2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of one of the true icons of performance cars, BMW’s Motorsport division. As the name suggests, the department was initially formed to give extra impetus to the Bavarian company’s efforts in the sporting arena, but it evolved to deliver some of the finest road cars of the past five decades – all marked out by that magical ‘M’ badge. To mark the anniversary, let’s take a look at the machines that earned the M division its hallowed reputation.
We know what you’re thinking… where’s the M? And the simple answer is it’s nowhere to be seen, because although the CSL was developed by the motorsport division for competition, the M designation had not yet been determined at that stage. The CSL was a lightweight version of the standard CS built from 1971-1975 that was fitted with a straight six-cylinder engine that ultimately delivered 203bhp and became known as the Batmobile on account of its wild looks, in particular the fins along the side and huge rear wing. The racing version enjoyed great success in touring cars; the road car was much coveted.
The most lusted after BMW ever? Quite possibly. While the fiberglass bodied mid-engined supercar was only in production between 1978 and 1981, and relatively few were made – a total of 399 plus around 50 race cars – its iconic status has grown over the years, with Giorgetto Giugiaro’s dramatic design a perfect snapshot of the wedge look popular in the 1970s. The engine was a 273bhp 3.5-litre straight-six, which may not seem too powerful now, but made the M1 one of the fastest road cars of its era. The first BMW to wear the prestigious M badge may not have been appreciated at the time, but now seems a worthy car to carry that accolade.
Another BMW with a great nickname, in this case The Shark – on account of its distinctive nose –the 635 CSi is a car that represents the 1980s particularly well, and still has a likeable retro charm today thanks to details such as the black rubber boot spoiler. The M version used a 282bhp version of the M1 supercar’s straight six to post a 0-60mph time of 6.4 seconds, but this was an M car that wasn’t so much about outright power as delivering a desirable – and cool – overall package.
A true all-time classic and one of the defining M cars. The first-ever M3, made from 1986-1991, saw BMW attack the touring car racing programme again, where it had great success winning Germany’s domestic DTM series and the European championship. But in order to compete, road-legal versions had to be sold first – and it soon became clear that BMW had a phenomenon on its hands. Perhaps the pinnacle of the E30 range was the limited Sport Evolution model in 1990, fitted with a 235bhp 2.5-litre engine and lightweight components that cut the weight significantly for an even more focused drive. It’s also worth pointing out how good it looks now; will the current BWM range look so desirable in 30 years’ time?
M cars are usually about what’s under the bonnet and the exquisite driving experience. But it’s impossible to discuss the Z3 M Coupe produced from 1997 to 2002 without addressing the polarising design, which for some is sufficient to merit its exclusion from any list of great M cars. The breadvan, as it became known, was fitted with the 317bhp straight-six from the E36 M3 then, on facelifted versions, the 321bhp straight-six from the E46 M3. The latter is punchier and the one to go for – if you can find one.
Aficionados will debate all day long about which version of the M5 is the greatest, but the E39, produced from 1998 to 2003, has to be worthy of serious consideration. It upped the ante from its predecessor, the 305bhp E34 – and left rivals trailing – by eschewing six-cylinder power for a 395bhp V8 to devastating effect, delivering 0-60mph in around four-and-a-half seconds. A car truly deserving of the term super-saloon.
The three letters after the name – CSL – were first used on the Batmobile and have great significance for BMW. They stand for Coupe, Sport and Lightweight… and on this particular 2003 version of the M3 the focus was most definitely on the last of these. With strategic use of carbon fibre, aluminum and motorsport-derived composite materials it managed to shed around 243 pounds from the already quite thrilling standard M3 to deliver a kerbweight of just over 3000 pounds. With the 3.0-litre straight six tuned to deliver 355bhp, the results were sensational.
Think of fast estates and the E61 M5 Touring built between 2007 and 2010 deserves special mention. As with the E60 M5 saloon, it was fitted with a high-revving Formula One-inspired 5.0-litre 507hp V10 engine, which delivered a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds – just what you need in a family wagon on a trip to the tip. In truth, this was, of course, no ordinary family wagon, but – in BMW’s own words – a “racetrack capable” five-door. Estates have rarely been more exciting, with the engine noise absolutely intoxicating.
By 2011 the M badge had started to appear on the likes of the X6M, a big coupe-SUV that may have been good for BMW’s bottom line but seemed a long way from the original spirit of the M division. Given that context, it’s no surprise the 1 Series M Coupe was so warmly received – its compact dimensions, 3.0-litre twin-turbo in-line six-cylinder engine, all-aluminium suspension and excellent handling were proof that the M division could still deliver a car that would be loved by purists.
The latest addition to the M Car roll of honour is the M2, a car that delivers a magical driving experience which reminds you what the M division can do when it’s not working on big SUVs. The 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six engine from the M4 is used to great effect, and is tuned to 404bhp in the Competition model and a mighty 444bhp in the CS (enough for 0-62mph in just over four seconds). In many ways, the M2 is the truest M car of recent times.