Do you know what letter has been established as the most potent in the world?
Hypothetically, it’s M — for the ultimate driving machine from the legendary BMW. You may not believe it, but the illustrious BMW M’s roots extend far beyond what you may realize.
BMW initially designed this racing subsidiary to facilitate the company’s motorsports program in the 1960s and 70s.
However, this motorsports program turned out to be the cause for creating some of the most celebrated cars of all time! So, what was the first BMW M car?
Well, the first official M-badged car is arguably the timeless A1 supercar that hit the road in 1970.
In fact, BMW officially supports this claim. However, there are a bunch of unofficial claims associated, which makes things even more interesting. Read on to find out the rich and fascinating history of BMW M!
BMW M – The History Of Evolution
1972 – The Emergence Of The Concept
The M division was established in 1972 (May). Initially, 35 enthusiast employees of BMW were involved in the mission of supplementing the manufacturer’s roadcut portfolio with exceptionally upgraded models.
The division later became a foundational part of BMW’s market presence with 400+ employees (1988).
BMW M fueled the dominating approach of BMW in different European Touring Car Championships in the 70s.
This backing allowed the manufacturer to win numerous titles and achieve a remarkable victory at the little-known Nürburgring 6 Hours(1973).
M1, the debated first-ever BMW M, started on-road operations in 1972. It was debatable because there was the 530 MLE — the first BMW adorned with a nameplate sporting the ever-famous M.
In addition, it got the stripes of the BMW motorsport division, but they had previously been used on the 3.0 CSL or the beloved ‘Batmobile.’
1978 – Legacy Hits The Road (M1 E26)
The adamant claims of advocates and even the manufacturer say that M1 first appeared in 1978. Thus, it won more votes and is considered the first BMW M car. Furthermore, the M1 is purely M – it doesn’t include an L or E!
BMW M has always focused on creating road cars that harness the real motorsport DNA.
The outstanding performance, the ultimate luxe, and the superfine dynamics of M1 offered true driving nirvana. The signature BMW legacy was, however, uncompromised.
Paul Brack designed the car, and the final makeover reflected the skillfulness of the famed automotive designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro.
The supercar was launched at the 1978 Paris Motor Show. It featured a mid-engined coupe with a 277 BHP, six-cylinder engine like that of the 3.0 CSL.
The price tag, for obvious reasons, stated its distinctiveness. In other words, the M1 was as expensive as a supercar should be! Its smoothness, agility, and quick response could easily outperform its competitors.
BMW M produced a total of 456 M1s, and the mighty road car caught the attention of esteemed drivers like Niki Lauda, Hans-Joachim Stuck, etc.
However, despite all this attention and fame, the series ruled over the roads for only two years.
What’s more interesting, Lamborghini was ready to make the M1. However, they had other financial commitments; thus, they nixed the project, and BMW M got the chance to create history.
1979 – The Successor (M535i E12)
After M1, BMW M decided to focus on developing more sedate models. This interest or sensibility gave birth to the super luxury 5 series.
While the E12 5-series were technically not full-fledged M5s, they were definitely built by BMW M.
This sports saloon cast the mold for almost every future motorsport model.
Launched in 1979 at the Frankfurt show, the M535i E12 was the first series production saloon with the royal M badge. BMW M hand-assembled the model at their motorsport Garching plant.
By 1981, only 1410 had been produced. Among them, just 450 got the wheel on the right side.
To hit 60 mph, this royal family saloon took less than seven seconds, and it could reach a maximum speed of 139 mph. It was, however, slower than its predecessor, M1.
The wide Mahle cross-spoke wheels distinguished the M535i from the M1. The interior sported close-fitting Recaro seats.
Like the M1, it also had a three-spoke motorsport wheel, allowing the motorsport aficionados to work their magic on the suspension and brakes. It boasted a 3.5-liter in-line six-cylinder heart, and it produced 218 bhp.
The driver could also find his way around the Getrag close-ratio dog-leg gearbox. The M535i was arguably historic to both the manufacturer and the automotive world.
