The BMW Motorsport division was born just under 45 years ago, and for the majority of the 1970s, existed solely to support BMW’s racing activities. In 1978 they decided to take their new M1 racing, but needed to sell a certain number of road-going versions to meet racing homologation rules, and the M road car was born.
Realizing they had a winning formula on their hands, the following year they borrowed the 3.5L straight-six engine from the 735i and shoved it into the E12 5-series chassis, dubbing it the M535i. Having proven that buyers had an appetite for a normal road car with a racing motor shoehorned into it, they developed the E24 M635Csi and E28 M5 using M1’s motor, offering extreme performance in a practical overall package.
In 1986 they released the E30 M3, another racing homologation special that cemented BMW Motorsport’s place in the market. Literally a race car for the street, the first M3 was wildly successful and is still considered the most iconic M car ever built.
In 1993 BMW Motorsport was rebranded as BMW M GmbH and began churning out M cars in earnest. The E36 M3 was offered in a coupe, sedan and convertible. The 850Csi debuted as a high-end grand tourer featuring an enormous V12 engine and 6 speed manual transmission. The Z3 M Roadster and M Coupe hit the market in ‘96 and ‘98 respectively. Then we saw the next generation of M car when the venerable E39 M5 hit the streets in 2000, followed shortly by the E46 M3, Z4 M Roadster and Coupe, E60 M5, E61 M6, and E90 M3.
From its inception until around 2010, BMW’s M’s ethos remained largely unchanged. Take an existing road car, sharpen the handling characteristics, and bestow upon it a large, high-revving, naturally-aspirated engine. But around the turn of the decade they sent their diehard fanbase into a panicky tailspin by adopting turbocharging across all their models, which is a fine technology, but was considered unsuitable for the character of an M car. They also expanded the M range to virtually every model BMW sells, even the SUVs, which struck fans as even more sacrilegious than the turbos.
As usual, the enthusiast community’s resistance to change was largely unwarranted, the F10 M5, F12 M6, F80 M3, F82 M4 and F22 M2 have been widely celebrated among the core M fanbase, while the X5 and X6 M and other M performance models offer weapons-grade performance for growing families.