The DNA of the M1 – BMW Motorsport GmbH

The story of the M1 begins in early January 1972 with a telephone call from Bob Lutz, then BMW sales director, to Jochen Neerpasch, who had been a successful racing manager at Ford in Cologne since 1969.

The DNA of the M1 – BMW Motorsport GmbH

The story of the M1 begins in early January 1972 with a telephone call from Bob Lutz, then BMW sales director, to Jochen Neerpasch, who had been a successful racing manager at Ford in Cologne since 1969.

Bob Lutz had been an advocate of motorsport from the very beginning and was firmly convinced that an automobile manufacturer with an active and successful participation in motorsport would have marketing and economic advantages over its competitors.

BMW and Jochen Neerpasch quickly came to an agreement and on May 1, 1972, he took the reins of the newly founded BMW Motorsport GmbH, this in the same year of the Olympic Games in Munich and the external completion of the BMW four-cylinder high-rise (inauguration on May 18, 1973).

A look into the future – BMW Turbo Gullwing from 1972

In parallel with the decision to actively involve BMW in racing, the BMW Board of Management also decided in the spring of 1972 to build a BMW mid-engine coupé, the legendary Turbo Gullwing. This was an extremely bold and futuristic project, which was significantly influenced by the Board member responsible for development, Bernhard Osswald, and the new designer, Paul Bracq. The two famous prototypes were finally built by Giovanni Michelotti in Turin.

Bavarian dirndls” dressed up as Martian girls then finally unveiled the 1972 car sensation at its premiere on August 23 at the BMW Museum in Munich. The oil crisis of 1973 was the project’s undoing, however, and all further activities were suspended by the BMW crisis team and the project stopped.

Unobserved, however, the “racing decision” lived on at BMW, and the turbo study was to have a decisive influence on the first generation of motor sports vehicles.

The E26 project – the BMW sports car with race car technology

Under the “development designation E26” and with Martin Braungart in charge of the project, BMW finally develops its first production vehicle for the race track. Pure racing technology coupled with the design genes of the “turbo study” lead to a vehicle concept that is still unique today – the M1.

The project thus inspires in two ways. On the one hand, the M1 was developed with it as a pure-bred racing car and only in succession 400 road versions from this modified and a homologation for the “group 4” approval to allow. On the other hand, however, it is also the cornerstone and first racing and production vehicle of the BMW Motorsport division and thus the basis of a series of fascinating M-vehicles that have left a lasting mark on the identity of the BMW brand and continue to do so to this day.

The history of the M1

As a result of the foundation of the “BMW Motorsport GmbH” in 1972, the new BMW Motorsport team, Jochen Neerpasch, Martin Braungart and Paul Rosche, made various considerations for a Formula 1 and a sports car with racing car technology:

  • optimum aerodynamics with a small frontal area and low CW value
  • low center of gravity height due to perfectly defined arrangement of the aggregates
  • low curb weight with balanced weight distribution
  • wheel suspension easily adjustable, designed for kinetic optimization

The concept was finally presented to the BMW Board of Management on September 30, 1975, and at this meeting the order was given to examine the proposed concept with precise investment and cost calculations. This set the starting light to green. The necessary preliminary work could begin.

Since the still new Motorsport GmbH did not have the necessary capacities, the team around Jochen Neerpasch suggested the Lamborghini company in Sant’Agata Bolognese. On October 20, 1975, the BMW Board of Management decided to begin internal development work on a Formula 1 engine and planning for a two-seater mid-engine sports car. Motorsport GmbH was given the task of drawing up a project plan, this was defined with a duration of 5 years and the production of 500 cars per year. Lamborghini was to develop and build the prototypes for the body and floor assembly, while the development of an 8-cylinder production engine was to take place at BMW in synergy with the planned Formula 1 engine.

It was planned to have the complete production carried out at Lamborghini with the engines supplied by BMW and on April 13, 1976 a contract was signed by BMW for the development and production of 2000 E26 sports cars.

The design was awarded by BMW to Giorgetto Giugiaro and his company ItalDesign. The first designs were created in 1976, which took up the formal language of the “Turbo Study” and interpreted it in a new way. A perfect way for the still young Motorsport GmbH to use and continue the positive sporty image already established as the basis of its own identity.

