloon.

This was perhaps the least successful era in the history of BMW M. Its work on the Z3 Roadster and Coupe models resulted in cars that were quick but ill-sorted, neither of them garnishing the marque's legacy to any great extent. A rethink was in order and a famous name was revived. In 1998, BMW launched the jaw-dropping 400bhp E39 M5, its V8 engine revving to 7,000rpm. Many enthusiasts still consider this the definitive M5. The M division was in a purple patch at this time, the E39 M5 being followed by the E46 M3, a car that returned the raw, racer feel to the M3 line. With its 343bhp straight six that sounded like a runaway threshing machine, the E46 M3 was instantly popular, the lightweight CSL model reviving a famous badge and still much in demand by track day enthusiasts. 2006 saw the launch of the Z4 M Coupe and Roadster models, which while less hairy-chested than their predecessors offered better-resolved handling and improved quality.

The E39 M5 morphed into the E60 M5, a V10 behemoth that cranked out 507bhp, along with its sister car, the carbon-fibre topped M6. Frighteningly complex and notably costly to run, these cars made formidable grand tourers but were perhaps a little too far removed from the original M philosophy to be treasured by M cognoscenti. A more convincing bid was made by the E92 generation M3 coupe, launched in 2008. With a 414bhp V8, it's a more mature M3 than those that have gone before it and lifted the M3 onto a performance plane equivalent with Porsche's evergreen 911 Carrera. Its zenith thus far has been the lightweight 450bhp M3 GTS; a terrifyingly expensive but achingly desirable racer for the road. M-badged versions of the X5 and X6 SUV models did little to boost the M division's badge equity but added welcome US market revenues to the company's coffers.

The car that is perhaps the truest M car since the E46 M3 is the baby of the BMW range. The 1 Series M Coupe deliberately avoids wearing that iconic M1 badge but with its 340bhp twin-turbocharged straight-six, active rear differential and pugnacious, pumped-up body, it demonstrates that the M division clearly understands its core customers. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the incorporation of BMW M. I'm hoping they celebrate with a special birthday present to themselves. A reincarnation of the M1 may, however, be just a little too much to hope for.