50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© Luc Lacey/Classic & Sports Car
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© The Market by Bonhams
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive
50 years of bmw m cars
© Classic & Sports Car
50 years of bmw m cars
© Tony Baker/Classic & Sports Car
50 years of bmw m cars
© BMW
50 years of bmw m cars
© Will Williams/Classic & Sports Car
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive
50 years of bmw m cars
© Haymarket Automotive

Half-century heroes

BMW’s M division was formed in 1972 and is one of the most prolific and lucrative subsidiaries of any car company that builds high-performance models.

With its roots in motorsport, which is where the ‘M’ name comes from, many M cars are now prized classics as the division marks its 50th year in business.

Here’s our pick of the best classic models.

1. 3.0 CSL (1973)

Like many M division cars that followed, the 3.0 CSL was created as a homologation special with scant regard for how the road car would be perceived.

Designed in 1972, the CSL was warmly welcomed as a roadgoing machine thanks to its lightweight aluminium body panels, pared-back trim and thinner window glass to reduce weight.

The 3003cc straight-six meant the car could compete in the larger-capacity class of the European Touring Car Championship, and a bigger 3153cc engine arrived later in 1973.

Only 39 of the original ‘Batmobiles’ with big rear wing, bonnet fins and deeper front spoiler were ever made out of a total of 1039 CSLs.

2. M1 (1978)

The 3.0 CSL might have been the first car developed by BMW’s M division, but the M1 is the original M car, using the famous prefix to denote its senior performance.

Then again, as a standalone model, the M1 needed little introduction as a supercar rival to Ferrari. Lamborghini was involved in the M1’s development, though more as a hindrance, but the 3453cc was all M’s own work and produced 277bhp.

By the time the M1 went on sale, it didn’t qualify for any race series, so BMW invented its own with the Procar races to support the 1979 and ’80 Formula One seasons. A total of 456 M1s were built, including race cars, and the road car was good for 163mph.

3. E12 M535i (1979)

This is where BMW’s fast four doors started, though the M535i is resolutely not an M5.

Instead, the M division massaged the engine bay of the E12 5 Series to accept the 218bhp six-cylinder motor from the 635CSi. It was an ingenious mix of performance and practicality, resulting in a 140mph executive saloon.

Other M division work included adding a limited-slip differential and close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox. By the time the curtain came down on the M535i, BMW had sold 1410 examples.

4. M635CSi (1984)

The M635CSi was a slightly different take for M division, delivering a car with a dual focus on performance and luxury.

There was no doubting this car’s pace thanks to the 286bhp 3453cc straight-six developed from the one used in the M1. It gave 0-60mph in 6.2 secs and 158mph, or it could cruise all day at autobahn pace.

An M Technic bodykit and alloy wheels marked out the M635CSi from other 6 Series, and there was firmer suspension and a limited-slip differential. The model gained full leather upholstery and electric seat adjustment for the final two years of its life, by which time 5855 were built.

5. E28 M5 (1984)

The first proper M5 used the same 286bhp as the M635CSi to set the tone for this model. Only those in the know would recognise the M5 for what it was at first glance, thanks to its subtle looks.

Wider wheels and tyres, and front and rear spoilers were the clues until the driver let rip and 0-60mph in 6.5 secs saw the M5 leave other fast saloons in its wake. Many M5 owners removed the badges to make this even more of a stealthy operator.

In the end, BMW sold 2145 E28 M5s, with just 187 in right-hand drive, making these among the rarest of all M cars. 

6. E28 M535i (1984)

If your budget couldn’t quite stretch to the £21,807 for the E28 M5 in 1984, the M535i at £13,745 was something of a bargain.

Its more aggressive bodykit and Recaro seats gave the impression it was quicker than its more potent sibling. However, 218bhp meant it was merely rapid rather than outright fast, though 0-60mph in 7.2 secs and a 143mph top speed were not to be sniffed at.

Just as importantly for BMW, the M535i was a sales hit and 10,335 were built even though the car was never officially available in the large US market. Instead, the US and Canada got the 535is.

7. E30 M3 (1986)

Perhaps the definitive M car for many enthusiasts, the E30 M3 was a return to creating a homologation special in order to go racing. Initially, only 5000 E30 M3s were planned, but other versions followed to homologate parts for racing.