The BMW Team

Jochen Neerpasch (Managing Director) – Martin Braungart (Complete Vehicle Development) – Paul Rosche (Engine Development and Production) – Rainer Bratenstein (Development Engineer) – Hans Erdmann Schönbeck (Sales Director) – Dr. Karlheinz Radermacher (Consulting Expertise as BMW Development Director)

The Lamborghini Team

Dr. Franco Baraldini (Technical Director) – Giampaolo Dallara (Advisor to Franco Baraldini) – Luigi Cappellini (Commercial Director/Finance) – Georges-Henri Rosetti (Owner) – René Leimer (Owner)

The development work M1

BMW quickly realized that the development of a Formula 1 engine could not be realized in terms of both cost and time, and all activities in this regard were halted. The BMW Board of Management then cancelled the contract for 2000 E26 sports cars with Lamborghini and negotiated a new contract for 800 vehicles with a significantly different concept and a BMW four-valve 6-cylinder in-line engine. On October 12, 1976, the new contract was then signed with new specifications for the Type E26/1 with the focus on the following new priorities:

  • modified engine to the BMW 6-cylinder engine with four valves
  • body made of plastic instead of the steel originally planned
  • shorter vehicle length
  • shorter wheelbase
  • reduced equipment

The goal was thus focused one step further on weight reduction and thus a vehicle clearly intended for motorsport.

Fortunately, ongoing development work was not interrupted throughout the contract negotiations, and a first E26/1 prototype was presented to the BMW Board on May 3, 1977. For this presentation, the BMW board was shown the current vehicles of the direct competitors. Porsche Turbo, Maserati Merak SS and a Tomaso Pantera GTS.

The Board of Management expressly praised the E26/1 prototype, saying that there was a clear positive difference to the competitor vehicles presented. Lamborghini has thus delivered a very good prototype which, with the exception of a slight weight overrun, has fulfilled all the requirements of the new E26/1 specifications. All BMW departments involved recorded optimum satisfaction and fulfillment of Lamborghini’s agreed performance.

However, Lamborghini’s economic situation had deteriorated significantly in 1977, and the E26/1 project was dramatically delayed as a result. Possible solutions were sought to avoid jeopardizing the start of production, even financial advances and even a partial takeover by BMW were considered. In the end, this could not be carried out, as the threat of bankruptcy and thus a total loss had to be considered. The contract with Lamborghini was terminated by BMW on April 19, 1977. A difficult but in retrospect wise decision, bankruptcy and state supervision of Lamborghini unfortunately became fact on August 1, 1978.

The prototypes “P1 to P7” from Lamborghini

A very interesting story is the completion and delivery of the seven E26/1 prototypes, these were delivered to Motorsport GmbH from 13 June 1977, i.e. after BMW had terminated the contract.

As early as the fall of 1976, a 75% completed prototype was brought to Munich, completed at BMW and transported to Pirelli’s test track in Italy for initial testing. It is assumed that this was the P1, which was then presented to the BMW board some time later, on May 3, 1977.

At the beginning of March 1977, four ready-welded frames were inspected by BMW technicians at Lamborghini, another frame was produced at ItalDesign and Marchesi respectively, and two prototype frames were manufactured in Munich.

All prototypes were first equipped with the BMW 4-cylinder engine with supercharging of the type M49/5 C, because the development of the M88 engine at BMW also had to struggle with some difficulties and only towards the end of the year 1977 seven M88 engines were ready built. But more about that in the separate chapter “the BMW 6 cylinder engine M88”.

One of the prototypes (probably the P1) was discovered at the beginning of June 1977 in Sant’Agata Bolognese as a so-called prototype and described in detail in the issue of June 29, 1977 of the Auto ZEITUNG on the cover picture and on 4 full pages. The full-page advertisement “Richt-Linie über die 5er Reihe” from the BMW 518 to the 528 on the 5th page was no coincidence… The famous pictures of this prototype with the BMW kidney glued to the front, the missing BMW logos and the rear license plate PROVA BO 380, this plate was demonstrably also used by Lamborghini for test drives of the Countach and Murciélago, went around the world.

