It happens all too often: the minute you drive the car of your dreams, it loses the allure.
Often, it’s because of what’s under the hood. The fast-looking flared fenders and outré edges of plenty of vintage Porsches and Ferraris can conceal an anaemic engine. Compared to the power and braking capabilities of modern cars, the classics end up feeling like tin cans to drive, rather than face-melting screamers. Never meet your heroes.
It totally changed everything I thought about cars. After I bought this car, I sold all my '60s cars and started buying '80s cars.
Phil Toledano, M1 fan
The same critical glare has been applied to the 1981 BMW M1: in the sales report following a Gooding & Company auction last year, Bayerische Motoren Werke’s most expensive vintage sports car was described as “a rather dull driver-quality car". It looked like a car from the future, but horsepower was less than 280hp, and the top speed barely touched 257 kilometres per hour. It would take nearly six seconds to reach about 95kph. That’s about the same as a 2019 Toyota Camry.
Not that anybody cared. That white, six-cylinder coupe — with paint chips on the nose, no less — sold for $467,500 (Dh1.7 million).
The BMW M1 holds a place in fans’ hearts because, though it was a short-lived experiment, it became the patriarch of an entire family of cars. It passed along mid-engine engineering (the first of its kind), lightweight components and aerodynamic developments to the popular and long-lasting M3 and M5. It was so effervescent at the time of its debut that Andy Warhol created an art car from one in 1979. And with just 455 built, ever, the M1 is rare enough to draw a crowd of even the most discerning car enthusiasts at any concourse or rally.
It was supposed to be for racing. Designed in 1977 by the Italian master Giorgetto Giugiaro and planned for production as part of a manufacturing deal with then-tiny Lamborghini, BMW built the M1 to compete against the less expensive, more powerful Porsche cars ruling a special European competition series called Group 4 and Group 5. (The now-infamous Group B cars, such as the visually polarising Lancia Delta, soon followed.)
But the deal to have Lamborghini build the cars fell through as Lambo struggled with financial problems and imminent bankruptcy; production delays ensued until BMW could recruit new partners such as Marchese, TIR, Ital Design, and Baur to help cobble the car together.
The first M1 rolled off the line by 1978, priced at the then-exorbitant amount of 100,000 Deutsche marks. What’s more, the racing dominance envisioned by the Bavarian overlords for their exotic wild child never came to pass: only 54 M1s were built to competition standards that would qualify for the racing series, and only a few of them even competed. In 1979, when Paul Newman drove a championship-winning Porsche 935 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the M1 eked out third place in its class. No other M1 ever finished higher. By 1982, BMW had discontinued the line altogether.
Of course, as is so often the case in classic-car lore, the remnant became almost instantly collectible. It’s a funny thing: take a unique, unforgettable design, add extreme rarity, and you’ll get a legend — no matter how it drives.
Phil Toledano has owned an orange M1 for years. The British artist had gone to Florida to see a man about buying a DeTomaso Mangusta — but caught his eye on the sharp edge of an M1 parked next to it. Mr Toledano drove the car and loved it. Then he cleverly found a cheaper one to buy from a gun salesman in Georgia.
“I was totally mesmerised,” Mr Toledano recalls during a recent, autumnal drive around Brooklyn in New York. He has taken the car out of storage in his New Jersey garage to show me the finer points of Germanic-meets-Italian ingenuity. “It totally changed everything I thought about cars. After I bought this car, I sold all my ‘60s cars and started buying ‘80s cars.”
Mr Toledano likes how the car drives. With its “dogleg” five-speed manual gearbox, less-than-bone-shaking chassis composition, and dutiful in-line-six engine, it’s easier to command than some of its era, if not quite as fast.
“It’s very civilised,” Mr Toledano says, easing through morning rush hour on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. With a quick, short shift, the M1 shot ahead of traffic like a fish in a slipstream. Its brakes and steering are direct and concise as Mr Toledano flits through traffic. A loud, barking exhaust note comes from an aftermarket update: The English gentleman needed a little more engine noise to match the aesthetically loud car.
The style of the M1 was enough to warrant Mr Toledano’s attention. It looks unlike any BMW before or since — as often confused for a Lamborghini Countach or Lotus Esprit as recognised correctly.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact the M1 lacks such BMW signature touches as engorged kidney-bean grilles and athletically curved hoods, while including many elements that are decidedly not BMW: louvres on the rear, barely-there headlamps and air vents speckled everywhere across the hood and roof. Not to mention a body so wedge-shaped it could double as a doorstop. Thank the Italians for that: Giugiaro had designed the Lotus Esprit and Maserati Merak before he worked on the M1; a second Italian, Gianpaolo Dallara, had designed its chassis.
That said, the interior of the M1 remains resolutely German, with a spartan black dashboard and minimal buttons. It is characterised most prominently by the cigarette lighter, its three-spoke “M” steering wheel, and seats from the old racing company, Recaro. Air conditioning, power windows, and a heated rear window (to prevent fogging) came as standard. Open the large boot to reveal the entire engine, plus a glorious nest of hoses, tubes, and pipes, all laid bare to the naked eye like fresh-sheared lamb.
“Engineering is beautiful — let’s show it!” was the mentality then, according to BMW’s internal report regarding the car’s heritage.
In no time, the interior components and mechanical developments of the M1 showed up in plenty of other BMWs, starting with the first generation of the M5 that enjoyed much more commercial success. There’s a reason it carries the No 1 on its hide — it was the first of the entire M line, which is the sportiest collection of BMWs you can buy.
“The BMW M1 is rightly recognised as one of the best machines to ever bear the blue-and-white roundel on its nose,” says Hagerty’s Brendan McAleer. “It’s the grandfather of all things M.”
What’s more, it was the most direct influence from inside the company on the design of the low-profile electric BMW i8. They share slanted side pillars and the wedge shape (admittedly more conceptual in the i8) that make them look like rolling works of art.
Values of the M1 have varied substantially in recent years, in contrast with the steady, high hand of blue-chip Ferraris and the frothy bubble experienced by Porsche Turbos. A 1981 BMW M1 in pristine concourse condition is worth as much as $635,000; more mundane examples representing average restoration will cost roughly $450,000, according to Hagerty.
Prices are softening, ever so gently. Earlier this year, a black 1981 M1 took $390,000 at a Bonhams sale.
That’s likely the low end of the range for the foreseeable future — making this a smarter time to buy, relatively speaking. With such a low circulation and hero-car status firmly engraved at the automotive Hall of Fame, the M1 will maintain its value indefinitely. Along with the 1970s- era 3.0 CSL “Batmobile", it is the unicorn of the two must-have cars for any true BMW enthusiast.
“The M1 lives in a segment of its own,” says Jonathan Klinger, also of Hagerty. With all things coming from the Munich-based brand rounded and electric, rather than edgy metal — witness that i8 — we will certainly never seen the likes of it from BMW again. Even if Lamborghini were to get involved again.