Cut to today, and that tradition is alive, well, and just swell with the all-new M2 Coupé. A car that's not only the most affordable way to buy into the BMW M family, but one that's intoxicating, agile, alive, engaging and a whole raft of other synonyms.
The launch of this hot little tarmac-burner was recently held at the Franschoek Motor Museum, to which our group of journalists travelled from Cape Town International Airport in a selection of M cars including an M6, M5, X6 M and others - before taking them on Dr Johann Rupert's private race track. Of course, also in residence was an M2, but just one example as only limited numbers of this car are available in SA.
No matter. The M2 almost instantly proved why it's a leap ahead of its already iconic predecessor, the 1 Series M Coupé.
It also proved that BMW is not indulging in porky pies when it says that this machine "sets a fresh benchmark for dynamic potency and agility in the compact high-performance sports car segment."
Driving force comes from a new, six-cylinder in-line engine - which, of course, provides all the stirring sound effects that BMW sixes have long been so famous for.
And with M TwinPower Turbo technology, this three-litre powerplant puts down 272kW at 6,500rpm and 465Nm of torque. Or up to 500Nm in short bursts under overboost. Its performance statistics make for rivetting reading - and reinforce why by any standards, not just class standards, it's blisteringly rapid.
Indeed, with the optional seven-speed M Double Clutch Transmission (M CT) and Launch Control, it will howl from zero to 100km/h in just 4.3 seconds. That's the sort of acceleration a bona fide supercar with an astronomical price tag was turning in not terribly long ago.
Maximum speed is electronically limited to 250km/h. Yet with its M DCT transmission, fuel consumption in the combined cycle is pegged at a rather reasonable 7.9 litres per 100km.
Muscular yet purposeful - entirely echoes the ethos and ability of this lightweight, rear-wheel-drive rocket, from the low front apron to the M-specific twin-tailpipe exhaust system to the 19-inch aluminium wheels in M double-spoke design. So does the interior. And ensconced in the cockpit there's little doubt that you're in one of BMW's M cars, what with lashings of Alcantra, sports seats, and an M sports steering wheel and M gearshift lever.
It so happens to handle like it looks, too. With the lightweight aluminium front and rear axles from the BMW M3/M4 models, those forged aluminium wheels with mixed-size tyres, M Servotronic steering with two settings, and suitably gripping M compound brakes, the car is a track demon.
Plus when the Dynamic Stability Control system's M Dynamic Mode (MDM) is activated, controlled drifting of this machine is entirely feasible. On a racetrack of course.
It's also well-specced and well-equipped, this car. Besides brimming with technology and creature comforts, it's perfectly tractable and tame - and entirely useable as a daily driver. Tap into its massive reserves, however, and the years of motor racing experience built up by the BMW M engineers come shining through.
You'll pay R791,000 for the six-speed manual, and R841,000 for the 7-Speed M-DCT model. For that you get an intensely enthralling, beautifully engineered little Bavarian firecracker of a machine.