Classic Review: 1978 BMW M1 (E26)

Classic Review: 1978 BMW M1 (E26)
 

I hate to bemoan progress and sound like some of the media industry dinosaurs out there. But sometimes the internet makes me rather grumpy. This is mostly brought on by the ramblings of keyboard warriors who are prevalent in the online car community.

You know: self-styled automotive pundits who extol their opinions from behind the cold light of a computer screen. And boy, do they relish the thought of chiming in with a snarky remark. I am a good target for such vitriol because I am about to discuss a car with transcendent levels of divinity in the eyes of fanboys. The BMW M1.

1978 BMW M1

 

Yes, you can almost hear the lock of the door and the fumbling with zips when the M1 is mentioned. It is regarded as the book of Genesis in the Motorsport road-car bible. Forget, just for a second, the existence of the BMW 530 MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition) which preceded it. Why let mere facts cast shade over the glorious wedge-shaped silhouette of the two-door wonder?

Somehow, after an aligning of stars (and insurance policies) I found myself behind the wheel of an immaculate 1978 M1 with around 20 000km on the odometer. Only 457 were built. And a few landed here.

1978 BMW M1

As part of the parent company’s centenary celebrations, BMW South Africa decided to restore this and the deity-like 333i. You can read all about the latter on Wednesday (16 November 2016) in the print edition of IgnitionLIVE inserted into The Times. My first thought, of course, was not to bin it. My second thought was how conducive the slim door storage pockets were to holding a smartphone. Great foresight from BMW engineers there. The upholstery was strange: decidedly un-racy, with a pattern you might expect to see on a cheap and cheerful hatchback today.

Anyway, those are moot points. Here I am sitting in a freaking M1! The 38-year-old performance car starts on the turn – it had been pampered to perfection, after all. One sits on the “wrong” side of the car, with legs angled towards the right. Good thing I managed to bag a pair of narrow M-branded Puma shoes at a recent discounted clothing sale.

1978 BMW M1

The ‘dog-leg’ shifter is pulled left, then down, to engage first. And we are off. Naturally, the whole thing is labour-intensive: heavy clutch, heavy gear-change action and no power assistance for the steering. The perfect antidote to those who opine that cars are too clinical and too inert in 2016.

After a few kilometres of acclimatising, I put the pedal down in a bid to glean some genuine insight into the M1’s performance credentials – to dispute any aspersions from said keyboard warriors. Firstly, it sounds incredible: the unfiltered metallic crescendo as you wind it up inspires joyful tears. I love the synthetic crackles and snorts from a new M3 as much as the next hack. But this… this is spine-tingly special.

1978 BMW M1

Is it fast? BMW says it was able to reach 262km/h in its heyday. I am pretty sure a middle-range 3-Series (F30) would show it flames. But keeping the M1 on the road at higher velocities is obviously more rewarding. Emerging on the other side of a corner, you feel pretty smug in the knowledge that it was your input that kept things tidy. Even though this is an old car (and likely missing more than a few horses) you are acutely aware of its potential to humble. Back on the freeway, the M1 is happy maintaining the limit – and using its pop-up headlamps to shoo stubborn GTI drivers.

We arrive at BMW headquarters in Midrand. I glance at the Becker Mexico radio and chunky switchgear and ponder for a bit. Oh, to be super rich in 1979. And of a certain hue, obviously. – Brenwin Naidu