Apart from proving that the world was longing for a low-volume, high-priced, and luxury super-saloon, it also introduced the idea of blending touring with legacy.
The car got its first registration in 1981 (August). The first launch took a tour of 54,500 miles, and it rolled through the hands of three different owners.
1983 – The Crazy Hit (M635 CSi E24)
The shark nose M635 CSi exuded a blend of retro charm and a mighty punch. The same 3.5-liter straight-6 engine fueled the car’s efficiency.
However, this time fuel injection brought a touch of more robustness. This car showed up for the first time in 1983, around the time Filofax was in fashion.
The M635 exuded sophistication; people just needed to be able to afford one. The M635 was eye-wateringly expensive, but its credibility made it extremely popular among the M car cognoscenti.
While its predecessor M525i E12 was a tautly suspended weapon and the first ever authentic super-saloon, the M635 was softer, gentle, and chilled.
The manufacturer chose to keep it submissive yet dynamic. The packaging – well, it’s still delightful, even today.
BMW M produced a total of 5,855 M653i’s between 1983-1988. Despite being a relic from a bygone era, the car’s driving experience is still utterly relevant.
The thoughtfully-designed power steering light gives adequate space to hold the gigantic and charismatic nose without compromising precision.
While this model is more relaxed, it’s no slouch. The 5-speed manual gearbox is far more potent than that of the M1.
The response of the fuel injection is stout and quick, which brings a significant distinctiveness to the driveability of the car.
The M635 CSi can still steal the limelight in the crowd of updated robotic automobiles. It proudly dominates the road and loudly announces its illustrious history.
1985 – The Introduction Of M5
What does the mid-80s remind you of? Maybe the interweave of Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox or the charming Freddie Mercury and Queen at Live Aid.
However, BMW connoisseurs remember the era because of something else – the iconic launch of the first M5.
This high-performance luxury limousine still guarantees dynamic driving pleasure. When it was launched in 1985, it was considered the quickest four-door car, with a speed of 156 mph.
Well, it may sound surprising in our power-driven era, but the Ferrari 328 from that same age was less powerful but more pricey.
Perhaps, this put the E28 M5 far ahead in the race. The driving machine was a thoroughbred under the skin. Boasting the same 3.5-liter straight-six engine of the M1, the M5 saloon decided to keep the spicey recipe alive.
The fantastic look and extraordinary performance ensured the finest driving experience, making it the darling of M lovers.
BMW unveiled the vehicle publicly at the 1985 Amsterdam motor show. The production, however, had been in progress for a few months.
This super-saloon carried a pressed steel body shell base and a 2625 mm wheelbase.
The manufacturers mounted the car’s battery to an exclusive trunk compartment to facilitate weight distribution, unlike the traditional four-front bulkhead style.
Ultimately, the M5 got a multitude of changes in geometry. Boasting excellent E28 springs and a 20 mm diameter anti-roll bar, the M5 got a powerful M88/3 engine contributing to its robust function.
At the back, the car ran the standard 14mm anti-roll bar and E28 Bilstein shocks. The brakes were an exact mimic of the M635, which comprised 300 mm diameter ventilated discs in front.
BMW M also produced North American, Japanese, and South African versions of this unique supercar.
1986 – The New Sheriff In Town (M3 E30)
BMW M introduced the all-new M3 as its 1987 model. The proposal came out in 1986, and the car came on-road the next year.
This model has grown into one of the best-performing cars, which the manufacturer had been building for over six generations.
However, the later versions that came after the M3 E30 couldn’t match the reverence and love of the original version.
The manufacturers equipped the M3 with a powerful S4 in-line engine, which helped improve the car’s drivetrain.
Featuring widely redesigned bumpers and panels, the E30 M3 was mechanically different from the standard BMW models.
While it was mostly available in a coupe style, the manufacturers also launched a few convertible versions.
Among them, Sport Evolution and Evolution versions earned the highest popularity. The manufacturer built this model until 1991; however, in 1992, the E36 M3 replaced it.
