BMW’s M division marks 50 years of high performance, racing

bmws m division marks 50 years of high performance racing
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In the late 1960s, BMW AG couldn’t keep up with demand for racing versions of its successful 1800 TI and 2000 TI. In fact, many of the cars on tracks around the world were being built by outside tuning companies. So in May, 1972, the automaker formed BMW Motorsport GmbH, an in-house racing and performance division. Changing the name to simply M came in 1991. Among its strong supporters was Bob Lutz, at the time an executive vice president for sales at BMW.

Over the last 50 years the M division has built everything from an Andy Warhol-painted midengine supercar to race-winning production-based coupes to high-performance street cars customers could buy at BMW dealerships. In keeping with today’s market, these days BMW offers four crossovers wearing the M badge.

Here are some highlights of the division’s history.

BMW was dominating European Touring Car racing with the 3.0 CSL and the company wanted to join the FIA’s Group 4 class to compete against the enemy — Porsche. With Lamborghini’s help initially, BMW came up with the midengine M1 (photo above). Its 278 hp made it one of the fastest road cars available. Production started in 1978 and ended in 1981, with 453 cars built, just enough to meet Group 4 homologation rules.

The 3.0 CSL, built from 1972 to 1975, dominated the European Touring Car Series, winning six championships. The car was nicknamed the Batmobile because of its huge, flared fenders and rear wing.

There have been many excellent M5s over the years but the first one was special: It looked like your Aunt Margaret’s plain old 5 Series but accelerated like a Porsche 911. In many enthusiasts’ circles, that initial M5, built from 1986 to 1988, is still the best.

The first-generation M3 was built as a homologation special for BMW’s latest Touring Car racing efforts. The automaker built 5,000 road-going versions of the compact coupe from 1986 to 1991. The race car won multiple titles. As for the street car, the U.K’s Car magazine wrote, “The first M3 drives like the very best ’80s car you ever owned.”

The M1’s mighty straight six landed in the M635CSI Coupe, built from 1984 to 1989. It came to the U.S. in 1989 badged the M6, and sadly we didn’t get the M1 engine.

Many enthusiast publications have called the M2 BMW’s best driving car, at least of the modern era. The little rear-wheel-drive coupe, launched in 2016, had a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight six producing 365 hp, mated to a six-speed manual. Car magazine called it simply “brilliant.”


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