The thrilling history of the short-lived BMW M1 Procar

Photography by Dirk de Jager and BMW Group Classic

When the M1 Procar’s tach needle hits 6000 rpm, evil crawls back under a rock begging for mummy. At close to 7500 rpm, the raspy tremolo of the six-cylinder tortures your inner ear. But you feel it: This is the sweet spot where this engine delivers. 

So you stick with it and push on some more: 8000 rpm, 8500 rpm. Glorious. 

This engine pays homage in a powerful serenade to BMW’s famous name: Bayerische Motoren Werke. We’re told that this engine can be joyfully revved even further, to 9000 and even 10,000 rpm. 

The M1 Procar makes every hair on your body stand up. Imagine what it must have sounded like when 20 of these BMW specials came powering through the Monaco tunnel in close formation?

The BMW M1 was Jochen Neerpasch’s brainchild. He still refers to it as “my life’s work.” 

The Procar series shared the card with Formula 1 while showcasing its drivers. Jochen Neerpasch, shown with Niki Lauda back then, now mentors the BMW Junior Team.

BMW had lured Neerpasch away from Ford in the early ’70s, basically to stop Ford from beating BMW on the touring car circuit. In short, if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. 

Neerpasch was to establish a semi-independent motorsport division for BMW. In 1972, exactly 50 years ago, Motorsport GmbH took off.

The thing was, as an independent company, Motorsport was also meant to seek an income for itself. This would lead to an incredibly ambitious project, with every bit the intention to hand BMW an alternative to the Porsche 911. 

The first idea was to develop some sort of a supercoupe for BMW,” he tells us. “It would have become the top model in the range, destined to be the 8 Series.

But soon,” he continues, “we realized we had three problems. What we really wanted to do was produce an engine for Formula 1. Logic dictated at the time this would have to be a 3-liter, eight-cylinder engine. We wanted to use a road-going derivative of that engine for the coupe. 

Our three problems: The project was getting too expensive; it would have taken too long to develop a Formula 1 engine that was also useable in a road car; and finally, there was a quality issue to consider. With a positioning at the top of the BMW range, we could not get away with using fiberglass for the production car to keep the weight under control. At that time, it was clear a change in philosophy was needed.”

That change in philosophy involved moving this supercoupe project from BMW to Motorsport GmbH. “By switching to the available six-cylinder engine,” Neerpasch explains, “we could get the M1 done in time and extract sufficient performance from the engine.”

Neerpasch made sure the M1 was conceived with racing in mind–“racing and rallying,” he corrects. “We opted for a steel spaceframe chassis, which left us room for modifications for Group 5 racing and for rallying.” 

For the engine, a clear road map was laid out: 280 horsepower was the target for the road car, 470 for the Group 4 version and, with turbocharging, 850 for Group 5. 

BMW’s engine wizard, Paul Rosche, went to work on the new inline-six. For racing in Group4, the 3.5-liter engine received bigger valves, double valve springs, forged pistons, new intake and exhaust passages, racy camshafts, and a much more liberal exhaust that channelled six tubes into one big trombone hiding under the bumper. It all landed right on target: 470 horsepower at 9000 rpm.

And then the whole M1 program came close to collapsing when the partner contracted to build the M1–Lamborghini–ran into serious financial difficulties after missing out on a supplier’s contract for the U.S. Army. 

[The BMW M1 proves that M Is for motorsport]

BMW had to organize a nighttime excursion to the Italian commune of Sant’Agata to retrieve the plans and prototypes for the M1. “It was not a raid,” Neerpasch clarifies. “They knew we were coming, and nobody hindered us.” 

Production was delayed consequently, as was the planned homologation for Group 4 racing. “We had two problems that were related with one another,” he continues. “We could not start racing the M1 when we had planned to because we could not produce enough cars in time for the homologation date in Group 4 in the early months of 1979. And without a racing program, we knew it would be hard selling the road M1s.”

Let’s Have a Drink

The solution was found in a bar. No, really. 

Neerpasch explains a meeting with the future FIA president: “It happened one evening in a Munich nightclub. I was there with Max Mosley, with whom we were working closely together on the Formula 2 project with March. 

“I explained to him we were having difficulties with the racing program for the M1, and we started tossing ideas around. We were discussing how it would be great if we were to pitch the five fastest Formula 1 drivers from Friday practice in a Grand Prix against other top-rated drivers in identical Group 4 M1s.”

The next day, Neerpasch continues, this Procar idea still held water. So they took it to Bernie Ecclestone. 

“Bernie was very enthusiastic about the idea because it would draw more spectators in on the Saturday, normally a slower day for F1 audiences,” Neerpasch recalls. “And that is exactly what Procar did: People wanted to see these drivers fight it out on Saturday in the M1s. Spectator numbers went up on Saturday when Procar took place, so Bernie was happy about it.”

Lauda Meets Dennis

Then came the challenges of turning that series into a reality. A big obstacle to overcome: money.

“It was a difficult operation for us, because it was expensive,” Neerpasch explains. “Don’t forget, we had to convince private teams that they needed to buy an M1 Procar from us to race it in this new, unproven one-make series. 

“And we were under a lot of stress since we only had a very short time to build and sell those cars. We had to sell more than 20 cars. The first race in 1979 at Zolder was crucial for the success of Procar. It was quite a risk we took.”

