In 1972, BMW established its Motorsport Division, creating a legend that endures to this day. The first generation of road cars, however, still has a special appeal. The engineers at the M Division – working under Jochen Neerpasch – initially focused on BMW’s racing programme, but that expertise gradually filtered through to its roadgoing models. The M1 introduced the 3453cc M88 straight-six that would form the backbone of these performance cars: the twin-cam unit was later used in the E28 M5 and E24 M635CSi, with the E12 M535i employing a single-cam version. Only the E30 moved away from the six-cylinder recipe, its high-revving ‘four’ being better suited to the demands of the Touring Car racing for which it was intended. Along with the M1, it is also the most extrovert of this group. If you want to fly under the radar, you are perhaps better off with one of the other three. But all will provide supreme dynamics, a great soundtrack and a reminder of a time when BMW was flying high in saloon-car racing, rallying and Formula 1. Pictures copyright C&SC/James Mann
The mid-engined, six-cylinder M1 and the highly strung, four-cylinder M3 are the only ones of our group that were built with motor sport homologation in mind.
The boxy lines of the M3 gained various aerodynamic upgrades through its Evo and Evo II incarnations. The latter is pictured here, and also gained thinner glass plus a lighter bootlid.
Introduced in 1980, the E12 M535i was the M Division’s first hot saloon to carry the famous M badge. It mated the mechanical components from the 635CSi to the lighter 5 Series bodyshell to create a potent performance machine.
The E28 shared its door and roof pressings with its E12 predecessor, but was lighter and more aerodynamically efficient. It was even more subtle, too, with less chrome for the M5. As on the 6 Series, a front air dam was one of few external giveaways to the performance within.
By the time that BMW built an M version of the 6 Series, the basic car was almost 10 years old and – in 635CSi form – enjoying great success in Touring Car racing. The new range-topper combined serious pace with a luxurious feel and svelte styling.
Perhaps BMW’s most effective Q-car, the E28 M5 is a sublime mix of utterly anonymous styling and silky-smooth 286bhp straight-six. Its balanced chassis completes a hugely desirable package.
Giugiaro’s sleek design for the M1 contrasts with the compact, boxy lines of the M3. Not until you really start pushing the later car does it reveal all of its many talents.
Five first-generation greats line up in the Rockingham pitlane – from the M1 of 1978 to the M3 Evo II of 10 years later, via the E12 M535i, E28 M5 and E24 M635CSi.