BMW, the Ultimate Driving Machine. For decades BMW has been synonymous with selling sporty sedans and coupes that tread a fine line between luxury, performance, and practicality. No BMWs have combined those traits better than those sporting the now-iconic ‘M’ badge. BMW has built the legacy and legend that is the M brand on the backs of more hardcore performance models and homologation specials. With an M Performance version of nearly every BMW now available, has the marque and the badge become watered down? M stood for Motorsport, and it’s through those special cars that BMW has made the M badge synonymous with automotive performance around the world. Does it still matter?
BMW Motorsport was officially founded in 1972 to head up the development of BMWs factory-backed racing cars. BMW Motorsport was tasked with making sure that the 3.0 CSL, the racing version of the BMW CS coupe, would continue to be as successful on the track as the unassuming 02-series 1600s and 2002s had been. The now-legendary 3.0 CSL wasn’t officially badged as an M, but it set the stage for what the public could expect from such a car.
The CSL was a homologation special, which is a car produced with special modifications and sold to the public in limited numbers, with the sole purpose of making the car eligible for a racing series. BMW was far from the first brand to do this, but it has been arguably the most successful in transitioning this into the mainstream, and with massive sales to show for it.
The 3.0 CSL also gave birth to one of the most unique and inspiring projects to date: the BMW Art Car. The tradition was sparked by French racer Hervé Poulain, who wanted a one-of-a-kind livery for the 3.0 CSL that he was racing in the 1975 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Poulain, a friend of American artist Alexander Calder, commissioned the artist to paint his car, blending together the unique worlds of art and motorsport. The car was an instant hit, and BMW Motorsport was quick to continue the tradition the very next year. Many would say that the best and most-well-known Art Cars came from this period, with both the cars themselves and the very idea of the Art Car still being very pure and focused. Artists such as the aforementioned Calder, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol all created art cars for BMW during this time, and each car competed at Le Mans just once before being retired.
BMW Motorsport followed up the 3.0 CSL with the E21-based wide-body 320. The 320 was raced in a variety of classes and with varying power plants depending on the series and the regulations, but is best known as the fire-breathing Group 5 320 Turbo. Raced in both IMSA and Europe, the 320 Turbo was also the canvas for artist Roy Lichtenstein, whose Art Car raced at Le Mans in 1977.
After the ‘Batmobile’ 3.0 CSL and 320 Turbo found success on the race tracks around the world through the 1970s, BMW M Division released its first official M-car in 1978— the legendary M1. The M1 is a proper two-seater sports car, and while it is both beautiful and fast, it didn’t embody that same extreme-but-practical performance of the CSL. What the M1 did do is bring the brand global attention via the M1 Procar-series.
Procar was a one-make racing series that pitted world-famous drivers, including multiple F1 drivers of the day, in head-to-head battle royales in front of sold-out crowds on F1 race weekends. The M1 Procar series cemented the M-badge’s association with performance in a very public way and paved the way for more accessible models, the first of which hit the showrooms just one year later.
The 1979 M535i was the very first of what we can consider a modern BMW M car. While the Motorsport department did not touch the 3.5 L M30 straight-six-cylinder engine, it featured an M-tuned suspension, special aesthetic aerodynamic upgrades, and special badging. With the concept having been proven, the E28 M5 that followed some years later built upon the foundation laid by both the M1 and the M535i.
The E28 M5 added what the M535i lacked: a motorsport-derived power-plant. The BMW M5 featured a hand-built S38B35 3.5 L straight-six taken from the original M1 supercar, individual throttle bodies, and produced a respectable 255 horsepower. But like most BMW M series cars, the M5 wasn’t just about power; it was about balance and useful performance, derived from motorsport-proven parts. While the M535i and M5 were both excellent cars, both were sold in extremely limited numbers. The next car, the legendary BMW E30 M3, is the one that truly defined the brand and made it into the marketing juggernaut that it is today.
There’s not much to be said about the E30 M3 that hasn’t already been said. They’ve been a hot topic among media, owners, and drivers since day one. What makes the E30 M3 the most special is, of course, that it is another homologation special, very much in the vein of the OG 3.0 CSL. While the CSL sold just barely enough to satisfy its homologation requirements, the E30 M3 went on to sell well over three times the original 5,000-unit run.
BMW saw an opportunity and was sure not to let the fire burn out. The follow-up E36 M3 was softer, more accessible, and sold better than any other BMW M series car to date. While the E36 M3 is a brilliant car, the version on sale to the public wasn’t derived from some kind of homologation requirement; it was a product to build off of the success of the E30.
