30 Years Of M-OriesVisits to automobile factories are as common in this business as punching the "E" key, but on rare occasions the experience is akin to entering the inner sanctum of a holy order. This was definitely the case back in 1994 when, while in Munich to drive BMW's new 850CSi, I was part of a group ushered into the hallowed halls of the M skunkworks, home to the extraordinarily masterful builders of special BMW vehicles.
Wandering among the dynos, workshops and assembly facilities was a particular pleasure that day because of the presence of Paul Rosche, the legendary engine designer who crafted, among other wonders, the spectacular 900-bhp turbo four that propelled Nelson Piquet to the F1 World Championship in 1983. Rosche was a gracious tour guide and capped the visit with a dyno run of the BMW V12 that soon thereafter found its way into the McLaren F1 sports car. It was thrilling to hear the 6.0-liter twelve being wound out while the maestro outlined the intricacies of building a high-performance motor, and since that day I've longed to drive a McLaren.
Those hours spent at M's unassuming HQ gave me a good look at the technical elements that give M-badged cars their unique qualities, but it was a day later when I would experience the emotional side of M cars, at speed on the challenging Nordschleife circuit of the infamous Nrburgring. A couple of hot laps, in the rain, in an M5 with Smokin' Jo Winkelhock at the wheel, had me both exhilarated and terrified. There was no way we should have survived such a ludicrous assault in such treacherous conditions; it was enough to convince me that guardian angels exist...nah, it's just that M cars are so damn good right out of their special boxes, they can attack a racetrack and produce no greater mishap than a couple of nauseous passengers.
A lot has happened since '94, and now, 30 years after the M branch was started in 1972 as BMW Motorsport GmbH, it's time to celebrate. To join the party, european car is devoting a portion of each issue throughout 2002 to tell the M story in all its glory, beginning this month with a look at a trio of M-based cars (two M3s and one M Coupe) modified for use on the racetrack-which is where M began, as the racing arm of BMW running 3 Series in touring car series.
It was soon apparent that the special touches given to the cars for track use were coveted by owners of street models, and so M branched out and began to construct the first of many M-massaged models.
By the time of my visit, the M1, M535i, M5, M6 and M3 Coupe all had been available in the U.S. market. BMW's U.S. sales totalled 84,501 that year, 2,963 of them sporting M badges. It was a transition year of sorts for the M brand in America, the M5 fading out, only 10 being sold after a high of 547 in 1988, the second of its 8-year run. The remaining 2,953 M cars were the newly introduced M3 Coupe, which began an extremely successful 6-year run, selling as many as 5,806 in 1995. A four-door companion to the M3 Coupe appeared in 1996, and then, in 1998, the M brand exploded in number with the M Coupe, M Roadster and M3 Convertible reaching U.S. showrooms.
The renewed M5 appeared again about then and has enjoyed tremendous success, touted by many as the finest all-around performance automobile in the world.
However, M is more than building cars. Its brief also includes BMW Individual, which was started in 1991. This program allows a buyer of a BMW automobile the opportunity to personalize it in just about any fashion desired, from special paintwork to interior fittings and more. A third component of M is its Driver Training, which has been imparting piloting skills for more than 23 years. It can handle up to 13,000 students per year, the professional instruction emphasizing the safety aspects of performance driving.
There are now about 500 employees of M, half of them building M cars. Most of the technical development and testing of M cars is done within the company, earning M the status of carmaker under German law.
Since M's inception, other auto manufacturers have followed suit and established special departments to handle special cars. None have been around as long as M, however, and none have managed to create the level of brand identity enjoyed by M.
Stay tuned for our year-long paean to this amazing company; next month we zero in on the fabulous M1.