BMW celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016. And for much of its history it has delivered some outstanding, not to mention gorgeous, racing cars.
To mark the famous German marque’s 100th birthday, Autosport’s sister publication Motorsport News picked out the 10 greatest competition cars BMW has ever produced.
Given that BMW has been successful in everything from single-seaters to sportscars, not to mention providing many benchmarks in touring car racing, the competition was high. But here is the final top 10.
10. THE M1
In some ways, the mid-engined M1 supercar was something of a problem child for BMW. A plan to join forces with Lamborghini to produce the road car floundered as the Italian firm’s financial problems left BMW to go it alone. And the racing Group 5 silhouette version was essentially made obsolete due to delays and rule changes.
But the M1 is on this list because it provided the basis for arguably the world’s greatest single-make series.
The Formula 1-supporting Procar Championship ran for just two years – 1979 and 1980 – but made a big impact. It combined leading touring car and sportscar aces with the top five drivers (tyre and team contracts allowing) from that weekend’s Friday F1 practice. All in 450bhp sportscars.
The result was an impressive list of winners that included Nelson Piquet, Hans Stuck, Niki Lauda, Jan Lammers and Didier Pironi. And Lauda and Piquet were the champions. We’d love the idea to return.
BEST MOMENT: The Group 4 M1 did appear in endurance events, with Stuck’s incredible wet-weather charge in the early stages of the 1981 Silverstone 6 Hours being a standout.
9. THE 328
BMW’s beginnings were humble, the first car it successfully produced being a licensed version of the Austin Seven. But it developed quickly and, in 1936, it introduced a groundbreaking sportscar in the shape of the 328.
Not only did it bring a more streamlined body that now seems more post-war than pre-war, the 328 also had an advanced two-litre straight-six engine that would later be successful as a Bristol unit.
The 328 was not only a dominant car in its class, it also proved something of a giantkiller. Coupe versions finished fifth overall in the 1939 Le Mans 24 Hours and won the 1940 Mille Miglia. There were also successes in rallying, including a 1939 RAC Rally victory, and hillclimbing.
Stirling Moss, who began his competition career in a 328, said the car had “excellent handling for its time and gave plenty of feel and confidence”.
BEST MOMENT: The 1940 Mille Miglia might have been truncated, but it still took nearly nine hours for Huschke von Hanstein and Walter Baumer to beat the bigger Alfa Romeos, with future F1 world champion Giuseppe Farina on the driving strength.
8. MARCH-BMW 732
The second year of two-litre Formula 2 in 1973 saw BMW return to single-seater racing in a category in which it had enjoyed intermittent success in the 1600cc era from.
An exclusivity deal was struck with March to take the full production of 50 engines, which had been designed by Paul Rosche unofficially ‘in the cellar’ over the previous 12 months, and Robin Herd produced the 712-inspired 732.
Coming man Jean-Pierre Jarier won eight races and the European Championship in the works car but the second half of the year might have been very different had Roger Williamson not lost his life in the Dutch Grand Prix shortly after winning the Monza Lotteria in Tom Wheatcroft’s new 732-BMW.
Superior in braking, cornering and acceleration, if not in straightline speed, the 732 was also a winner in the hands of Vittorio Brambilla and Jacques Coulon.
Ultimately developing in excess of 300bhp, the BMW M12/7 engine went on to power March drivers to F2 championships in 1974 (Patrick Depailler), 1978 (Bruno Giacomelli), 1979 (Marc Surer) and 1982 (Corrado Fabi).
BEST MOMENT: Winning first time out in the 1973 European F2 opener at Mallory Park. Jarier (pictured) won both 50-lap heats to take victory by almost a minute, setting him on his way to title success.
7. THE 635CSi
The E24 6-Series replaced a line of models that had culminated with the 3.0 CSL. The racing 635CSi made relatively little impact in the UK, winning only four British Touring Car rounds, but continued its predecessor’s good work in Europe.
Two European Touring Car titles came in 1980-1981 before Dieter Quester took the 1983 crown in his Schnitzer version. As the competitiveness of the series increased, the shark-nosed BMWsuffered in the face of Jaguar, Rover and Volvo opposition, but the rugged coupe remained a threat in the longer races. The result was three Spa and two Nurburgring 24 Hours victories.
