The BMW M1 was built with Lamborghini
Decades of access to special M cars have left many indelible marks on the memories of our contributors
A fair few of the cars that BMW’s M division has produced over the years have a particularly special way of worming their way into our testers’ hearts. Here are some of our best M memories.
Steve Cropley, BMW M1
Back at the end of the 1970s, when the BMW M1 was new and still being made at Lamborghini, I borrowed an early production version for a first drive story. With a photographer, I collected it from BMW’s famous Four-Cylinder building on the Munich ring road on a Friday afternoon and headed up-country in search of scenery and great driving roads. My cameraman had spotted a town called Rottenburg on our map and thought it might be a wheeze to go to such a place. (We were young, remember.)
What we hadn’t taken into account was that this was the beginning of Germany’s Ascension Day long weekend: everyone with a car and an address in the country was heading out of town, just like us. In our powerful, expensive and rare car, I drove through the dense traffic at a careful 160km/h (100mph) and my abiding memory is of being passed by dozens of hero-drivers in Volkswagen Golf GTIs, who slowed from their habitual 200km/h (125mph) to stare in puzzlement at the two idiots dawdling in a supercar that could go 90mph faster.
My memory is of the M1’s magnificent straight six and consequent very brisk performance. We never hit the official 192mph but we did see 180mph a few times, at which the car was nice and stable. Most of all, it was that car’s all-round capability that made it special. In an era of crudely built Italian supercars, this one had efficient door seals, wipers that worked, decent ventilation, good visibility and enough ground clearance. Such things may sound pedestrian, but it’s amazing how important they become when you don’t have them. Thus, first and foremost, for me the M1 will always be the place where modern supercars truly began.
Piers Ward, BMW M5 Touring [E60]
Audi and Mercedes-Benz have the fast Labrador market sewn up with their booted RS and AMG models. But for one glorious period in the late 2000s, BMW joined the fray with its E60 M5 Touring, whose manic, naturally aspirated V10 engine could rev to 8250rpm and produce 507bhp.
It was a car that defied logic and it gave me a reason to do something equally illogical: the office needed a new coffee machine, so why not drive to Italy to pick one up? And I don’t even drink the stuff.
Still, with a boot filled by a shiny Brasilia coffee machine and a nose pointed towards an Alpine pass, who needs sensibilities? I never really got on with the E60 until that trip, but over those passes, it was monstrous. With the gearchange speed dialled up to maximum and the suspension left in Comfort,it scythed across those valleys and mountains, the F1-derived V10 (yes, honestly: the block was forged in the same foundry as BMW’s racing unit) screaming like a banshee compared with the deep-throated AMGs and RSs. There are all sorts of recent horror stories about the reliability of the V10 M5, but in the summer of 2008, the car was new, the weather was good and the roads were amazing: 2000 miles for a coffee that never got drunk has never seemed more sensible.
Mike Duff, BMW M4 GTS [F82]
The F82 M4 GTS was already an extreme experience, with its combination of motorsport-grade suspension and a water injection system to boost the power of its turbo six to a C63-baiting 493bhp. But then, in search of a drive story, I took it to visit Ari Vatanen.
There was logic here, as well as a desire to visit my all-time rallying hero. Despite being most associated with Ford, Peugeot and Subaru – as well as the world’s most famous near-miss in an Opel – Vatanen had become a BMW brand ambassador in his adopted French homeland. (He did drive an E30 M3 in period.) Which gave all the excuse necessary to take the GTS to meet him at the spectacularly twisty Gorges de la Nesque.
The experience of sitting next to Vatanen as he drove was truly special. And initially terrifying: the one-time world champion’s road positioning suggested he was struggling to orientate himself with right-hand drive and it seemed likely we were going to clatter the ultra-light alloys against the rocks that lined the road. But he wasn’t. He was just using every available millimetre of the road.
We spent more of our time together talking about his other passions: helicopters, European politics (he served as an MEP in Finland and France) and his career with works teams. Yet he was clearly impressed by the GTS’s savage competence and it’s definitely my M car highlight.
James Disdale, BMW M4 Competition [F82]
Frankly, the F82 M4 just wasn’t much cop. Yes, it was fast and it looked the part, too. But the savage delivery of its snarling 425bhp turbocharged straight six and a chassis that wasn’t as chatty as you’d expect for a full-blown M machine meant there was every chance this Munich monster could dump you off the road at any moment in a poorly telegraphed fit of pique. It was a car that, you felt, was against you rather than with you. So hopes weren’t high for the updated Competition model, especially as the modifications were modest, running to little more than some minor suspension tweaks, a remapped slippy diff and an extra 19bhp.
Yet from the first turn of the wheel, it was clear the Comp was a car transformed, the original’s spiky character replaced by a more progressive, poised and predictable machine, one that felt more under control when you needed it, but playful when you wanted to let it all hang out. On that first drive in 2017, on some of the best roads North Yorkshire can offer, I didn’t want to surrender the keys to anyone, and for a few hours, it entertained like only a proper M car can. It still remains one of my favourite modern Ms, better even than (whisper it) the smaller BMW M2 Competition.
Illya Verpraet, BMW M4 Manual [G82]
Given I’ve spent most of my career so far as an automotive journalist covering serious topics like logistics and tyre production, I’ve got fewer BMW M highlights to draw on than most of my colleagues. So it speaks to the literal and figurative power of the cars that finding one was still fairly easy
In a time of inexorably growing complexity for cars in general, and performance cars in particular, it’s fantastic to see that BMW still produces a kind of purist-spec M3 and M4, with a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive.
