• 50 Shades of M: Celebrating Five Decades of an Icon

A journey through the 50 years of M

The devil horns hand gesture, Nike’s swoosh and Adidas’ three stripes. Symbols that immediately invoke certain emotions in people related to their favourite heavy metal band, football club or player and in extension, fashion. This is the power of iconic logos that represent the celebrated history and identity of a brand, genre of music or even a subculture.  

There is one alphabet in the English language, M, means exactly that to petrolheads. BMW’s performance division, which just turned 50 in 2022, has produced some of the most mesmerising road cars and whenever one sees the iconic M logo on one of them, they know that car is all about sideways hooliganism while being dressed like a gentleman. 

It all started in 1972 when the M division (which stands for Motorsport) was born as BMW Motorsport as the brand’s in-house racing division with a team of 35 employees. Its first project was the 3.0 CSL (Coupe Sports Lightweight), a performance version of the BMW 3.0 CS. It took the touring car racing world by storm throughout the 70s and road-going versions were also developed due to homologation requirements. Fast forward to 1978 and the first car with an M badge, the M1, was launched. The mid-engined sportscar was a radical departure design-wise from the brand’s other models and was also one of the fastest road cars back then. The period after that saw the M division enjoy tremendous success on the racetrack with one of the standout highlights being Nelson Piquet’s 1983 Formula One Championship winning season in the Brabham BT52 powered by a turbocharged engine from BMW. 

On the road, the ethos of the M division’s performance cars going forward took shape with the 1984 M635CSi and the 1985 E28 M5. The M5 had the styling of an executive sedan and performance figures that made it faster than the Ferrari 328! Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The recipe got perfected with the 1986’s E30 M3, which had a high-revving four-cylinder engine producing 200PS and was made out of lightweight materials that made it handle like a dream. Of course, BMW went racing with it and achieved monumental success in touring car circuits around the world. Its iconic battles with the Mercedes-Benz race cars on the racetrack led to some of the most scintillating racing action ever seen and also produced some performance-oriented road versions of both cars, thus starting the horsepower race that is still going on today. 

1988 saw the launch of the E34 M5, which became more luxurious and more powerful than its predecessor. The second-gen E36 M3 was launched in 1992. It was powered by a three-litre six-cylinder engine and is considered to be one of the best handling cars of the 90s. 

In 1993, BMW Motorsport was officially rebranded as BMW M. The rest of the 90s saw the E39 M5 arrive in 1998 with a V8 engine for the first time and the Z3M Coupe in 1997, which saw everyone’s jaw drop because of the body shape.

The E46 M3 arrived at the start of the 21st century. It had simple yet gorgeous design lines along with a mesmerising in-line six-cylinder motor that had one of the best engine sounds in the automotive sphere. The CSL model that arrived in 2003 perfected the car with lightweight materials making it about 100kg lighter than the standard M3. The M5 gained two more cylinders with the E60 model in 2005 as it came equipped with an F1-inspired V10 engine that produced 507PS and 520Nm. The M6 made a comeback that same year as well. The M division also started working on BMW SUVs as well with the first ones, the X5 M and the X6 M arriving in 2009.

With M cars getting bigger in size over the years, the 2011 1 M Series Coupe and the 2015 M2 in the Competition and CS guises were a welcome change with their compact dimensions and thrilling driving dynamics. 2014 was a momentous year for the M3 as it marked the arrival of the M4. Going forward the M3 was only available in sedan body style (until the M3 Touring arrived this year) while the M4 came in coupe and convertible body styles. The M8 was launched in 2019 and its Competition models were the most powerful and luxurious of the brand’s lineup. Radical design changes headlined the arrival of the next-generation M3 and M4 models in 2020 featuring the new large polarising grille design that became a topic of conversation for BMW purists. After driving them though, most agreed that the new M cars still retained the M division’s philosophy under the hood. 

So, what’s in store for the future of this iconic brand? Obviously, it is electrification and hybridisation. The recently revealed XM proves that point with its 652PS plug-in hybrid powertrain. If the SUV is an indicator of the brand’s design language going forward, though, it seems like we are in for some head-scratching moments for sure. But, thankfully, the fully-electric Vision M Next concept sportscar makes the future look exciting and filled with thrilling performance machines.

