The Seventies – A glorious decade in BMW’s 100 Years of History

You can’t trust your eyes. Not on a black night in the most distant corner of Scotland when the headlamps are two drops of rheumy yellowed light. I see a ghostly dead tree picked out against the memory of a purpling sky, just have time to think “I’m sure that wasn’t there a couple of hours ago” before the whole branch structure turns and trots off across the heathered moor.

I wouldn’t usually spend this much time on an analogy, but that was a moment. I’d already been having one, realising as I guided the 3.0 CSL back to Lochinver how harmoniously its gentlemanly yet commanding demeanour suited the tone and flow of these roads, this landscape. And then the stag appeared and the stars aligned: car, animal and landscape all imbued with the same dignified grandeur.

You thought the Bat mobile was a hardcore charger, right? It’s not. The concept of sports cars was different in 1972.

BMW was different in 1972. We might be celebrating its 100th birthday, but if this was a car anniversary rather than a company anniversary we’d have to delay for another 16 years. BMW started out with aero engines, then motorbikes before it began rebadging Austins. Still in its infancy, it had to abandon car production to aid the German war effort and, when it stuttered back into life, was initially only allowed to make pots and pans. As late as 1959, it came close to being sold to Daimler-Benz.

And yet 13 years later they were building cars like this. And soon after the 2002 Turbo, the M1 and the M535i. That’s quite some turnaround. So what had happened?

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The year 1959 was the watershed. BMW had been selling big, expensive cars when the post-war world wanted small, cheap ones. So that year they instigated the Neue Klasse project, and, in the BMW 1500, basically gave the world its first compact sports sedan. That arrived in 1962. The following year BMW was able to pay dividends to its shareholders for the first time in 20 years. Good cars turned it around, but the following decade gave birth to legends.

“These four are responsible for setting the tone for BMWs up to the present day”

BMW in the Seventies. The Ultimate Driving Machine (that motto arrived in 1975). Just wow. Between them these four cars are responsible for setting the tone for BMWs all the way up to the present day. What is the M2 if not a direct replacement for the 1973 2002 Turbo? The Batmobile is so iconic that BMW famously recreated it for the hottest concept of 2015, the CSL Hommage R. And 1979’s M535i was the very first M car, so influential it can trace an unbroken line through to today’s M5.

What, then, of the M1? It was designed to be an out-and-out racer, developed in conjunction with Lamborghini to comply with Group 4 racing regs. But then Lambo hit the skids, costs soared and race regs changed, leaving the M1 in no man’s land and BMW unconvinced they needed a supercar in their sales line up. Just 430 road cars were made in total.

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BMW M1 of the 70s

“The M1 might just be the most wonderful road car that I’ve ever driven”

This one is insured for £600,000. I think it might just be the most wonderful road car I’ve ever driven. So let me tell you about it. It doesn’t feel like a racing car and it doesn’t behave like a mid-engined Seventies supercar.

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The ride is delightfully placid, the centre of gravity is low and so is the scuttle, so the ground comes zapping back under your toes, under a cabin free from pretence or luxury, but replete with dials, square edges and a chassis coquettishly hidden away behind the flimsiest of trims and carpets.

You don’t chase the speed, but instead let it come to you, the 3.5-litre straight-six giving its baritone best between 3,500 and 5,500rpm. A good dose of revs, the sound rich in your ears, the view out through the flattened windscreen perhaps the best that roads on this planet have to offer, all the more so for taking in the rear wing of the CSL, which promptly squats on its haunches, picks up its nose and heads off for another sniff of heather.

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BMW M1’s interior

The M1’s clutch is heavy, the gearbox needs a deliberate hand, the brakes a firm foot, the steering a good fist, but at least the control weights are even and beyond that there’s a supreme tactility, deftness and balance to the M1. At the core of everything is sensation, so I find myself blipping upshifts as well as downshifts, driving with the window down to hear the inlet gurgle and gasp as it sucks air in, mixing it with fuel from the twin tanks, just trying to open myself to the whole experience and absorb, absorb, absorb…

It’s talkative: open, friendly and trustworthy in a way I never thought a Seventies supercar could be, and from behind I watch the Batmobile’s spoiler flex like a wobble board as it bounces and heaves where the M1 glides. As I understand it, the CSL’s spoiler wasn’t technically road-legal, so it was delivered in the boot and it was your choice whether to fit it. Of course everyone did because, well, can you imagine it without?

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