What makes a letter so special?
It looks unassuming. The letter M flanked by the motorsports flag. But what lies behind that badge is a driving experience like no other. The M badge indicates that a particular model has been developed by BMW’s Motorsport division. The drivetrain often shares little to no parts with the “lesser” BMW models. Increases in power are supported by chassis, suspension, and braking upgrades. These performance bits are complemented by M-specific exterior and interior touches. The badge is no joke: these cars are serious machines with a racing pedigree to match.
From the beginning of BMW Motorsport road cars, an emphasis has always been placed on what BMW refers to as “lateral agility”. This focus has produced some of the finest handling machines in the world over the past 40 years. Instead of simply making the most powerful version of the car possible, emphasis is placed on reducing weight and improving driving dynamics to match power increases.
This emphasis is especially clear when M cars are compared to their competitors for Mercedes-Benz: the AMG cars. AMG cars are traditionally much more powerful while not being as much of a drivers’ car: they are also tuned for comfort and ease of use. Although not as evident today, the M cars were much more raw: creature comforts such as sound deadening were eschewed if they did not add to the driving experience.
Original M Cars
The 3.0 CSL marked the beginning of the BMW Motorsport road cars. While not badged as an M car, the 3.0CSL was the first road car developed by the motorsport division for public sale. The CSL was a homologation special produced for BMW to compete in the European Touring Car Championship. As the first M car, the racing influences are clear as day. Focusing on making the car as light as possible (hence the “L” in the name) meant that many of the luxuries of a road car were removed. Thinner steel was used for the body, and trim pieces were removed along with the soundproofing. The aluminum construction of the doors, hood, and trunk further added to the weight reduction regimen. The CSL originally featured a 3.0-liter engine that was later increased to 3.2-liters, and racing design elements such as an aerodynamics package that would lead the car to become informally known as the “batmobile”. 1,265 examples of the 3.0CSL were produced. The CSL nameplate would not return until the E46 M3.
The origins of the M535i can be traced back to 1974, when BMW Motorsport upgrades became available for the E12 5 Series. These upgrades included a more aggressive final drive ratio, a limited-slip differential, M specific brakes, shocks made by Bilstein, and other sporting touches including seat, steering wheel, and alloy wheel improvements. These options eventually led to the official M535i being released for public sale, featuring specific styling to match the Motorsport developed drivetrain. The 3.5-liter inline-six was backed by a close ratio transmission, and power was transferred to the road through a standard limited-slip differential. Steering wheel, brake, and aerodynamic upgrades completed this race-ready sedan. 1,410 examples were made between 1979 and 1981.
The first “true” M-car, the M1 was the first model to feature the BMW Motorsport division naming scheme, featuring just the class number preceded by the Motorsport M. Originally supposed to be built with Lamborghini’s help, a fallout between the two manufacturers left BMW to pick up the pieces and produce the M1 by themselves. The result is a timeless sports car that paved the way for BMW’s Motorsport division and made the letter M an iconic symbol of sporting intent. Powered by an M tuned 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine, the road car was both beautiful in design and impressive in performance. Only 453 examples were produced between 1978 and 1981, making it one of the rarest BMW models.
M Cars vs. M-engined cars
It is important to understand the difference between a true M car and an M-Sport car. The only true M cars (apart from the M535i/M635CSi, and the Z3/Z4 M Roadsters and Coupes) feature the M badge and the series number. To make this confusing, BMW offers many motorsport division upgrades, often carrying the moniker “M-Sport” or “M-Tech”. These upgrades feature many performance minded pieces such as improved suspension, sportier seats and interior bits, and bolt-on engine upgrades. These cars, while impressive in their own right, are not the same as the Motorsport developed M cars.
To add even more confusion to the mix, there are some models in BMW’s history that are true M cars in everything but name. The E30 320is is essentially a de-stroked E30 M3 displacing 2.0-liters instead of the M3’s 2.3, and fitted into a standard E30 coupe body. This car was developed for markets with high tax rates on vehicles displacing over 2.0-liters. The 320is features many of the same parts as the E30 M3.
Another M car that doesn’t feature the Motorsport badge is the E31 850CSi. The 8 series never had an official Motorsport version, although one M8 prototype was made. The 850CSi features M specific exterior and interior appearance packages, an M-developed motor, and the VIN even indicates that it is a Motorsport division car, featuring the BMW Motorsport identifying prefix.
The McLaren F1 is another M-engined car. McLaren originally approached Honda about building an engine for the F1, but upon their refusal, BMW took an interest. Although the engine ended up being more powerful and heavier than the originally intended specifications, the Motorsport built S70/2 6.1-liter V12 would go on to power the F1 to the title of world’s fastest production car.
Although the origins of M cars were founded in lightweight cars and focused on handling, the recent Motorsport range has expanded to include a wide variety of M cars. Starting in 2009, a Motorsport developed version of the X5 and X6 sports activity vehicles were created. However, that is not an indication of BMW’s M cars straying away from their roots. With the release of the E82 1 Series M Coupe, many automotive journalists have suggested that the 1M is the spiritual successor to the heralded E30 M3, praising its driving dynamics and small size. BMW has also returned to the inline-six engine architecture for the new M2/M3/M4, boasting impressive power numbers thanks to the addition of forced induction. Many purists argue that the addition of turbocharging is a far cry from the original M-car philosophy of great handling with a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine a la the E30 M3. No matter what take you have on the direction of BMW’s Motorsport division, the M badge is still an indication of a car intended for driving enjoyment. The combination of driver emphasis and a racing inspired history are just a small part of the significance of the M badged BMW.
8 Series ///M Cars