As a road car, it divided opinion with road testers and owners as some loved its rev-hungry engine, while others felt it was not as fast as it might be.

If you made full use of the non-catalytic converter-equipped version’s 200bhp, the M3 would see 0-60mph pass in 6.5 secs and it could top out at 143mph.

What really made it special, though, were the reworked C-pillars and rear windscreen that helped guide air to the back spoiler for greater downforce.

8. 320is (1987)

No M badge in the name or on the body, so how come the 320is makes it as an M car? The answer is this car was a cunning way around Italian and Portuguese tax laws, which punished any car with a capacity above 2.0-litres.

The M division came up with a shorter-stroke version of the S14 four-cylinder engine from the M3 and fitted it to a standard-looking 3 Series bodyshell.

The 320is had 189bhp, not far off the M3’s 200bhp, and kept the dog-leg five-speed Getrag gearbox. There were also suspension and brakes shared with the M3, so the 320is was nicknamed the ‘Italian M3’. Available with two- or four-door bodies, the 320is made for a more practical car and 2540 were made.

9. E34 M5 (1988)

BMW’s dominance of the fast-saloon market in the 1980s was made complete with the arrival of the E34 M5 in 1988. Its chiselled good looks were backed up by a 315bhp 3.4-litre straight-six.

While 0-60mph in 6.5 secs was commendable, it was the mid-range acceleration where the M5 left rivals for dead, and it could hit a limited 155mph, making it the first M car with its top speed capped at this velocity.

In 1991, the M5 was updated with a 3.8-litre motor that increased power to 340bhp, which only served to widen the gap between it and the competition.

10. E30 M3 Evo (1988)

When BMW needed to up its game in Touring Car racing, it launched the aptly named M3 Evo.

The most obvious change was the car’s improved aerodynamic package, with deeper front spoiler and bigger lip at the rear to increase downforce.

Under the bonnet, the 2.3-litre engine increased in power to 220bhp, which was 5bhp up on the 215bhp of the mainstream M3 by this stage. The Evo also gained a catalytic converter as standard.

11. M8 (1990)

The M8 stands out as the rarest of all BMW M cars with only a single model ever created.

It was instigated as a rival to the likes of Ferrari and Porsche four-seaters, which meant a 6.0-litre V12 with 631bhp was developed to give it the firepower to beat these rivals.

Weight was also kept to a minimum with carbonfibre intake manifolds, a stripped interior and glassfibre body panels.

However, BMW concluded the M8 would not sell in sufficient numbers to justify production, and the prototype was locked away and its existence denied until 2010.

12. E30 M3 Evo Sport (1990)

The final hurrah for the E30 M3 was its most extreme and again was born of necessity to keep the racing versions in the hunt for silverware.

Engine capacity grew to 2.5-litres, which freed up 238bhp for the Evo Sport. There were also now adjustable front and rear wings to vary aerodynamic downforce.

With 600 Evo Sports made to homologate the car for racing, it was one of the less common E30 M3 models, but not the rarest as several special editions were built in lower numbers.

13. E34 M5 Touring (1992)

Ever the innovator, BMW’s M division spotted a small but worthwhile niche for a high-performance estate model.

This gave rise to the E34 M5 Touring using the same 340bhp 3.8-litre engine and six-speed gearbox as the M5 saloon of the time.

Still regarded as one of the best fast wagons, the M5 Touring delivered 0-60mph in 5.9 secs and was electronically pegged to a 155mph top speed.

The E34 M5 Touring found 891 willing buyers and the car was largely handmade, but it proved the market was there for fast estates. This made it all the stranger than BMW didn’t follow up with another M Touring for 10 years.

14. E36 M3 (1992)

The launch of the E36 M3 in 1992 marked a turning point in BMW’s M division.

No longer was it the maker of cars for those in the know, it was now a volume performance-car brand, as proved by the 71,242 M3s of this generation built, including the Evo model.

Like the E30, there were two-door coupé and convertible versions, but BMW widened the E36 M3’s appeal with a four-door saloon. It also introduced the SMG automated manual gearbox with this generation, which was not a success.

With 286bhp from its 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, the E36 M3 provided 0-60mph in 6.0 secs and 155mph flat out. Some felt this was not a big enough step up from the E30, which prompted the Evo model in 1995.

15. 850CSi (1992)

Another BMW developed by the M division that did without any badging or recognition for the wider public to see, the 850CSi was still a very special car.