Influence in Motorsports

Touring Car Racing: The touring car circuit is the spiritual home of BMW Motorsport with an illustrious history over the years. The 3.0 CSL won the European Touring Car Championship six times between 1973 and 1979 and the M3 E30 won the World Touring Car Championship in 1997, two DTM titles in 1987 and 1989 along with numerous other titles in the european and world touring car circuits amounting to more than 1,400 race wins during its lifetime! BMW Motorsport stopped participating in DTM racing in 1992 and did not return for almost another 20 years. But, when it did in 2012, it did so with a bang by winning the manufacturer’s title that year and followed that up with another one in 2013 with the M3 DTM racecar. Between 2014 and 2022, the M4 DTM won a total of 30 races, two driver’s championships, one team title and a manufacturer’s title before BMW Motorsport once again retired from DTM after the 2020 season. 

Le Mans: BMW Motorsport has a rich history of being competitive in the hallowed 24 Hours of Le Mans over the years. The 3.0 CSL, back in the day, secured class wins in 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1977. The greatest triumph happened on 13th June, 1999, when BMW Team Schnitzer managed a historic overall win in the legendary V12 LMR after a heartbreak the year before with the V12 LM. After 2011, BMW Motorsport made a comeback to the circuit on the river Sarthe in 2018 with the M8 GTE before once again saying goodbye to Le Mans in 2019. Another comeback is planned for 2024 with the M Hybrid V8 in the Hypercar class!  

Formula One: BMW entered Formula in 1982 in partnership with the Brabham team as an engine supplier. In 1983, the Brabham team’s BT52, powered by the legendary in-line four-cylinder turbocharged engine, secured the championship with Nelson Piquet behind the wheel. They also supplied turbocharged engines to the Arrows, ATS, Ligier and Benetton teams till the late 80s. At the turn of the new millenia, BMW Motorsport entered the 2000 season as an engine supplier to the Williams Racing team which lasted till the 2005 season. From the 2006 to the 2009 season, BMW Motorsport competed as the BMW Sauber F1 Team after having bought the Swiss team in 2005 and withdrew from the sport at the end of the 2009 season. 

Rally: BMW Motorsport has been competing on and off in rally events since the 1930s. The infamous Group B class saw a rally-spec M1 in 1981 but mechanical issues prevented the team from being competitive. The E30 M3 had much better success though, with European Touring Car Hill Climb Championship wins in 1988 and 1989 and multiple class wins in the French Rally Championship. 

Iconic Motorsport Moments

ETCC Dominance (1973 - 1979): The newly formed BMW Motorsport division’s first creation, the 3.0 CSL, absolutely obliterated its competition in the European Touring Car Championship between 1973 and 1979: Toine Hezemans won in 1973, Siegfried Müller Sr and Alain Peltier in 1975, Jean Xhenceval and Pierre Dieudonné in 1976, Dieter Quester in 1977, Umberto Grano in 1978 and Martino Finotto and Carlo Facetti in 1979. Such achievements of the 3.0 CSL in the iconic blue, red and purple livery cemented its status in racing folklore.   

M3 E30’s 1987 and 1989 DTM triumphs: The E30 M3, one of the most successful touring cars of all time, was powered by a 350PS in-line four-cylinder engine and took on the likes of the legendary Mercedes-Benz 190E, Ford Sierra Cosworth and the Audi Quattro, later on, to take home the 1987 and 1989 DTM titles: Eric van de Poele won in 1987 and Roberto Ravaglia won in 1989. 

1999 Le Mans: BMW entered the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans with two V12 LMRs. The number 15 car suddenly became the lead car when the number 17 car retired after 197 laps and what followed was a thrilling battle with the Toyota GT-One, with no fewer than 15 lead changes until the V12 LMR finished on top. It remains BMW Motorsport’s only Le Mans triumph to date.   

