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It wasn’t too hard to pick these ... Ha! Who are we kidding?
When BMW Motorsport GmbH was founded 50 years ago in Munich, no one knew it would become the grand exalted high llama of performance sedans and coupes that it has become.
“At the time, it was no more than a compulsory legal event to register the new company at the district court,” said Frank Van Meel, CEO of BMW M GmbH. But “…it… created undreamt-of freedom and unleashed astonishing creativity.”
We have, of all people, Bob Lutz to thank. Yes, that Bob Lutz. Thank you. He was brought into BMW from Opel as executive vice president of sales at BMW AG in 1972. Lutz thought motorsports would help create awareness of the capability of BMWs.
“At the time, Ford dominated the motorsports scene in Germany with its successful Capri model,” wrote Andreas Brown in the commemorative book BMW M The Most Powerful Letter in the World. At the time, the guy over at Ford who was making sure all those Capris kept winning all those races was a guy named Jochen Neerpasch.
“For Bob Lutz, the strategy was thus clearly mapped out: If Ford AG had a charismatic racing manager in Neerpasch… then this man had to be poached,” wrote Brown. Poached he was, Lutz came to Munich, and the rest is motorsports—and production car—history.
Starting with the BMW Turbo of 1972, which later more or less became the M1 Procar, and moving on through now-world-renowned race and street cars that are seemingly all collector items today, BMW M created some of the greatest cars the world would ever see—or drive.
So we figured it was time for a look back on M’s golden jubilee.
Now remember, these aren’t our favorite BMWs of all time, or even our favorite BMWs of the last 50 years. These are just our favorite BMW Ms of the 50 years that BMW M GmbH has been in existence. That means the delightful BMW 700 RS of the early 1960s, for instance, or the original BMW 328 of the late 1930s that won its class at the Mille Miglia, or any of the great motorcycles in BMW’s long and storied history, are all ineligible.
But it still leaves a metric ton of performance cars to choose from. The easiest thing would be simply to list all the BMW Ms and call it a day. There were something like 46 M street cars made through 2021, depending on whether you count coupes, cabriolets and wagons separately. But listing everything wouldn’t leave room for outrage in the comment section, which is what we all live for, isn’t it?
You can easily trace this car back to the 1972 BMW Turbo concept that so perfectly reflected the times of the early ‘70s like the Lamborghini Espada, Countach, or maybe a flatter Triumph TR7. The BMW Turbo that became the M1 in 1975 was the company’s first Vision vehicle. We’re still seeing BMW Vision cars today. It was also one of the first cars developed as a race car initially and then made into a road car. Jochen Neerpasch farmed out the design of the M1 to Italdesign in Italy.
Likewise, production was to be handled by Lamborghini, but that supercar maker was going through one of its many corporate whoopdeedoos and a new company in Italy called T.I.R. took over. Baur in Germany installed the BMW 3.5-liter straight six in its mid-rear position and things looked good.
However, slow sales due to production delays and a sticker price of over 100,000 Deutschmarks meant the 400 units required for homologation to race in FIA Group 4 never materialized; plus, the FIA Group 4 category ended before production could begin. So Neerpasch simply started his own race series, the BMW-M1 Procar racing series of 1979. No less a driver than Nikki Lauda won the 1979 championship, followed by Nelson Piquet in 1980. What a decade.
Go ahead and argue all you want, but this is hands down our favorite M. Okay, my favorite. That’s largely due to a magical couple of laps around the Nurburgring back in the day that left me smitten for life. Such a perfectly balanced, perfectly communicative car was never built before or after. At least in my memory. Maybe yours, too. A neighbor has one, along with a couple of 911s, and I’ve been walking the dog back and forth in front of his house hoping to become BFFs. So far, the curtains remain drawn but no restraining order has been filed.The four-cylinder, 200-hp coupe was made for homologation purposes, which required that 5000 be offered for sale in the first year to race in Group A. Lucky us. It was loaded with racing components that made the first M3 way more fun to drive than anything else in the world with four seats. Change my mind.
Was the E36 M3 better than the E30 M3? That’s like asking which one of your children you love the most. “They each have their attributes,” you say to the nosy lady behind you in the checkout line. But secretly you know little Timmy is the one who’s going to medical school. Which is not to say one is better or worse than the other.