The 635CSi also made its mark further afield, Jim Richards taking his JPS-liveried example to seven wins from 10 starts in the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship.
Had BMW been able to homologate the M1-engined M version for touring car racing – with a power unit that could produce 150bhp more than the Group A racer – the rise of the Ford Sierra Cosworth might have been delayed.
BEST MOMENT: The 635CSi was on the verge of being replaced by the more modern E30 M3 when Quester, Thierry Tassin and Altfrid Heger outlasted the opposition to take one last enduro success in the 1986 Spa 24 Hours.
6. E46 AND E90 320i/320si (S2000)
Shortly after the famed Super Touring class of the 1990s came S2000 and BMW developed the E46 version of its evergreen 3-Series.
BMW’s traditional rear-wheel-drive layout – not for the first or last time – didn’t please rivals, who moaned about the car’s traction advantage. That meant the 320, which continued in E90 form after the new road model was introduced in 2005, was subjected to rolling starts for some of its touring car life, but that didn’t prevent the well-balanced machine racking up scores of championships.
That included a string of titles for Briton Andy Priaulx, who took the 2004 European Touring Car crown before securing a World Touring Car hat-trick from 2005-‘07.
BEST MOMENT: Priaulx winning the 2007 WTCC Macau finale to pip SEAT’s Yvan Muller and James Thompson’s Alfa Romeo to the drivers’ crown.
5. E36 318i/320i (SUPER TOURING)
The E30 3-Series was quite an act to follow, but the E36 managed it. In 318i and 320i form the car became BMW’s mainstay during the ferocious Super Touring battles.
Before wings arrived thanks to Alfa Romeo, the rear-wheel-drive BMW was the British Touring Car benchmark. Tim Harvey took a controversial title in 1992 before Jo Winkelhock stormed to the crown the following year, the German and Steve Soper winning eight of the 17 rounds. Things were tougher in the UK after that, but the E36 remained a winner as late as 1996.
Elsewhere, it went on winning even longer. Johnny Cecotto (1994 and 1998) and Winkelhock (1995) scored German Super Tourenwagen Cup titles, while Paul Morris and Geoff Brabham were one-two in the 1997 Australian Super Touring standings.
BEST MOMENT: Despite its age, the E36 was still a force in the German STC in 1998, with Cecotto pipping Peugeot’s Laurent Aiello by just three points.
4. THE 3.0 CSL BATMOBILE
The battle in the European Touring Car Championship was intense and in 1972 Ford had given BMW a good thrashing. BMW’s response was to poach some key staff, including team manager Jochen Neerpasch, set up BMW Motorsport GmbH and produce the 3.0 CSL.
‘L’ stood for lightweight and the homologation special version of the E9 also came with wings, hence the ‘Batmobile’ moniker.
To say the CSL achieved its objective would be an understatement. It won six of eight ETCCrounds in 1973 and Toine Hezemans took the drivers’ crown. CSL drivers would go on to win the title for the rest of the 1970s.
The car also proved competitive in America, winning IMSA events against Porsche, including the 1975 Sebring 12 Hours outright, while the 3.5-litre version proved a winner in the 1976 World Championship of Makes.
BEST MOMENT: The 1975 Sebring victory – with Brian Redman, Allan Moffat, Hans Stuck and Sam Posey driving – was a milestone in BMW breaking into America, and was achieved against hordes of Porsches.
3. THE V12 LMR
The six-litre BMW S70 V12 had already proven its worth in the McLaren F1 GTR, which won the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours and narrowly missed out on the FIA GT title in 1997.
But sportscar racing was moving on rapidly in the late 1990s thanks to increasing manufacturer interest and BMW needed a bespoke sports-prototype. It teamed up with Williams to produce the V12 LM in 1998, but the car failed at Le Mans. The LMR featured improved aero and cooling, and won on its debut at the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours.
Many nevertheless expected Toyota and Mercedes to battle it out at Le Mans, but the BMWs had strong race pace. They also proved more durable than many of their rivals and might have taken a one-two had a sticking throttle not caused the leading car to crash. As it was, Joachim Winkelhock/Pierluigi Martini/Yannick Dalmas held on to win.
The car remained competitive in the American Le Mans Series in 2000, putting up resistance to the incoming onslaught of Audi and its R8.
