In the early 1970s, BMW was at a crossroads. The company had produced a successful small sports car, the BMW 2002, building a premium brand identity in America. At the time, automotive marketing and sales leader Bob Lutz served on BMW’s board of directors. He made the case for putting motorsports front and center, saying, “A company is like a human being. As long as it goes in for sports, it is fit, well-trained, full of enthusiasm and performance.”
Under Lutz’s guidance, the BMW Group established a subsidiary called “BMW Motorsport GmbH.” Today the company is called “BMW M GmbH,” and it still oversees BMW’s participation in sports car racing worldwide, serving as BMW’s in-house performance tuning works.
This history covers BMW M’s evolution from a racing shop to the producer of some of the world’s most prized street performance vehicles.
Winning From the Beginning
BMW Motorsport GmbH began operations on May 1, 1972. Managing Director Jochen Neerpasch led just 35 employees. Neerpasch was formerly a factory driver for Porsche and worked for Ford’s racing team. Neerpasch’s contacts in the racing world pulled together a dream team for BMW that included notables like Hans-Joachim Stuck, Chris Amon, and many others for rally and racing competitions.
By early 1973, the M operation had constructed a BMW 2002 pumped up to 240 horsepower for rally racing and a new touring car racing coupe. “Since we saw 1973 as our kick-off year, we didn’t expect to win this European Championship right away,” Neerpasch said. The new coupe they produced was the groundbreaking 3.0 CSL. The doors, hood, and trunk lid were made of aluminum, and the 5-speed gearbox featured a magnesium housing. The whole car weighed just 2,408 pounds. Engine power came from BMW’s 3,340cc inline 6-cylinder engine, rated at 360 hp.
The CSL coupe proved unbeatable. Hans-Joachim Stuck and Chris Amon won the Touring Car Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in their very first attempt. With this car, BMW also scored the overall win in the Touring Car Category in the 24 Hour Race at Le Mans. The 3.0 CSL quickly became the most successful touring car of its era, winning the European Championship six times between 1973 and 1979 and dominating the international touring car scene for almost a decade.
Racing Technology for the Street
More than winning on the track, the 3.0 CSL was also a test bed for technology that eventually made its way into BMW’s production cars. For example, before the end of 1973, the 3.0 CSL carried BMW’s first 4-valve 6-cylinder engine. Anti-lock braking was developed for this car starting in 1974.
BMW Motorsport focused almost exclusively on professional racing for the first several years. The company’s success on track soon led to interest in production performance cars, and by the mid-1970s BMW’s M engineers started consulting on the company’s performance sedans such as the Motorsport 530, 533i, and 535i. The engines, suspensions, and braking systems of these Motorsport-designated sedans were all developed by the BMW M division.
The BMW M1
1978 saw the first BMW sports car developed entirely by BMW Motorsport GmbH. The M1 broke every barrier and preconception about BMW. From its Ferrari-like exotic looks to its mid-engine exotic performance, the M1 was a manifesto of power and purpose.
With the M1, BMW built the technical components, but the body and rolling chassis were initially contracted to Lamborghini. But the Italian company had trouble meeting its commitments, so BMW brought the project back to the M division. Both the internal space frame and the fiberglass body were still produced in Italy and assembled by ItalDesign, then transported to Stuttgart, where BMW installed the mechanical components.
When it hit the market, the M1 was the fastest road-going sports car built in Germany. It had 273 hp and a top speed of 162 mph. On the race track, a 470-hp version of the M1 in the hands of two-time F1 champion Niki Lauda took three out of eight racing wins in Europe. In America, the same cars dominated IMSA’s GTO category.
The M1 paved the way for every other BMW M model ever made. By 1980, the company made the first M sedan, the M535i, with 215 hp. By 1983, BMW Motorsport had received a new charter from BMW Group to become the company’s official performance wing.
The First M5 and M3
In 1984, BMW Motorsport first put the M1’s 4-valve inline 6-cylinder engine into the M635CSi, M5, and M6, rated at 282 hp. From 1986-1988, American buyers got 255 hp in the M6 coupe and M5 sedan, then 311 hp in the M5 through 1993.
The M5 paved the way for the 1986 E30 M3, which became the most successful touring car in history and a rapidly rising collectible classic today. The E30 M3 made 195 hp from a 4-cylinder 16-valve engine in street trim. The M3 was BMW’s first experiment in parallel development between the main factory and the M division. Homologation for FIA touring car racing required 5,000 units to be sold within one year, making the M3 accessible to many more buyers. By the end of production, the E30 M3 sold more than 17,970 units, including 600 6-cylinder 2.5-liter M3 Sport Evolution models and 765 hand-built M3 convertibles.
The Controversial M Coupe
One of the most instantly recognizable BMW M machines is the M Coupe, launched in 1997. The car was based on the Z3 two-seat convertible sports car but carried an odd boxy hatchback passenger compartment. The car was initially mocked for its “clown shoe” looks, but criticism dissolved when the car’s performance was realized. Today, M Coupe owners call their cars “shoes” with pride and affection.
The M Coupe was accompanied by a roadster using the same body as the base Z3, but the coupe became an icon for BMW. The first M Coupe examples carried the E36 M3 engine at 240 horsepower, later increased to 315 hp for the 2001 and 2002 model years. BMW continued the tradition with the less controversial Italian styling of the Z4 coupe.
BMW M Today
Since 2002, BMW M now produces a high-performance version of most BMW models, including SUVs. The core M offerings use single-digit model identifiers such as M3, M4, and M5, but there are also performance-enhanced versions such as the M240i and M760i in passenger cars, and the X6M in SUVs.
BMW’s M products compete in motorsports, with cars like the M4 GT4 competing in both American and European touring car racing. BMW also offers driving schools for amateur enthusiasts in the M4 GT4.
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of BMW M, and the company is marking the occasion with several new models, including a special edition of the BMW M4 Coupe, and they’re teasing the next generation of the compact M2. The BMW M brand has also stated that they will launch the first electrified high-performance M model in the history of BMW. BMW will also hold a special event this summer at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California.
With a half-century of racing success and instantly classic sports cars in the rear-view mirror, BMW’s M performance sub-brand is a touchstone for performance and style. If its history is any indication, even greater success lies ahead. Find a BMW for sale