1983 Formula One World Championship: BMW Motorsport developed the engine of the Brabham BT52 for the 1983 Formula One World Championship. It was a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine that produced a bonkers 800PS. Combining that with Gordon Murray’s genius car design, the BT52 was a masterstroke as Nelson Piquet went on to win that year’s championship driving it, becoming the first driver in the sport’s history to do so in a turbocharged car.   

DTM Comeback in 2012: BMW Motorsport’s return to DTM after an absence of almost 20 years, couldn’t have been any sweeter with the team claiming the manufacturer’s title. BMW Team Schnitzer won the team title with Bruno Spengler winning the driver’s title in the tenth and final race of the season in Hockenheim. Spengler won a total of four races during the season in the BMW Bank M3 DTM to make it a memorable DTM comeback for BMW.

12 Most Iconic BMW M Cars

3.0 CSL (1973) 

Nicknamed the ‘Batmobile’ because of its huge wings, the 3.0 CSL was a homologation special of the hugely successful racecar and was powered by an in-line six-cylinder petrol engine producing 206PS with a top speed of 220kmph.

M1 (1978) 

The godfather of all M cars, the M1, was the first car to wear the M badge and was a mid-engined sportscar powered by an in-line six-cylinder petrol engine producing 277PS and 330Nm with a top speed of around 265kmph. A total of 460 of these beauties were built based on homologation specifications.

E28 M5 (1985)

The first M5 was powered by a 3.5-litre in-line six-cylinder petrol engine producing 286PS, which is more than a Ferrari 328 in those days. It could accelerate from 0-100kmph in 6.5 seconds with a top speed of 245kmph. Its combination of luxury and performance set the blueprint for a high-performance family car that is still followed till date.  

E30 M3 (1986)

One of the most important M cars ever, the E30 M3, had a high-revving 2.3-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol engine that produced 200PS and had a top speed of 235kmph. Along with its lightweight body and race car-like handling capabilities, the E30 M3 set the definition of an M car. 

Z3 M Coupe (1997)

The Z3 M Coupe's Shooting Brake body style divided opinions after its launch. The unique proportions with a long bonnet, wide track and a short rear-end has made it a cult classic, though, over the years. The closed version of the Z3 M Roadster got a 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine that produced 321PS and 350Nm. Its unique proportions with a long bonnet, wide track and a very short rear-end has made it a cult classic, though, over the years. 

E39 M5 (1998)

The third-gen model was the first M5 to be powered by eight cylinders under the hood: a 4.9-litre V8 engine producing a mammoth 400PS and 500Nm. The styling also got thoroughly revised.

E46 M3 CSL (2003)

The M3 E46 CSL is considered to be one of the M division’s finest creations. It had a screaming in-line six-cylinder petrol engine under the hood producing 360PS. The E46 CSL got weight saving trickeries everywhere along with a carbon fibre roof and combining all of these with the flared wheel arches and the gorgeous silhouette, it has also become one of the most desirable M cars down the years.   

E60 M5 (2005)

The M5 gained two more cylinders with the fourth generation and the 500PS V10 petrol engine under the hood that was inspired by BMW’s F1 engine at that time and redlined at 8,250rpm while producing a thunderous soundtrack. Basically, a businessman in a suit going cage fighting after office hours.

 E92 M3 (2007)

The E92 model is the first M3 to get a V8 engine and the last one to be naturally-aspirated. The four-litre V8 produced 420PS and 400Nm with a top speed of 250kmph. The modern day BMW M styling also began to take shape with this model.

1 Series M Coupe (2011)

The 1 Series M Coupe bright back hooliganism in a compact form to BMW M’s stable. It was powered by a free-revving twin-turbocharged three-litre in-line six-cylinder engine producing 335PS and 450Nm.  Its dynamic proportions and go-kart-like handling characteristics made it a spiritual successor to the E30 M3.  

F82 M4 (2014)

The first M4 was born out of the M3. It was powered by a twin-turbocharged three-litre in-line six-cylinder engine producing 431PS and 550Nm and came mated to a seven-speed M dual-clutch gearbox.

F90 M5 (2017)

The fifth-generation M5 got a 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine producing 600PS! Thanks to a dedicated rear-wheel drive mode along with the all-wheel drive system, sideways fun was still possible.

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