BEST MOMENT: It has to be the Le Mans win. Had it not been for that crash, Tom Kristensen would now be a 10-time Le Mans winner…
2. BRABHAM-BMW BT52/B
BMW didn’t start F1’s forced induction era, but it did claim the first drivers’ title for a turbo thanks to the M12/13 straight-four.
Despite Renault’s Alain Prost holding a 14-point advantage (in the days when nine points were the reward for victory) with four races to go, the Gordon Murray-designed BT52/B came on strong in the closing stages of the campaign. Nelson Piquet won two of the final three rounds – with team-mate Riccardo Patrese taking the other – to snatch the drivers’ crown.
Although BMW failed to power another title winner, its turbos were often considered the most powerful. It was a theme that returned to F1 in the 2000s, with BMW providing Williams with the most potent V10 powerplants, but still the 1983 success remains the firm’s only F1 crown.
BEST MOMENT: At Monza in 1983, Patrese qualified on pole by 0.5 seconds. He and Piquet went on to lead every lap, with Piquet scoring victory and taking fastest lap
1. THE M3
It had to be number one. In various forms, the iconic performance saloon has been successful in touring car and GT racing since the 1980s.
The original E30 version set the ball rolling by taking Roberto Ravaglia to the 1987 World Touring Car title. The M3’s handling and reliability meant it could take on more powerful machines, whether they be turbo Fords in Europe or big V8s in Australia.
Other championship successes came in the BTCC, the DTM and Italy. Spa and Nurburgring 24 Hours victories underlined the car’s durability, while Bernard Beguin’s Tour de Corse win was the highlight of the E30’s rally career.
Later versions of the M3 moved into GT racing, with a Nurburgring 24 Hours double coming in 2004-05.
An E92 version took Joey Hand/Dirk Muller to the 2011 American Le Mans Series GTE crown, and BMW also turned to the M3 for its DTM comeback in 2012.
Twenty years after the E30 ended its career as a race winner, Bruno Spengler took the DTMtitle in BMW’s return season. Like Porsche’s 911, the M3 continues evolving so its motorsport success is likely to continue for many more years to come.
BEST MOMENT: We may be biased, but we’re going to go for Will Hoy’s 1991 BTCC title in the two-litre E30. Three wins and six other podiums were enough to see off the Vauxhall and Toyota opposition right at the start of what would become the famed Super Touring era. NEARLY BUT NOT QUITE
Unsurprisingly for a firm with BMW’s reputation, many strong candidates failed to make the final 10.
By the late 1950s, BMW was on the brink of financial disaster and it was the humble 700 model that helped keep the company alive.
Just as the Mini was launched, BMW started production of the flat-twin 700cc saloon and it was soon enjoying considerable motorsport success. Hans Stuck won the 1960 German Hillclimb title in a 700 and Hubert Hahne took regular class wins in the European Touring Car Championships of the early 1960s.
In 1962 came the first of the ‘new class’ BMWs, a range of 1500cc to two-litre cars that would truly revive the company. In racing terms, it was the car developed from the production 1800Ti that really delivered through the mid-1960s. The five-speed TiSA, which stood for ‘Sonder Ausfuhrung’ (special version), was the race car and only 200 were built. Once again, Hahne was a leading racer and won the 1964 German saloon car title in an 1800 TiSA.
The final incarnation of the ‘new class’ was the 2002, the model that took BMW into the 1970s. Raced and rallied with equal success, the 2002 later came in a turbo version and was a forerunner of the 3-Series and M3 range.
The Group 5 320 Turbo was a spectacular fire-breathing silhouette racer, driven by the likes of Ronnie Peterson and Eddie Cheever, and scored success on both sides of the Atlantic later in the decade.
The BMW Sauber F1.08 was a grand prix winner in the hands of Robert Kubica and might have challenged more strongly for the 2008 F1 title had BMW not chosen to focus on the following year’s ultimately unsuccessful design.
Two different versions of the Z4 deserve credit. The obvious one is the recent E89 version that has been one of the benchmark GT3 machines, winning the British GT Championship and Spa 24 Hours.
The other is the E85 coupe that twice thumped the opposition in the Britcar 24 Hours thanks to Duller Motorsport.
What’s your BMW favourite?