The car was different because of its wide-arched German perfection, which made it eligible to beat its German competitors on the track. From this point, it somehow reflects the memories of 3.0 CSL – it did the same in the ’70s.
The regular models were 200 bhp, while the Sport Evolution version got 235 bhp. Its dominance on track is indeed ever-celebrated.
1988 – A Little Upgradation (M5 E34)
BMW had given the E12 5-series an update during its transition to the E28 trim for the 1988 model.
However, the management was pretty much aware that a clean sheet design would be essential before the 1990s dawned. Moreover, the revamp somehow lacked comprehensiveness.
This pushed the development work of the next-gen E34 series, which started in 1981 and lasted until 1987.
The hotshot production started in 1987 (November), and the new model arrived in front of the press the following month.
The earlier versions of the E34 offered a selection of four straight-six engines. The entry-level four-cylinder 518i joined the convoy in 1989.
Around the time, another premium-graded M5 also showed up, boasting a 3.6-liter engine that pumped out a formidable 311 bhp.
Besides, other latest iterations like 530 Motorsports Limited Edition – the homologation exclusive for the South African market, convinced BMW M to boost the production of its other supercars, including the E28.
Hence, they kept on producing the E28 M5 from 1984-1988.
This straightforward yet sophisticated driving machine’s assembly took place at BMW Motorsports Garshing facility. The manufacturer got the model’s body from a regular Dingolfing production line.
The car had several chassis enhancements, an updated gearbox, and a few gentle cosmetic enhancements.
The M5 held a base of the pressed steel body shell and a strut MacPherson suspension up front. The rear part had a semi-trailing arm arrangement.
For better handling, it had 25% firmer springs, capable of self-leveling at the rear. This inevitably reduced the ride height by 20 mm.
Thanks to the giant 350 mm diameter ventilated front discs, the stopping power could be effortlessly enhanced.
The speed-sensitive power steering set a benchmark, and the ultra-responsive steering ratio (15.6:1) worked as the icing on the cake.
1992 – The Launch Of The Full-On M Car (M3 E36)
BMW M created the M3 E36 to live up to the expectations of M fans; thus, it had to be better than its predecessors.
The manufacturer was seemingly aware of the fact, which may be why they didn’t build it only for homologation reasons.
Instead, it came out as a full-fledged M Car with the typical motorsport flair and heritage. It was the first M3 that held a six-cylinder engine.
The car bagged extreme popularity because of its up-to-date design, enhanced comfort, and distinct power.
However, a closer inspection revealed that it held the unchanged M-specific motorsport DNA, just like its predecessors. The company continued to produce this second-generation M car from 1992 to 1999.
Initially, it was available in sedan versions, and due to this reason, many BMW M watchers took it as a relatively reversed version of its rebellious predecessors.
However, preserving the fire that its royal forerunners ignited, the M3 E36 turned out to be successful in making its unique identity on new terrains.
1993 – The Ultra Sleek Footprint (850 CSi E31)
This sensational launch from BMW M kickstarted a new era of high-performance automobiles.
Boasting 12 cylinders, it reflected the zenith of the manufacturer. While four cylinders signify stock solution and six cylinders point to ambition, the twelve-cylinder engine brings scalability.
The engine turned out to be a contributor to the unrivaled beauty of this reassuringly sophisticated car. It was a boast to coupes that combined style and luxury, pointing to the fusion of art and architecture.
The credit for this design goes to Kalus Kapitza, the designer who carried out the task under the supervision of Claus Luthe, the chief designer of BMW M.
He sketched the glorious two-door exterior and a teasingly pleasing front end which revoked the design of the M1.
The range of the car extracted 380 hp from its 5.6-liter displacement. In addition, it produced 550 mn of torque.
It blew away the mind of road testers with its impressive driving experience. According to the advocates’ claim, the 850 CSi E31 was in a league of its own.
