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Dial M for magic

The rise of BMW M

BMW M1

If you’re going to announce to the world that you’re entering the motorsport arena, what better way to do so than with a homologation special mid-engined sports car designed by one of Italy’s highest profile designers, to be built by a bona fide supercar maker? That was the original idea for the M1...

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But while the Paul Rosche-developed 273bhp M88 3.5-litre straight-six delivered the performance and Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design the wow factor, Lamborghini, who had been contracted to build the sleek coupe around the Giampaolo Dallara-designed chassis, couldn’t deliver on its side of the deal so at the 11th hour BMW asked Baur to assemble the 453 cars. 

From that point forward, BMW M took on the responsibility of building its own road cars, starting with the E12 M535i, the first recognised series-production M-car. While its powertrain was stock BMW (the 3.5-litre M30 straight-six) its chassis featured M-developed springs and dampers along with unique wheels and aerodynamic bodywork add-ons. There would be one further M535i (the E28) before the first fully fledged M-car, the E28-gen M5, was launched featuring a further development of the M1’s straight-six, which also saw service in the M635i coupe (technically the first series production BMW to be badged an M-car, as it was called the M6 in America and Japan).

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Initially built at BMW Motorsport Preussenstrasse plant in Munich, in 1986 M5 production moved to Garching, where its successor, the E34 variant would also be built, as a saloon and a very limited run Touring model. For the E39 M5 (5-litre V8, 400bhp) production moved to Dingolfing alongside regular 5-series models and that remains the case today for the twin-turbocharged V8 F10. Even when the E60 M5 saloon and Touring and M6 coupe and cabriolet models gained a V10 engine they were still built alongside regular 5- and 6-series derivatives. There is one car, of course, that perhaps above all others defines M. An homologation special in the definitive sense, the E30 M3 has earned every bit of its icon status and remains the go-to car in which to experience the purest M-car DNA. 

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Its five-year production run saw continuous updates and iterations, with incremental increases to engine capacity and performance, chassis tuning and aerodynamic evolution, making trying to select the best E30 M3 a near impossible task. The 2.5 Sport Evo is the pinnacle of the model’s development, but many argue for the original, while the Ravaglia edition (or mainland Europe’s equivalent Cecotto edition) combines the best of both for some. 

Unlike the M5, the 3’s evolutionary journey was rapid, with six-cylinder engines used for the E36/E46 and a V8 for the E90 before the F80 returned with a straight-six, albeit turbocharged. For 2021 six-cylinder turbo power remains, but it also gains four-wheel drive for the first time. The M3 has also donated much of its hardware in previous years to M’s more extrovert models in the Z3 and Z4 M coupes and roadsters and the diminutive 1M, all a sideline of the division at its bonkers best.

All 21st century M-cars have turned to turbocharged power, from the pugnacious form of the 1M to the transformation of the M6 into the M8 and the Gran Coupe beyond that. Inevitably BMW’s X range, too, has been through the M workshops in recent years; the market for high performance SUVs and the profits they deliver are too hard to ignore. Yet their introduction hasn’t distracted Markus Flasch, BMW M’s CEO, and his team from focusing on what nearly 50 years of motorsport engineering has taught them. The M2 Competition and M2 CS, the reigning evo Car of the Year, are conclusive proof of that.

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