The Weekend Read: 40 Years of M

OH DEAR Lord, it looks good parked there, even against the concrete walls of the old pit lane at the Nordschleife, and even in monochrome, its Polaris Silver paint bleeding into the fog of a typically cold, bleak November day in the Eifel mountains.

Green Hell? Grey would be more accurate for nine months of the
year. But the lines of the standard BMW CS coupe are still lovely in this flat
light; the fine pillars, the pillarless sideglass, and the original, elongated BMW kidney grille exaggerated by the undershot chin.

But then you add the mad addenda that make this car special, in that uniquely automotive, rare-groove, low-volume sense: the dam-like chin spoiler, the little rubber fins that run the length of the front guards (what do they do, exactly?) and the two great rear spoilers that so busted Germany’s road-car regulations at the time that they had to be delivered in the boot for the first owner (fine choice, sir) to fit himself.

From the instant first gear engages you know you’re not going to be disappointed. This 1164kg lightweight homologation special, with its aluminium panels and rubbish plastic rear bumper and absence of fripperies like sound deadening, bolts forward with a zeal that belies its 40 years. It’s like sleeping with your best friend’s sexy Mum: first digging the vintage looks, but when you slip the negligee off, finding the athletic body of her 20-year-old daughter under there.

There’s danger here. And not just in the fact that BMW’s M division has chosen to celebrate its 40th anniversary by bringing a selection of its finest road and race cars, mostly bereft of any kind of traction control, to the Nürburgring in November
and letting a bunch of journalists drive them, including the motoring correspondent of Jay-Z’s new YouTube channel who I don’t think has driven ‘stick’ before.

Honestly: the world’s most difficult, dangerous race track on a cold wet day; some edgy rear-drive cars on decades-old rubber, and some muppets. What could possibly go wrong? By the first lunch of this two-day birthday party, two cars have already been ‘retired’ by guests.

But the real danger is in the comparisons this kind of exercise invites. Since 2009, when the M division launched the X5M and X6M, its more obsessive fans have been bemoaning the firm’s loss of engineering consistency. Maybe, with hindsight, M might not have broken so many of its own rules at once, or with such bad cars, ending a 30-year history of rear-drive, naturally aspirated road cars which were almost all ecstatically received, with a pair of gross-out turbocharged SUVs we all hated.

Yet BMW has a famous history of turbocharging in motorsport, and the reality of modern, state-regulated car design means turbos and downsizing are the only way to meet environmental targets.

Same goes for the safety regs and customer kit demands that mean the new M6 weighs nearly 800kg more than its ’72 forebear. M takes the responsibility for putting its badge on diesels now, with its triple-turbo straight six, and on SUVs.

But we’re not talking about a century of heritage here: founded in May ’72, it’s only been building M-badged road cars since 1978. Brands need to change. They usually broaden. So I haven’t come to its birthday bash to beat M about the head for no longer building atmo straight-six exec-sedan Q-cars that weigh less than a modern hatch. It can’t any more. I just want to follow its story. And not crash.

The story starts with the CSL. It was the first car that BMW Motorsport GmbH went racing with after its formation under ex-Porsche works driver Jochen Neerpasch. The CSL road car wasn’t its work: the mass-reduction was done by Alpina and the first cars were built by Karmann in ’71. But they became the first race cars that M campaigned, winning their class at Le Mans and the Touring Car Grand Prix here at the ’Ring in their first season, later being driven by Niki Lauda and Jacky Ickx and making as much power as a modern Formula One car in their final, turbocharged, scoops-and-balloon-slicks iteration.

The Scheel bucket seats don’t sag and the view down those rubber fins is almost more than I can cope with. The Batmobile moves off with an alacrity that belies its size and the mere 153kW from its 3153cc straight-six. There are few old cars you can drive fast immediately without embarrassment but this is one, the perfect pedal placement and weight letting me heel-and-toe into the Hatzenbach after 100 metres’ experience.

The brakes grab instantly, the car turns in smartly and the acceleration, while only warm-hatch standard now, is accompanied by a terrific noise that goes from sub-aural drone (no sound insulation, remember) to a glorious mechanical thrash. Not often do you drive a car you’ve dreamed of driving for years and find it better than expected, but here it is. And there is some discernible M-car DNA here, in the front-engined rear-drive balance that a 911 of the era lacks, and in the useability and consistent weight of the controls.

BMW’s unhappy experiences with its supercar explain why everything else in the old pit lane is an M take on a standard production car. Built from 1978 to homologate a mid-engined Group Five racer that could beat 911s using the engine from the final CSLs, M brilliantly chose to sub-contract much of the engineering and build of the M1 to Lamborghini just as it was going through yet another of its financial crises.

It’s the next car I drive, and the Italian influence is plain and painful in the long-arm, short-leg driving position, the madly offset pedals and the fact that, despite being under 183cm, my helmetless noggin is hard against the roof. Ital did the styling, two Modena suppliers provided the chassis and fibreglass body but the cars were shipped back to Baur in Stuttgart for final assembly, so it’s little wonder that BMW took a serious bath on every one of the 457 examples made.

Of which this white one must be about the finest remaining, like every car I’ll drive today. The cabin might be pure period Italian supercar nonsense but the mechanicals are all M, with the same firm, consistent control weights and lusty, utterly linear straight-six lump. The engine, as with so many M cars, dominates the experience, and it went into the first M5 of 1984, though the 162kW M535i of 1980 was the second official full M-car.

I skip the early Fives and get into an E30 M3 next, which, like the CSL and the M1, was born to homologate Group A touring cars, and the last car from the Motorsport division designed primarily with motorsport in mind. But this was no low-volume special: nearly 20,000 were made, including convertibles.

Pains me to dismiss such an important car in a few words but while it feels agile and right-sized and the powertrain as linear and tractable as ever, the lauded steering doen’t feel anywhere as sweet as I’d read; at least not in this early car, at this circuit.

And I was keen to get into an E34 M5, built from 1988 and the car I thought would be the missing link between the edgy, low-volume homologation or race-engined specials of M’s early years and the omni-capable but purely road-focused cars we have now. And that’s just how it feels: big, serious, and heavy, but with the brawn to overcome its mass easily, with fine manners and a cultured, colourful engine note like every deeper instrument in the orchestra playing the same note at once.
I hadn’t driven one before, but again had always wanted to, and again it doesn’t disappoint. There’s nothing racy about it, but as a tool for destroying the 1000 kilometres from Munich to the south of France it had no equal.

This later 3.8-litre car felt far more like the next, V8-powered E39 M5 that started my working acquaintance with M cars in 1999 – more than I’d expected given the difference in cylinder count. It made the point that perhaps BMW had been wanting to make all along at this party; times change, and the cars change too.

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