That’s not to say that the E36 doesn’t have its fair share of motorsport success, or limited-edition homologation runs, but these are rare compared to the E30. The USA-only M3 Lightweight was a true homologation car, built to satisfy rules in IMSA GT competition at the time, with somewhere around 125 copies being produced. The racing versions built by Virginia’s Prototype Technology Group became all-dominating, beating Porsche 911s with ferocity for those final few air-cooled powered years of IMSA GT competition.
The E36 M3 GT was the European-only version of the M3 Lightweight, featuring similar specialized components such as aluminum door skins. Of course, it had the far more potent and more interesting S50B30 286-horsepower engine.
Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, although the BMW M brand continued to expand, all of the cars on offer were proper ‘M series cars’, that is to say, they are complete freestanding models within their own right. M-cars were related to other more pedestrian versions, but it was not an accessory or options package to be added. The BMW M Coupe was similar to but ultimately quite different from the base model Z3 Coupe.
That’s not to say M-tuned packages were not available for standard BMW cars. Something that BMW had done for years, in a move similar to the original M535i, is to offer M-Technic packages that could be added by customers. A buyer of an E36 318ti, for example, could purchase a Clubsport version that featured an M-Technic body kit, M-tuned suspension, and other performance-oriented parts.
While the 318ti Clubsport featured parts developed by the BMW M division, and while some of those parts even featured M logos on them, none of these M-Technic cars, not even the 850csi super-coupe was ever sold as a proper M.
As the legend and the allure of the M-cars grew, so did the marketing potential of anything sporting the badge. Thanks to the allure of more money for more highly optioned cars, what started as a handful of exclusive homologation specials and edgy sports sedans has exploded into a complicated, and quite frankly, confusing number of vehicles under the M umbrella. With Mercedes-Benz doing the same with AMG, BMW has no choice but to keep up and continue making an M version of everything.
The joke among the more hardcore fans of the brand is that M now stands for “marketing,” with the importance of the badge becoming so watered down. With so many M cars being produced, the special magic that earlier examples possess has been all but lost. The result is that today we have two different levels of BMW performance packages available across an array of fourteen different series, and that’s before we even count the proper M series cars that are considered stand-alone from the rest. No wonder it gets confusing.
The two lower levels available from BMW are M Sport and M performance. An M Sport package is available on nearly every BMW model and can include aesthetic-only upgrades, or a combination of cosmetic and performance parts. M Sport models don’t come with an M badge or any increased engine performance; however, that is left to M Performance cars.
M Performance is still an option package versus a proper stand-alone M car, but they do receive significant performance upgrades over M Sport or other standard models, not to mention the coveted badge. Cars like the M240i, M550i xDrive, and even X4 M40i xDrive all feature a measurable performance increase over their more basic brethren.
Finally, we have the ‘true’ BMW M series cars. Where a customer may have previously had only two to three options between an M3, M5, and occasionally an M6, there are now eleven proper M cars, and it’s no longer exclusive to performance coupes and sedans. Big SUVs such as the X5 M, X6 M, and even the compact X3 M have been brought to market to compete with the Cayenne Turbo and other ultra-high-performance SUVs and CUVs.
While no one can deny the impressive performance that BMW has been able to achieve with these large, full-size luxury SUVs, it would be a tall order to suggest that they have any direct lineage to what BMW Motorsport is currently doing on race tracks around the globe. That certainly still exists, only in relation to a handful of models such as the M240i/M2, M4, M6, and now M8.
Even though there may be some lamenting the days when BMW M series cars were homologation specials and ultra-exclusive models that only select few either knew about or owned, the fact remains that today is a very different world. Whether you’re talking about motorsport or how cars are created and marketed, the previous formulas can’t continue to work forever. In fact, it could be said that today’s M4 sports more in common with the factory-built M4 GT4 race car than the E30 M3 ever shared with its counterpart that competed in the DTM.
So although BMW has most certainly watered down their magic, spreading it thin so every potential customer can buy a piece for their very own, if doing so means that BMW continues to make the more hardcore versions, I’m all for it. The M4 GT4 and M240iR feature production engines and transmissions that could have just as easily ended up in the car in your driveway, which is a real connection that even the most jaded BMW fans among us would have to admit is pretty special.
At the end of the day, while the BMW M badge itself may be more mainstream, are the true BMW M cars of today actually more Motorsport than ever?
FCP Euro's Event Director by day, writer and contributor by night, and wanna-be race car driver on the weekends. Nathan has been working in the VW and Audi performance aftermarket for nearly two decades, and dabbled with Porsche and BMW. He also used to write under the pen-name of Alex Rogan for magazines like Eurotuner, Performance VW, Total 911, and European Car. He has a Cornflower Blue Rabbit Edition GTI daily driver which is surprisingly still mostly stock, and a Mk5 GTI track car which is mostly not. ••• Instagram: @njbrown55