The E36 got a straight six engine to the E30’s four-cylinder. The first one came out in Europe in 1992 with 3.0 liters of displacement. We in the U.S. had to wait until 1995 to get ours, but by that time the displacement had grown to 3.2 liters, good for 240 hp. The difference was that the E36 felt larger and heavier than the E30, because it was larger and heavier. But it still had a remarkable feel and balance that made you swoon.
To make this M5, BMW simply lifted the straight six from the M1 and dropped it into this unsuspecting 5-Series without changing the body and, voila—instant slee-performance. Suddenly the world had a fairly large and comfortable car that behaved like a 286-hp wild thing. When future archeologists try to figure out when driving large and practical sedans really got fun, they will surely point to the E28 M5.
“Why this one,” you bleet? It was not only the last straight-six M5 but the last M car that was "hand built," in that they pulled the body shells off the line and took them to M works to be assembled. I asked my Autoweek colleague the boy genius Jeff Vettraino about it and that’s what he said. I believe it was also the only M5 offered as a wagon, and car-writer types are supposed to love wagons. It had a long run—eight, nine, 10 years?—but we only got it for three model years in the early '90s, with a slightly smaller, slightly detuned engine for emissions. As a result they are rare here, maybe rarer than E28s. It also had those really high-tech turbine wheels that had aero inserts that bolted in. Problem was, “People used to think they were old-school wheel covers,” JPV said.
Many experts, including YouTube auto reviewing sensations Mat Watson, Tim Rodie, and even the meticulously bombastic Doug Demuro have called this M5 their personal favorite. And with good reason: It was the first M5 with a V8, the first with the vaunted Double VANOS that altered timing on both intake and exhaust valves, and it used individual throttle bodies for each cylinder for optimum performance. The result was just shy of 400 hp in a car that looked on the outside like it would be slowly chauffeuring a tired, wheezy executive in the back—until the light turned green—then yee haw! as they say in Dingolfing.
“It was for sure the big swinger of crazy fast luxo sedans in its day,” Vettraino opined. “E39 was basically the last good 5 across the board.”
If previous M5s went from straight sixes to a V8, this was the one that went from V8 to V10. The first V10 sedan, period, and maybe the last. True, you got 500 hp but the weight balance was nose-heavy at 53:47 front/rear. There were a small number of manual transmission versions for the U.S. market, but they were very rare and have become big stars on Bring-A-Trailer. The SMG automatics were terrible.
“And it was a really clunky, neck-whipping single-clutch early manu-matic that was good for nothing but quick full-throttle shifts,” said Vettraino. “It was almost painful just plodding around.”
Repair costs are said to be sadistic, too. But still, 500 hp!
This one, near as we can tell, never had M in its name. And it traces its formation to the days before the founding of BMW M GmbH in 1972. But it evolved over time and more or less became an M, arguably the very first M. Like many if not most Ms, this one started out as a motorsport homologation. By 1973 they’d made enough of them to qualify for Group 2 competition in Europe and the cars then went on to glory in IMSA racing in the United States. If you got the street version in 1972, you got 200 hp from a 3.0-liter straight-six. Starting in 1973 you’d get a 3153-cc six good for 206 hp. The big wing on the back of some of them was said to be good for 30 seconds around the Nurburgring. Wow!
Keeping to the formula of big-engine-in-a-small-car, BMW dropped the 3.0-liter N54 inline-six twin turbo (later the single-turbo B55) into the smallest car they had and created what many call the best-handling M ever.
It’s been called a parts-bin car, too, but because most of the parts were from the E92 M3, that’s just fine. With a curb weight of 3296 pounds and 332 hp (some references say 335 hp) crammed into a car widened by almost three inches, the result was bodacious handling and immediate response.
With just over 6000 built for worldwide consumption—740 for the US—seeing one is a rare treat, driving one even better.
A lap time of 7:28 at the Nordschleife “is a clear statement of this special-edition model’s exceptional abilities,” BMW said. The M4 GTS was a special edition limited to 700 units to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the BMW M3, which itself started production in 1986.
