50 Years Of Amazing BMW M Cars

Car Culture / 14 Comments

BMW's M division is celebrating its 50th birthday.

In 1972, BMW introduced the now-legendary 3.0 CSL as a homologation special built to make the car eligible for racing in the European Touring Car Championship. It wasn't BMW's first foray into racing, but it was the first project for the freshly minted M division - the M, logically, standing for Motorsport. The division was formed to operate as BMW's motorsport division, but it didn't take long for the group to start supplementing BMW's road car portfolio beyond homologation models so it could take them racing. The first car to hit the road with the M division's M+number designation was the M1, BMW's first, and technically only, mid-engined supercar. That's where we'll start our list of favorite BMW M cars, and we're going to make it tougher on ourselves by only going with one of each model through the years.

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Silverstone Auctions

BMW M1

The M1 was conceived when Jochen Neerpasch was tasked with creating a car to compete with Porsche in Group-5 racing. Neerpasch was intent on the M1 being mid-engined so that it could outclass everything in its class, not just Porsche. However, there was no way BMW could build the required 400 vehicles for homologation in the time allowed by the rules. Lamborghini, at the time, needed the work, so the M division partnered with them to help finalize the chassis design, build prototypes, and manufacture the final product. However, Lamborghini was in real financial trouble and couldn't come through on the deal. As a result, the M1 was hand-built between 1978 and 1981 by the M division with a Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed body and, most importantly, the 273 horsepower M88 3.5-liter straight-six engine developed by Paul Rosche. Ultimately, the M1 was used for the one make and model BMW M1 Procar Championship as a support series for Formula 1. The racing pitted drivers from different motorsport disciplines against each other in identical cars.

We've driven the M1 before and even by today's standards, it's great to drive, which is why we've been clamoring for a successor.

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Canepa
Canepa
Canepa
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BMW M5 (E28)

The first BMW M car as we know it was the E28 generation M5 that went on sale in 1985. Saying "as we know it" might not be wholly accurate, though, as the first M car designed first and foremost for BMW customers didn't scream about its performance or flagship status on the road. The only telltale signs it was something special were the boot lip spoiler, a little bit of extra aero on the front chin, sporty BBS-style wheels, and some M5 badges. However, it was hand-built, weighed just 3,154 pounds, and had an updated version of the M1's M88 straight-six making 282 hp in Europe and South Africa and 256 hp in North America. Despite the lack of excess and over-the-top styling, the M5 was the fastest sedan you could buy in the early 1980s.

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BMW
BMW
BMW

BMW Z3 M Coupe

There will be flak in the comments for not covering the original E36 M3 and how it was the little car that went up against the all-dominating AMG touring cars and changed the game both in racing and on the road. However, this isn't a book, and we adore the little Z3 M Coupe. When Burkhard Goeschel arrived at M from Daimler-Benz, he brought a team of engineers and the conviction that the Z3 chassis was the perfect platform to build the perfect compact driver's car. The issue was that the Z3 was a roadster, so the M division gave it a roof to improve structural rigidity and make the most of the car's short but stable wheelbase. The S52 inline-six from the E36 M3 was transplanted into the Z3 M, and later the even sweeter S54 from the E46 M3.

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BMW
BMW
BMW

BMW M3 CSL (E46)

To our minds, the benchmark for any subsequent M3 should be the E46 generation. BMW wandered away for a long time as the 3 Series grew, but we'll talk about that shortly. The E46 M3 CSL was the crowning glory of the generation, and took the blueprint of a comfortable yet light rear-wheel-drive premium performance car with BMW's super-smooth and torquey S54 inline-six engine and made it more hardcore. It was lighter, more powerful, had quicker steering, better brakes, lighter wheels, and an M track mode. It's a rare beast with just 1,383 built for public consumption but it sits proudly as one of the M division's finest cars. The reflects in the current price where, despite being post-RAD era (1980-1999), with one recently going for $164,92.

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BMW
BMW
BMW

BMW 1 Series M Coupe

BMW couldn't use the M1 designation again for something that wasn't a mid-engined monster, so the E46-era sized 1 Series M Coupe was born. Its story started as a skunkworks passion project in the M division. It took the 1 Series that was born in 2004, and the M division went nuts for 2011. The turbocharged straight-six dealt out 340 hp to the rear wheels to an M3 supplied rear axle supported by M3 suspension components, a body kit brimming with aggressive style from its face to its sculpted hips. It was available for the briefest of windows, and just 6,309 were built. The overwhelming demand (only 2,700 units were planned) paved the way for the less hardcore M2.

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BMW
BMW
BMW

BMW M2 CS

The modern M2 might have edges that are smoothed off from the 1M Coupe, but it's essentially a modern E46 BMW M3, and we can't stress how cool that is. Then, there's the more hardcore M2 CS with its honed take on the formula. It's small and light, the suspension is sublime in corners, and the engine was pulled from the M4, complete with 444 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Sadly, it's likely the last of the M cars with a direct lineage back to the E28 M5 and E46 M3 as electrification is getting closer and closer. That's not a bad thing as the world has to move forward, but the M2 is likely the last of the purebreds.

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BMW M4 GTS

When BMW separated the 3 Series coupe to become the 4 Series, the M4 was quickly born. In 2014, the BMW M4 GTS landed for a single year, and it's spectacular. BMW pulled state-of-the-art motorsport technology from its touring cars and lavished the road-legal track coupe with 500 hp and the ability to negotiate the Nurburgring in 07:28 minutes. It's a hefty psychopath of a road car and a honed weapon of a track missile riding on coilover suspension. Given a year, the incoming BMW M4 CSL will likely take the GTS's spot,

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BMW M8 Competition

Again, in a year or so, the M8 Competition is rumored to be usurped by the upcoming M8 CSL, but right now, the M8 Competition is a big, sleek beast that takes BMW's early idea of a GT coupe and cranks it so hard the handle is close to breaking. Available in coupe, convertible, and Gran Coupe guises, inside, it's pure and unadulterated luxury. Outside, it's a bulked-up take on its siblings, and under the hood is a glorious V8 engine stirring the senses with 617 horses let loose at 6,000 rpm and a meaty 553 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1,800 rpm. For the Competition, which is currently the only guise the M8 comes in, the chassis is stiffened, the suspension firmer, the wheel alignment is aggressive, and on the road, it's a comfortable cruising missile right up until the moment you let it loose on a twisty road. To some, this is peak modern M car, and we can see where that's coming from.

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Holman Motorcars
Holman Motorcars
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