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BMW M1: In the presence of greatness – with video

By Nick Hodgson

Automotive stories that result in cars like the BMW M1 are always fascinating, particularly when they go down in history as the genesis of something truly great. In this case it’s the BMW M division, that letter of such significance that still to this day it’s held up as the general yard stick by which performance is measured. You’d imagine then that the car that spawned all this would have had such a resounding impact on the halls of motorsport that it must be pretty special, and it certainly is that, the BMW M1 is so often forgotten in the history of supercars.

It’s maybe not surprising then that the M1 had a rather rough birthing process. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and a team from Ital Design from the 1972 BMW Turbo concept car, contracted by a cash strapped Lamborghini and eventually built through a combination of Marchese and TIR before going back to Ital Design to have the interior installed and finished off by Baur in Stuttgart who put those last trivial pieces in like the engine and transmission. As you can imagine this was a rather lengthy and needlessly complicated process fraught with delays, so by the time the BMW M1 debuted the race series it was designed to compete in had been dissolved.

Such a tumultuous beginning, yet the failure around this car has created a sense of mystery to it. Most would have no idea that BMW ever made a supercar and those that do are very unlikely to give you any more details than that. Very seldom are sleeping dogs let lie however and so it is with this wonderful M1, lovingly restored by BMW South Africa that now finds itself in my hands, right foot buried into the carpet on a beautifully sunny day in Johannesburg with the 3.5 litre straight six singing in the cabin.

Now I’ve heard all the stories about 70s and 80s supercars. How they’re impossible to see out of, how you need to be a yoga instructor to get in and out of without requiring major surgery afterwards and how they’re an absolute pig to try and drive through anything resembling a human settlement. That’s BMW M1 party piece though. It may be a supercar and it may look like a supercar, sound like a supercar and go like a supercar, but it most definitely does not come with classic supercar headaches. Sure they’re all left hand drive so you’re struggling quite badly with your left side blind spot, but apart from that the BMW M1 to this day can hold its own with most modern cars.

Let’s get back to that sonorous 3.5 straight six though. A noise like this one is just unheard of in today’s world of turbo charged electronically assisted hybrid power and quite frankly it’s just better. Remember this car comes from an era where the user manual literally contained the torque settings for every nut and bolt, when people wanted to see what was under the bonnet and not replace the dipstick with a computer read out. This car is truly designed with passion, by drivers, for drivers and talks to you all the way. Everything vibrates just the right amount, providing the driver not only with feedback through the wheel, but the pedals, gearshift and even your seat. It’s a truly wonderful experience and one that has been lost for so long now that I doubt we’ll ever get it back.

Yet despite this raw experience, the BMW M1 is comfortable and I really do mean properly comfortable. Sure the seats pinch your backside in a rather odd way, but they absorb overly harsh bumps incredibly well along with the supple road tuned suspension. This makes driving round town or through rough country roads a breeze, although speaking of, the absence of an aircon does make this the perfect car for winter.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, the BMW M1 won me over. It was never a poster on my bedroom wall as a child, nor was it even a blip on my petrolhead radar until now. Yet it’s this underdog status that has served the M1 so well and having spent barely a day in the company of greatness I can confidently say that I want one and so should you. It’s motoring back to its roots, how it should be in all its unadulterated glory and we need more of it in our lives.

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