“Special-edition models sharpen the character of the BMW M brand,” said Frank Van Meel, CEO of BMW M GmbH. “We’ve taken a radical route with the setup of the BMW M4 GTS to create a sports machine for the race track that delivers top-end dynamics and inspirational performance. It allows us to demonstrate what is possible today with a road-legal car. Owners can drive their BMW M4 GTS to circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring or Laguna Seca—for club sport events, for example—and then set lap times there that raise the bar to extremely high levels for road-legal cars.”
Engineers took the 3.0-liter six-cylinder inline turbo from the M3 and M4 and added water injection to raise horsepower to 500 and torque to 442 lb-ft while achieving respectable fuel economy.
“This makes the BMW M4 GTS the most agile, radical and dynamically potent model in the range,” BMW said. “It races from a standstill to 62 mph in a mere 3.8 seconds and hits a limited top speed of 189.5 mph.”
With an output of 325 hp and a curb weight of just 2800 pounds, looks stop mattering.
When the M Coupe came out in 1997 our cover words were, “Ugly Is As Ugly Does.” You have to really like the performance of this car to get past the Chris Bangle-era looks. But as we also said at the time, from the inside you can’t see the outside. As a result, only purists and speed freaks liked it and there just weren’t enough of those. Still, to anyone who ever drove it, the M Coupe was brilliant.
At its heart it was a Z3 roadster with a longish roof and a more powerful engine. BMW took the 240-hp 3.2-liter S52 straight-six from the E36 M3 and wedged it into this smaller car. The 2001-2002 models got the 315-hp S54; only 690 of those were produced for the U.S. market.
German car mag Auto, Motor und Sport got a better slalom time with it than Ferraris and Porsches it tested. We were likewise astounded, both by the performance and the looks. But ultimately, looks mattered in the marketplace, and the M Coupe went the way of the Dodo, sadly.
The redemption of the 1997 M Coupe came in the form of this Z4-based M Coupe 10 years later, as handsome a coupe as ever lapped a race track. By simply drawing the rear roof line down to resemble a mini-Shelby Daytona Coupe, the once-ugly shape became a classic. With a 3.2-liter straight-six from the E46 M3 (with the E90’s engine management system) making 330 hp, the 3296-pound Coupe got to 60 mph in just under five seconds. Despite its performance and good looks, BMW actually made fewer of these than its “ugly” predecessor, with less than 2000 produced in US specs. The rarity helps but the performance is what makes the Z4 M Coupe special.
“I love my M coupe because it’s a driver’s car,” said racer/owner/friend-of-Autoweek Sarah Fairfield. “It has plenty of smooth power with great balance, handling, and road feel. Bonus points for being incredible to look at.”
The car is going to be much-sought-after by collectors, but right now you can still get one for the price of a well-appointed Camry. Most go for prices in the $30,000 range, according to our colleagues at BringATrailer.com, and many go for under 30k. Buy now and have fun!
This one is a stretch in that it's not even out yet, but we're going to assume it'll be greatness galore.
“The letters CSL stand for coupe, sport, and lightweight,” said BMW M’s CEO Frank Van Meel. “We’ve dropped 100 kilograms (220 pounds) off the car,” Van Meel said just days before the CSL was revealed at Villa d’Est in Italy. “That includes carbon-fiber interior trim pieces, new lightweight wheels, Michelin Pilot Cup Sport 2 R tires, and M Carbon ceramic brakes.” Given all that, it’s surprising the M4 CSL still weighs in at 3640 pounds. Compare that to the original 1972 E9 CSL’s curb weight of somewhere between 2568 and 2800 pounds depending on where you bought it. Thanks to increased boost pressure of the twin turbos feeding the 3.0-liter straight-six, lightweight forged crank, and even 3D-printed routing of the coolant channels, among other optimizations, the new M4 CSL gets a 40-hp boost over the stock M4 to a 543-hp peak. Line that up with its 220-pound weight savings and the new car has a power-to-weight ratio of 6.7 pounds/hp—a formidable performer. Indeed, 0-to-60 mph comes up in just 3.6 seconds, while top speed is electronically limited to 191 mph.