With the all-new BMW M3 and M4 coupe, we thought it was a good time to take a look back at the origins of the Ultimate Driving Machine’s performance division, and how we ended up with hot-rod-SUVs like the X5 M. Some have criticized the move from a naturally aspirated V8 to a turbocharged inline-6 in the new M3 and M4, but as you’ll learn here, everything BMW M starts and ends with the straight-six.
The division that we know today as BMW M was formed in 1972 to take on racing projects. Their first creation was the 3.0CSL “Batmobile” (one of this writer’s favorite cars of all time). As the name suggests, that car was powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6, though technically the engine was bored out to as much as 3.5-liters in later models, making as much as 430 horsepower.
But the first car to wear the M badge was the fantastical M1. It used the venerable M88/1 engine, which displaced 3.5 liters and produced 272 horsepower at the start. With turbocharging for Group 5 Racing, this engine could make as much as 900 horsepower.
The 1978 M1 debuted at the Paris Motor Show, and was essentially a homologation special (meaning that a certain amount of road cars need to be built before it can compete in certain racing classes). Lamborghini was originally supposed to build the M1, but when the Italian supercar maker was on shaky financial ground, BMW brought assembly back in-house.
Even after the production issues, world sportscar racing rules changed, making the M1 obsolete from an international motorsport standpoint, and in 1979 BMW Motorsport assembled its own racing series called the BMW M1 Procar Championship. It ran for two seasons.
The M1 was basically a race car for the road, but the division decided its potent race engine would be far more marketable in its road cars. Enter the 1980 BMW M535i. BMW M took the E12 generation of the 5 Series and fitted it with a version of the amazing M88/1 engine for European markets. (Note: We will be jumping between Euro-spec and U.S.-spec cars, which have different outputs and different debut years. Please bear with us.)
In 1983, BMW unveiled a replacement for the 3.0CS coupe– the 6 Series. With it came an M variant as well, dubbed the M635CSi (and we bitch about BMW naming conventions today!). Thankfully in the US, it was named the M6. It had a top speed limited to 155 mph and featured awesome BBS wheels, aggressive front body work and larger front brakes.
For 1985, the M535 would get an update and a name change– to the much cleaner M5. European versions would get a 3.5-liter inline-6 that made 282 hp in European and South African markets, but the US required the addition of a catalytic converter, knocking output down to 256 hp for the American M5.
That same year, BMW M turned its attention toward the E30 3 Series, thus creating the M3. It was the first M car to come with an inline-4, making 197 horsepower (192 with a catalytic converter). The race engine could make as much as 250 horsepower.
In 1989, BMW M would debut a new M5. It featured a 3.6-liter inline-6 making 311 horsepower (307 hp in the US). In 1992, displacement would grow to 3.8-liters for European models, making 335 horsepower. Due to emission laws, the engine did not grow that year. 1992 also saw the introduction of the M5 Touring– a five-door wagon that is a holy grail amongst enthusiasts.
1992 was also the year that BMW replaced its M3. The E36 generation of the M3 is another one of those most-sought after cars by the enthusiast community. For this generation, the engine grew to an inline-6, but at 3-liters, it was still smaller than the rest of the M powerplants.
It was around this time that BMW debuted the 8 Series halo car. Internally, the folks at M created a performance variant of the V12-powered 8 Series, which they called the M8. It’s V12 made a rumored 550 horsepower. A production model was given the green light, but the name changed to 850CSi and output dropped to a mortal 375 hp.
The year 1992 really was a good one for BMW M. The performance division was tapped by McLaren to build the amazing 6.1-liter V12 engine that would sit behind the driver in the spectacular F1. The McLaren F1 is considered by many to be one of the greatest sportscars of all time, and that’s in large part to the BMW M-sourced powertrain.