It also involved Mosley running around the paddock with a money-filled briefcase. The F1 drivers were not remunerated directly–rewards were a brand-new BMW M1 road car for the champion and his team boss. The runners-up would receive a BMW 528i. “Only Mario Andretti needed some extra motivation in the form of some bank checks before getting on board,” Neerpasch remembers.

This Procar, however, doesn’t have any period racing history: Fritz Wagner built it from legit parts so Jan Lammers could drive it at a Procar reunion in 2019.

Niki Lauda took a different approach to this new BMW M1 Procar Championship. “He had his eye on the title all along,” Neerpasch says. “Well, on the attached prize, more precisely. Niki understood he was not guaranteed a top-five place in the Friday practice in Formula1 in every race, so he struck a deal with Ron Dennis, who was leading Project Four at the time. They entered a car for the whole season, and of course Niki walked away with the M1 at the end of the season.”

1979 was also the season where Lauda abruptly walked away from his Brabham and Formula 1 in practice for the Canadian Grand Prix. He was, as he said at the time, bored of “driving around in circles.” Lauda had bagged the Procar title at the previous round in Monza, Italy.

Getting those 20 cars ready in time for the Belgian Grand Prix in May 1979 required a herculean effort. BMW Motorsport itself prepared the five factory M1s for the Grand Prix drivers, while the cars for the private teams were sent to private shops: 10 cars to Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing in the U.K. and another 10 to Osella in Italy. 

On May 12, the first round of the Procar championship effectively took place at Zolder, Belgium, even if some cars were barely finished. With Lauda, Procar would have a star-quality champion in 1979.

After seeing the strong gates on Saturday, Ecclestone and Mosley were only too happy to add a second Procar season to the calendar in 1980. The title would end up with another Formula 1 star: Nelson Piquet. 

But the first race of the season in Donington turned out to be very much a one-man show for a young Dutchman whose name is on one of the cars pictured here: Jan Lammers. “My entry in Procar in 1980 came through BMW Holland,” he recalls. “Toine Hezemans was entered in the 1979 Procar season, and he had pushed for a deal with me in the driving seat for 1980. Hezemans took on the role of team manager. BMW Holland did all the preparation work for the car in-house.”

Blitzing the Field

“I have mixed feelings on Procar,” Lammers now says. “The cars were brilliant, the sound was just phenomenal, and I found the M1 easy to handle. I had no problems going fast in it. But from a sporting point of view, the season went kind of downhill for me.”

That season started out very well for Lammers, though, with a strong showing at the opener at England’s Donington Park. “I came in straight from a Formula 1 test in Zolder with ATS,” he explains. “It had not been a good test; the car was not doing what I wanted at all. So, I arrived late in Donington and got in the M1 Procar for the very first time after all the others. 

The 1980 Procar season started strong for Jan Lammer (shown both then and now), but the new F1 driver finished it fourth in points.

“Frankly, all I could think was, ‘Darn, I thought things could not get any worse than in my F1 car, but this M1 is downright terrible.’ So right away I started complaining to my mechanic about the car. He looked back with a rather strange expression on his face. ‘What do you mean, the car is shit?’ he asked. ‘You have just turned in one of the fastest times of them all–on used tires.’

“‘In that case,’ I told him, ‘put on some new rubber.’ And indeed I went quicker still, comfortably taking pole. I felt really at ease in the car, and I have to say I pretty much walked that race.” Lammers won on his M1 Procar debut in dominant fashion.

The series’ second race, at Avus in Germany, brought a nasty surprise: All of a sudden, Lammers’ fire extinguisher went off during the race. “It took away the oxygen in the car, and I passed out for a moment, dropping me back to fifth position. I came around and worked my way back to second place.”

The third race, in Monaco ahead of the Grand Prix, proved the undoing of Lammers’ championship chances: “I got pushed in the rear by Pironi. It was a big impact, sending me up the pavement and damaging the car. I was angered by his move and went looking for payback. 

“Fortunately for him and unfortunately for me, he got away just as I was about to hit him at the hairpin. Instead, I almost ended up in the reception area of the Loews hotel.”

After Monaco, Lammers explains, the team never got the car back to its original form. “A shame,” he continues. “Even in Monaco I had just done the pole position, so the speed was there. From then on, the car never felt the same as before the crash, and the results suffered.”

The team struggled with mechanical problems in Zandvoort and took a DNF in Imola, the last race on the schedule. Lammers wrapped up the season fourth in points. 

“All in all,” he says, “1980 was a very good season for me. I was fast in the M1 and I was also fast in F1. I had replaced [former ATS driver Marc] Surer and managed to put the car on the second row of the grid for Long Beach. In Monaco I felt good, but I never got a clear lap in qualifying. To me it felt like a top-six finish would have been possible.”

That 1980 season was the last for the Procar series. BMW simply no longer saw a future for the M1. 

“All the attention had turned to Formula 1 and the turbo engine,” Neerpasch explains. “The M1s were sold off and would show up at Le Mans and in IMSA, among others.” The M1 saw some Group 5 development, but it was the Procar series that had made the model really famous. 

That coveted spot before the Grand Prix was filled by Spec 911 Porsches. Perhaps Neerpasch was right: The M1 could have been BMW’s 911.

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