As we wrap up BMW month, there's one more big retrospective piece left to do – the M cars. For over 30 years M-badged cars have embodied BMW's motoring spirit on roads and racing circuits around the world. You've already seen lots of BMW's race cars this month, so let's take a look at the history of production M cars, dating back to the famous BMW M1 of the late '70s.
Although BMW's M division had been around since 1972, handing BMW's motorsport operations amd working on cars like the 3.0 CSL, the legend of the M badge was launched by the BMW M1 when it was built for homologation in 1978. With it's mid-engine layout and extremely low production numbers, the first M car became one of the most desirable BMW's of all time. For more on this Lamborghini-designed supercar, check out John Brooks' and Andy Blackmore's retrospective stories on it.
Following the M1, BMW's M division started to tweak more traditional cars like the E12 M535i sedan and M635CSi (sold as the M6 in North America). The inline six in the M635CSi was derived from the M1 engine and gave the car very impressive performance figures for its time. For the most part the M version of the 635CSi looked the same as the standard version, except for a different front fascia, wheels, and of course the M badge.
Following the M535i, the first "M5" model was launched on the E28 chassis in 1985. The M5's were assembled at BMW Motorsport's factory near Munich where the standard 5-series body was mated with the same M88 inline six from the M635CSi. The E28 M5's subtle styling was intentional, as BMW Motorsport didn't want the car to advertise it's potent chassis and 286hp engine.
The first M3 model, launched in 1986 was anything but subtle. Designed as a homologation car for Group A racing, the E30 M3 shared very little with the standard 3-series. With it's flared body work and highly tuned S14 four cylinder under the hood, the E30 M3 would go on to become one of the most iconic BMW's ever. Because of it's raw nature, a lot of BMW enthusiasts also consider the E30 to be the best M3 ever. By the end of its production run in 1990, BMW M GmbH had tuned the M3 to make 238hp in the hottest Sport Evolution model.
There was even a rare cabrio model of the E30 M3, which was hand-assembled at the BMW Motorsport factory for the European market.
In 1988 a new model M5 debuted using the E34 chassis. With an updated version of the E28's inline six under the hood, the E34 M5 made as much as 340hp in the later Euro market 3.8 liter versions. The E34 M5 also featured high tech Adaptive M suspension, which was electronically adjusted based on readings from a number of sensors. For the 1992 model year, the M5 could also be had in station wagon form with the M5 Touring.
The second generation M3 was launched in 1992 on the new E36 chassis. While the E30 M3 was originally designed as a competition car, the E36 was not – and the design reflects this. The flares of the E30 were replaced with a look more similar to the standard 3-series. The engine had grown by two cylinders and made as much as 321hp in later Euro market models. North American buyers would have to make due with 240hp on both the 3.0 and 3.2 models. Later versions of the E36 were available with 6-speed manual transmissions or even the new SMG sequential gearbox.
Although it launched as a coupe, the E36 M3 line was later expanded to include a four-door sedan and cabrio model.
During the late '90s BMW introduced the new Z3 Roadster. It was only natural that BMW Motorsport would outfit the car with E36 M3's (and later the E46's) drivetrain to create the Z3 M Roadster. A couple years after the launch of the Roadster, a unique coupe model was launched with added strength and rigidity.
After a short hiatus the M5 would return in 1998 on the new E39 chassis. Like M5's of the past, it featured subtle exterior modifications and a hot-rodded engine under the hood. In this case it was an S62 5.0L V8 that made 394hp and was available only with a six-speed manual gearbox. The E39 M5 would set benchmarks for sport sedan performance and is still a great performer by modern standards.
The new E46 M3 was launched for the 2000 model year. The E46 went back to a more aggressive exterior design, with widened fenders and vents helping to differentiate it from the standard 3-series. All E46 M3's would get the S54 inline six that made 333hp under the SAE rating system. The SMG transmission option became more popular with the E46, though many preferred the standard six-speed. No sedan was offered, but a cabrio was introduced shortly after the coupe.
The hottest of all the E46 M3's is the limited production CSL model. The CSL featured a lightened body with more aggressive suspension and engine tuning – resulting in one of the best performing BMW's ever.
With the introduction of the new BMW Z4, the engineers at BMW Motorsport again got to work on outfitting the new car with the E46 M3's powerplant. Like the Z3 M's, the Z4 would be available in both roadster and coupe versions.
The M5 took a big step with the completely redesigned E60 model in 2005. Displacement stays at 5.0L, though the engine now has ten cylinders and makes 500hp. The new S85 V10 was intended primarily for use with the SMG transmission, but a standard six-speed manual option was added later on.
The new chassis also reintroduced the M5 Touring for the European market. Perhaps the most incredible station wagon of all time…
Around the same time the engineers at BMW Motorsport also decided to bring back the M6 by dropping the M5's V10 into the new E63 6-series. The M6 is currently available in both coupe and convertible form.
The fourth generation M3 debuted in 2007 with the all new E92 model. Like the other M Cars, the newest M3 has grown in size and complexity and is now powered a 4.0L S65 V8 that makes 420hp. Transmission choices are either a standard six-speed manual or an advanced dual clutch unit.
For the first time since the '90s, the M3 is again available as a 4-door sedan, with the same aggressive body work as the coupe. A convertible model is also available, with a touring wagon also said to be on the way.
BMW Motorsport's latest ventures have taken the company in a groundbreaking direction. The new X5 and X6 M models mark the first time turbocharging and all wheel drive have been seen on M vehicles. With over 550hp coming out of a new twin turbo V8, the X5 and X6 M are two of the fastest SUV's on the planet.
Time will tell whether this new technology will trickle down to the other M cars. Whatever happens, we can only expect to see more masterpieces come out of the BMW Motorsport division.