Its 375bhp 5.6-litre V12 was unique to this model, and was designed and put together by the M division. This warranted giving the motor its own code, so it’s known as the S70.

The 850CSi was offered with a six-speed manual gearbox, which helped it from rest to 60mph in 5.9 secs. Other unique features for the CSi were its front and rear bumpers, door mirrors, wheels, and uprated suspension, brakes and steering. All of this made it a thoroughly developed M model in all but name.

16. McLaren F1 (1993)

Not an M car, but an M engine and without it the McLaren F1 would not be the blue-chip hypercar classic it is today.

When McLaren’s then Formula One engine supplier turned down designer Gordon Murray’s brief, he approached BMW and M division’s Paul Rosche, who came up with a bespoke 6.1-litre V12.

While the BMW motor was slightly heavier than Murray ideally wanted, it was also more powerful than he’d specified, which cancelled out any power-to-weight issues.

In the end, the roadgoing cars had 627bhp to power them to 241mph, while racing versions had to be detuned to meet regulations. A planned production run of 300 cars ended up being just 106 of all types to guarantee the McLaren F1’s exclusivity.

17. E36 M3 Evo (1995)

Stung by criticism that its new M3 was not as exciting as the earlier E30 car, BMW’s M division set to work on the E36 M3 Evo. What it came up with was a 321bhp 3201cc version of its six-cylinder engine.

Revving hard through a six-speed manual gearbox, with the undesirable option of an SMG automated manual, it dropped the 0-60mph time to 5.4 secs.

The Evo brought back much of the raw edge enjoyed by E30 owners and the sounds of the six-pot engine as it revved was won over plenty of others. Much more than the E30, the E36 M3 Evo set the template for every M3 that followed.

18. Z3 M Roadster (1997)

By now, it was common for most BMW ranges to be topped off with an M model and the Z3 Roadster was no exception.

Called the Z3 M to avoid the clumsy ‘MZ’ naming, this open-top married the retro styling of the two-seat convertible with more muscular looks and the E36 M3 Evo’s 321bhp 3.2-litre motor.

Performance was impressive for the Z3 M Roadster: it could cover 0-60mph in 5.3 secs and hit 155mph. It wasn’t the most satisfying driver’s M car, but the later models with the E46 M3’s S54 engine and 338bhp felt more suitably special and are now the most sought-after.

19. Z3 M Coupé (1997)

If the Z3 M Roadster was an obvious addition to the BMW M range, the Coupé model was a left-field blindside extra.

Concocted by M division’s engineers and chief of design, Chris Bangle, the plan was always to showcase just how good a BMW sports car could be. The Coupé’s roof added much needed stiffness to the Z3 chassis, while weight distribution worked out at exactly 50/50 front to rear.

Like the Roadster, the Coupé started with the E36 M3 Evo engine and switched to the E46 M3’s S54 motor, which offered 0-60mph in 5.1 secs. Only 165 right-hand drive Z3 M Coupés were built with the S54 unit, to make it one of the most collectible M cars.

20. E39 M5 (1998)

Unlike when BMW switched the M3 from a four- to six-cylinder engine, M5 customers were more than happy with the upgrade from straight-six to V8 power.

The 4.9-litre V8 was only used in the M5 and Z8, producing 400bhp with superb smoothness and seemingly endless torque. A slick six-speed manual gearbox was the only transmission option and this M5 was routinely lauded as the best performance car on the planet during its production life.

It helped this M5 was based on the much-loved E39 5 Series, which had already been taken to the hearts of every executive saloon buyer. The only downside was BMW refused to built a Touring (estate) version of the E39 M5, but that didn’t stop BMW selling 20,482 worldwide.

21. E46 M3 (2000)

The E46 M3 that was launched in 2000 perfectly straddles the modern and classic worlds.

Its restrained looks in coupé form have just enough hints as to its true potential, while under the bonnet is the brilliant S54 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine. Even early woes with the Nikasil linings of this motor did little to dent the car’s appeal to keen drivers.

A convertible version was added not long after the Coupé’s launch and there was an SMG gearbox option. This automated manual was the only transmission choice for the lightened CSL, which weighed 110kg less than the standard Coupé.

The hard-charging CSL is the most desired E46 M3 and many have now been converted to a full manual gearchange to make it the ultimate M3 of its generation.

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