Many think that the F1 engine was a bored out version of the M8 engine, but F1 creator Gordon Murray though it was too long and too heavy for McLaren’s performance goals. According to some sources, the F1′s engine actually bears a closer resemblance to the 3.0-liter inline 6 from the 1992-1995 European M3– combining two I6 banks to make a V12
In 1998 a new model joined the M lineup. The Z3 had been around since the 1996 model year but for ’98, M put a host of M3 mechanicals under the hood, including the 3.2-liter inline-6 (making 321 hp in Europe and 240 hp in the States), brakes and suspension. The fenders featured a larger flare to accommodate wider performance tires. Thus, the Z3 M Roadster was created.
That same year, BMW offered a hardtop shooting brake and, like the M5 Wagon, the Z3 M Coupe (below) is among the most coveted of the M cars. The Z3 M Coupe and roadster also bring up the subject of M cars versus M-badged cars. To what I’m about to explain, the Z3 M Coupe and Roadster are an exception…
An official M vehicle has the M# formula (M1, M3, M5, M6), and then there are vehicles that have M packages, like a 535 M-Sport or 335 M-Sport. These vehicles have M-performance upgrades but are not full M vehicles. As stated before the Z3 M variants are the outliers to this rule, as is the 1 Series M Coupe (not to be confused with the M1), which we’ll talk about a little later.
The first M5 to sport a V8 came for the 2000 model year. The S62 4.9-liter V8 made 394 horsepower and could propel the M5 from zero to 60 in just four seconds, on its was to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. Many contend that with the electronic governors off, the 1998-2003 M5 could top out at 186 mph.
In 2000 BMW replaced the M3. Back in 1995, the engine grew to 3.2-liters and for the 2001 model year, BMW continued that size, but power was now 338 horsepower for Euro models. The drop off in performance in US models was not as great anymore, as the US-spec model made 333 horsepower.
There were several highly coveted special editions of this model, including the CS and CSL models. They are low in numbers and fetch top dollar to this day. The E46 M3 ran until 2007.
While the engine size on the M3 was kept the same, the engine of the 2005 M5 went into semi-bonkers territory. The 5.0-liter V10 found under the curving hood of the new M5 was derived from BMW’s previous Formula 1 involvement and put out 500 horsepower. The car was a monster and engine won multiple awards, including multiple International Engine of the Year awards.
The 3 Series must have felt pretty inadequate compared to the V10-powered M5, because for 2008, the E90 M3 revealed the potent S65 V8 engine under the “power dome” hood. Displacing 4.0 liters, it is essentially the M5’s V10, less two cylinders. It made 414 horsepower, but by the end of its generation, it was making 444 horses.
As you might believe, things were starting to get a little nuts over at M, and BMW opted to created a performance SUV to take on the likes of the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, and Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. The result was the creation of the X5 M and X6 M. Both featured a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 making 555 horsepower. It also features xDrive all-wheel drive, with torque vectoring, which puts more power to the outside wheels of a turn.
How the heck else are you supposed to move that much weight around a track!
Thankfully, after M went off the deep end, they got back to their senses and for the 2011 model year, turned to making small cars go really, really fast. BMW Motorsport took a standard 1 Series coupe, and fitted it with the re-tuned version of the N54 inline-6 found in the Z4 sDrive35is. It makes 335 horsepower and 370 pound feet of torque. It can get from zero to sixty in 4.5 seconds and is generally regarded as a track monster. It is arguably the best and most pure performance car that M has built in the last decade.
The 1 M Coupe only ran for one year, also making it yet ANOTHER one of the most sought after M cars.
So here we are, in a modern era where the M5 is back to a V8, albeit with turbo charging. The M6 is also back too and running this new twin-power turbo V8. These cars (like the 850CSi before it). The M5 and M6 are as upscale as they are potent, and are prohibitively expensive. The only option for the average gearhead to aspire to are the M3 and M4, for now. Rumor is, we’ll be getting M versions of the updated 1 Series and forthcoming 2 Series– a compact performance coupe.
And it looks like the 2014 M3 and M4 will run 3.0-liter inline-6 cylinder engines. You might want the insane engines of the mid-2000s, but the straight six is where BMW’s roots are at. I, for one, am extremely excited to get back behind the wheel of a six-cylinder M3, and the linear feel of that engine’s pull is something that has been missing from the BMW lineup. We’re glad to have it back.