But in its infinite wisdom, BMW GB has chosen not to import it. So getting to drive a manual M4 in Germany was a nice surprise. I was there to test another BMW, but our PR chaperone casually said they had a non-Competition M4 to take us from the hotel to the launch location. I don’t think they meant for the side attraction to upstage the main event, but it definitely did.
The M3 and M4 are now so big, fast and complex that a manual gearbox is a bit of an anomaly. That, combined with the car’s forbidden-fruit nature, means that getting to drive one feels quite special and slightly illicit. I’m sure there are greater M creations, but being one of those end-of-an-era cars makes the manual M4 particularly memorable.
Andrew Frankel, BMW M635CSI [E24]
My dad owned a cottage in France, where he kept a beautiful M635 CSi that I wasn’t allowed to drive. I was there with my mate Alexis, who was chopping wood when the axe’s handle split and buried itself in his hand. We were in the middle of nowhere, he needed a hospital fast and the rusty old Citroën 2CV that I was allowed to drive wasn’t up to the job.
So swathing his hand in bog roll and then placing it in a plastic bag to spare my father’s buffalo-hide seats from becoming spattered with blood, I fired up the BMW and drove to the nearest hospital as fast as its 286bhp straight six could carry us. If we had been stopped, I could have just pointed to the exsanguinating man next to me and we would probably have been given an escort into town. It was a very liberating experience.
I should probably have been worrying about my friend, but he seemed entirely relaxed and enjoying the ride as much as me, so we howled and slid our way to A&E, revelling in this beautiful car’s power, balance and poise.
Alexis got stitched up and we drove home at a more sedate pace, enjoying the refinement and ride instead. He still bears the scars to this day.
Matt Prior, BMW M4 GTS [F82]
The M4 GTS is perhaps the most polarising M car in M car history, but I loved it even when it was finishing dog last in our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest in 2016, and I’d love to drive it again now.
We drove it on road and track in Wales and most of our testers didn’t take to it at all. “Exciting, like being shot at,” said our contributor Mike Duff. Now, I’ll grant you, the M4 GTS was harsh on the road – although you could get out your spanners and get tweaking the dampers to soften them off.
But I thought it was exceptional on a race track and while most of my colleagues did not, some – notably Mauro Calo, who held a world drift record – loved every bit of it.
Me, too. I loved how you could manage its attitude and understeer on the way into a corner by trail braking it carefully, then dictate whatever attitude you wanted on the way out on the throttle. Combined with an angry engine noise, the rattles of stones pinging against rock-solid shell, and feelsome steering, and you have the car I’d have happy lapped more than any other from that year.
Richard Lane, BMW M5 [E28]
I wonder whether BMW, at the time it fixed its blueprint for red-hot saloons with the E28 M5, imagined that as yet unborn petrolheads would one day quiver at the very thought of being let loose in the thing. I doubt it.
Yes, this was a flagship model and reasonably well received, but the first M5 was never conceived to be something mythical and almost unobtainable, like the M1 (or, you’d have to say, the new BMW M5 CS). Despite this, if you’d imaged my neural response as I sped off for the first time in BMW’s own museum-grade example earlier this year in the US, the activity would have looked kaleidoscopic.
Okay, you’d deduce, he’s not just driving an M1, but possibly an M1 Procar. I still don’t know exactly what in particular prompted such jittery, concentrated elation on my part from this slow-ish, soft-ish, wafting journey back in time, but it wasn’t simply that the E28 M5 is iconic and was ours for the afternoon. I loved driving Porsche’s own 356 Speedster and it doesn’t get much more special than that, and yet this comparatively ordinary saloon just did me in.
The energy of the M88 straight-six engine (evolved from that of the M1), the charmingly luxesport cabin, the sensationally good visibility, the utter subtlety of the coachwork, the transparency of the steering, the nonchalance. And the sense of history; the raw precedent. I guess that, elementally, every petrolhead knows when they’re experiencing a legend.
Matt Saunders, BMW M5 E60
There was something very special indeed about the 5.0-litre engine from the E60 M5. To be fair, there needed to be. This was a BMW that looked a little too much like Dame Edna Everage than any super-saloon really ought, remember – and it had a pretty lousy SMG paddleshift gearbox, not to mention only 383lb ft of torque at a time when Mercedes-AMG was shelling shaft-snapping torque-monster rivals for it like peas.
This car’s V10, at revs, was the heart and soul of its appeal. An atmospheric motor developed using know-how from BMW’s time as engine supplier to the Williams F1 team, it was, and remains, the only V10 engine that BMW has ever built. It sired the V8 for the E90 M3, but the 10-cylinder version was much more memorable, revving as it did to the far side of 8000rpm and developing a wonderfully round 500bhp from 7750rpm.
I missed out on sampling what that felt and sounded like first hand when the E60 was new, being in pretty short trousers at Autocar Towers at the time, which made finally experiencing it – in BMW GB’s heritage-fleet E60 about a decade ago – all the more special. I recall going to BMW’s old UK office in Bracknell to collect it; fighting and stuttering my way through rush-hour traffic to get out of town in it (told you the gearbox was rubbish); and then, once it had warmed its fluids through, finally letting it spin to the redline on the slip road onto the M4 eastbound.
Wow. The outright power and response were both pretty special, but there’s an incendiary turbine howl to the motor’s sound above 6000rpm that is like nothing I’ve known since. What a monument to the art of possible when you’re one of the most powerful car makers on the planet.