The prototypes in overview

  • 13 June 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • Empty weight 1364kg
  • June 9, 1977 endurance test at the Stilfserjoch
  • From mid-July 1977 endurance testing on the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring
  • Beginning of January 1978 the P1 is again at Lamborghini for the installation of the M88 engine
  • Beginning of February 1978 the P1 receives the most current version of the manual transmission
  • further use as assembly sample at Baur
  • 20 June 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • Unladen weight 1320kg
  • End of June 1977 testing of gearbox, clutch, brakes and steering.
  • Mid July 1977 the P2 goes back to Lamborghini for various tests
  • August 1st 1977 high speed test in Nardo, afterwards further tests at Lamborghini
  • 10. January 1978 the P2 also gets the M88 engine installed
  • 20. January 1978 Paul Rosche drives the P2 back to Munich
  • further use for endurance testing
  • 14 July 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • Empty weight 1399kg
  • From end of 1977 tests for heating, air conditioning and exhaust system
  • Beginning of August 1977 Test of driving dynamics by BMW
  • Mid August 1977 Optimization of heating and ventilation by ItalDesign
  • End of August 1977 Air-conditioning duct at Behr in Stuttgart, assembly of exhaust samples at Eberspächer
  • Beginning of September 1977 Drive on own axle to Sant’Agata with further optimization; heating, ventilation and assembly of 2-pipe exhaust system
  • End of February 1978 2-month optimization in the air-conditioning duct
  • further use for endurance testing
  • August 1, 1977 arrival in Munich
  • empty weight 1408kg
  • new are 2 fuel filler necks, improved gearbox, assembly of standard front hood
  • Martin Braungart and the BMW technician criticize on 17. August 1977 the sluggishness of the throttle and clutch operation, unfavorable position of throttle and clutch pedal, no heel-toe driving possible, seat position unfavorable, rear axle suspension too soft, clutch separates badly and slips, gearbox can be shifted badly between gear 1 and 2, tank cannot be driven empty, no gasoline supply in long left turns, overbraking of the rear brakes, on the front axle spring movements are noticeable, badly adjusted engine with extremely high gasoline consumption
  • Testing downforce, interior/exterior noise and radio reception
  • mid-January 1978 installation of the M88 engine, updating of the chassis
  • further use as sample car for customer service
  • October 11, 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • Unladen weight no details
  • Design optimization dashboard, fender widening and front spoiler group 4 version
  • Preparation for the appearance at the Paris Motor Show
  • October 4, 1978 Presentation of the BMW M1 at the press day of the Paris Motor Show
  • October 5, 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • Empty weight 1325kg
  • Modifications to the car are the installation of the standard front hood, modification of the rear shift linkage guide, clutch actuation modified, accelerator pedal actuation modified, cross-section connecting hose between the gasoline tanks modified, larger gasoline feed pump, shock absorbers with comfort tuning
  • End of November 1977 bearing of gear shift linkage, gear shift lever, gear shift shaft and gearbox suspension changed, then type testing of lights, horn and speedometer
  • beginning of December 1977 modification to the “Sant’Agata suspension tuning” at Lamborghini
  • Mid-January 1978 test drive by Jochen Neerpasch with complaints about the “Sant’Agata” suspension, strong vibration of the steering from 220km/h, tendency to overbrake on front axle, unsteady braking from top speed, movements of the drivetrain during braking and acceleration noticeable due to too soft gearbox suspension
  • Mid-February 1978 further chassis testing and type testing of the steering system
  • End of March 1978 installation of the M88 engine, steering bearing correction and mounting of the transverse control arm of the rear axle in rigid bushings
  • Beginning of April 1978 extended driving tests with transmission testing
  • further use as optimization vehicle for series production support
  • 17 December 1977 Arrival in Munich
  • unladen weight 1382kg
  • almost 60 inspection objections were removed by BMW within a week for the board meeting
  • 19 December 1977 Presentation in the styling room to the BMW board of directors
  • 20 December 1977 Start of sample production for the wiring harness at BMW
  • Beginning of January 1978 Adjustment of the exhaust system at the company Eberspächer
  • Mid-January 1978 Assembly of the M88 engine, sample wiring harness and latest manual gearbox
  • 9 February 1978: The type test of the P7 is carried out at TÜV Bavaria
  • 17 February 1978: The leak test in the sprinkler system shows leaks in the luggage compartment and in the doors, when opening the tailgate water runs onto the engine and distributor housing (also in the following series)
  • March 6, 1978: the P7 is officially allowed to participate in road traffic with a special permit
  • further use as optimization vehicle for series support


  1. Motorbuch Verlag: Cars that made history, BMW M1 by Lothar Boschen
  2. Delius Klasing: BMW M1, the Story by Jochen Neerpasch / Jürgen Lewandowski
  3. Motorbuch Verlag: LAMBORGHINI, All models until today by Serge Bellu
  4. Auto ZEITUNG No. 14 of June 29, 1977, BMW’s new supercoupé

Author of this page: Erich Matter – February 2016

EN check 01.04.2022