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Celebrating 100 years of BMW Part 1: Driving the M1

18.11.2016

It seldom happens that many automakers allow members of the media behind the wheel of some of their most significant and historical models. After all, not only are these in limited supply and extremely valuable, but the thought of being damaged or completely written off makes for further reasoning as to why they should stay in a museum or behind a glass partition at the factory. Or does it?

To mark its centenary this year, BMW South Africa recently took the leap by inviting a number of scribes to experience two of their most their most famous models first hand; the unique to South Africa E30 333i and the very first M-car, the M1.

Part of BMW South Africa's Heritage Collection, which once also included a E28 M5 and a E23 745i that were sold to private buyers in the early 1990s, both have undergone extensive restoration work with the M1 also receiving a new paint finish from its original blue to red.

Truth be told, there was a sense of huge excitement and even bigger nervousness from yours truly when observing the 333i and M1 parked outside BMW's head office in Midrand for the first time.

Adding to the mix was the fact the M1 was never offered for sale in right-hand-drive, meaning I would have to change gear with my right hand for the first time ever, while a further curveball was that both featured dog-leg boxes; a configuration derived from racing where first gear occupies the position you would normally expect second, with second, third, fourth and fifth falling behind each other.

Following a short briefing about the vehicles, it was time to hit the road with our destination being the lunch stop at a country hotel near Magaliesburg some 100 km away. With a driver change set for the midway point, I happily lowered myself into the very snug cab of the M1 for the first leg of the journey.

The result of an intended partnership between BMW and Lamborghini, which ended in 1978 when the Sant' Agata firm went into receivership, only 453 examples of the low-slung (1 140 mm in height) Giugiaro penned M1 went on sale from 1978-1981, with the car also being one of the first to have its engine in the middle.

Rolling out of the office car park and onto the N1, it quickly became apparent that the M1 can shame many modern cars with its comfortable ride setup. The seats might be narrow and air-conditioning still a novelty, you do get electric windows weirdly, it rides smoothly with the refurbished but still forty year old suspension soaking up imperfections with absolute aplomb.

However, it is when your drop it to third and floor the throttle that the real magic kicks in. Nested just behind your right is a motorsport derived 3.5 litre fuel injected straight six that produces 204 kW and 329 N.m of torque, which allowed for a 0-100 km/h sprint of around 6.0 seconds and top speed of 262 km/h.

Devoid of any modern fripperies such as twin-scroll turbocharging, the noise is best described as glorious at full chat, with that typical BMW inline six scream becoming more evident as you go pass 4 000 rpm. But what is it like to drive the very first BMW M-car?

Getting in on the left hand side with nothing but a bare steering wheel, analogue instrument cluster and most of the switches written in German was an unnerving experience, especially when you factor in that the M1 is more valuable than any modern M-car.

Selecting first gear and upping the revs to avoid stalling - the clutch bite point is quite high and the pedal itself hardly a marsh mellow - I set off gingerly before going for second as the revs begin to climb and the engine prepares to unleash that straight six crescendo.

Requiring a firm hand to change cogs, I select third and nail it as the revs exceeded 4 000 rpm and then 5 000 rpm as the country side rapidly flashed passed. Ignoring the fact that I am sitting on the wrong side and levels of perspiration caused by not opening the window, the M88/1 power unit continued its assault on my senses as the confines of the concrete jungle made way for the open bushveld of rural Gauteng.

Constructed mostly out of glass reinforced plastic which sees it tipping the scales at 1.3 tons, the M1 also lacks power steering, meaning you can feel the road through your fingertips with each turn of the wheel with levels of feedback some power assisted system could only dream of.

Granted, making tighter turns calls for some serious wheel work, but that is a small price to pay for flinging the godfather of M-cars through the flowing corners of the Highveld with complete precision, while that soundtrack remains on cue each time you exercise your right toe.

Arriving at our destination with the drive back to Johannesburg set to be undertaken in the 333i, the notion of having piloted the very first BMW M-car began to sink in. Calling it a privilege would be an understatement as no real description, apart from those using language better not said here, can truly summarise what many a petrolhead will give virtually everything for to experience.

A brave way to celebrate its 100th birthday indeed, but one which BMW South Africa needs commending for and which other manufactures should take notice of.

Article written by Charl Bosch
18.11.2016
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