1996 – The Celebrated Release (Z3 M Coupe)
Launched in December 1998, this two-seat performance coupe got its shape in the South Carolina BMW facility.
Powered by the mighty 3.2-liter S50B32 in-line six-cylinder petrol engine, this car boasts a five-speed manual transmission as standard.
The car had a typical roadster look and was extremely agile. It could switch to 62 mph in five seconds. Additionally, its weight distribution was well-handled.
BMW also launched Z3M in a coupe edition, which carried a “Breadvan-type” look. Some even call it a “Clown Shoe.” The car’s performance made it one of the most sought-after M legends.
1998 – The Headturner (M5 E39)
The head of product marketing at BMW Germany, Alexander Hildebrandt, led the manufacturing of this awe-inspiring driving machine. It was meant to cover up the flaws of its predecessors.
So, it housed a V8 engine, and with this change, the era of the six-cylinder came to an end for BMW M.
However, something was unchanged: the expectation of setting new benchmarks with sophisticated cars fueled by serious power hidden under the bonnet.
The effort of the BMW M paid off very well. The powerful motor could effortlessly mobilize 400 hp and create a turbulent torque of 500 nm.
It was probably the first instance of the installation of electronically throttle valves.
2000-2007 – Two Decades Of Unparalleled Change
The evolution continued over generations, and BMW M enjoyed the ride of transformation. Its spirit of enhancement awarded the market with many glorious road cars. In 2000, the iconic driver’s car, E46, appeared.
It boasted a 3.2 liter straight-six 338 bhp engine, which some car aficionados still remember. The manufacturer made an upgraded CSA model version, ensuring a more filtered experience.
In addition, it introduced the use of carbon fiber for defusing the rear and the roof. In summary, it was gorgeous and classy.
Its successor, M5 E60, adapted V10 engines, which made it a true slayer.
However, the car had a somewhat confusing personality that blended allure and vexation. This is because the car was extremely complex and had modules for everything.
However, a simple button could turn this car into a wonder, taking it from 400 bhp to 507 bhp. It’s all about removing the limiter!
In 2005, the motorsport-inspired M6 E63 hit the market. It carried the goodness of the E60.
However, its evocative noise brought in the real difference. Considering the environmental factors, the manufacturer ornamented the car with a naturally aspirated engine.
In 2006, the manufacturer launched the Z4, an ideal successor to the Z3 M Coupe.
However, it was more adorable and gentler than its predecessor. The next year, the fourth generation of M3 created all the buzz with the launch of the E93.
The car’s naturally aspirated and rear-wheel drive took the market by storm. The model was available as a convertible (E93), a coupe (E92), and a saloon (E90). A special edition of bright orange also came out (M3 GTS).
However, it was a holistically track-oriented car. Moreover, it was a limited edition – only 150 M3 GTS were built across the globe.
The Journey Continues
BMW kept on enriching its roster with more jewels like X5 ME70 (2009), 1ME87 & M5 F10 (2011), M6 F13 (2012), M3 F80 & M4 F82 ((2014), M2 F87 (2016), M5 F19 (2017), X3M Competition G 01 and X4 Competition G 02 (2019).
The latest buzzy M cars came out in 2020. They were indeed one of a kind. The first official BMW 8 boasted a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter engine. It also had a grand coupe version that offered illustrious practicality.
Finally, the sixth generation M3 showed up in 2020. It featured iconic kidney grills, giving the car a smoother appeal.
It stands out in the crowd with a twin-power turbo in-line six-cylinder engine that switches to 62 mph in just 3.9 seconds and an extraordinary rear-wheel drive.
The latest launch from BMW is a coupe version of the G80 M3 — the M4 Competition G82. It features a digital interior and incredibly comfortable seats. In addition, it boasts enhanced performance and capability.
With BMW M’s rigorous efforts of pushing the boundaries and updating the catalog of extraordinary models, getting behind the wheel has always been fun.
If you haven’t experienced the legacy of riding these state-of-the-art driving machines, you should put it on your bucket list.