Party Time! Its 50 years of Mmmmmmmmmm…

It’s a good year to be a BMW fan. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of excellent material from BMW M – tales of secret projects and funky videos showing the genus of M – all brilliant stuff, and let’s face it – some welcome respite from the rather disturbing current affairs. The ‘50 years of M’ celebrations – dominating events such as Villa d’Este (and sparking plenty of hot conversation about what makes a CSL a CSL) and the soon-to-take-place Goodwood FoS – seems like the perfect time to gate crash the party, so, never one to miss an open goal, I thought you might like to hear my favourite cars from each decade of M, and why.

I do get to see a lot of M cars, and I do get to see close up what people dig or dislike about them, which cars sell well, which are easy to own and so on. But I’m also an opinionated soul (No! I hear you gasp) and I know what I like. Whilst it may not be everyone’s list, it is mine, so there.

You’ve gotta start somewhere, and for me, it all starts with the 3.0 CSL. Before you point out that it doesn’t sport an ‘M’ badge, I’ll draw your attention to the small print above. BMW Motorsport was born out of the racing activity that began with the CSL, which ended up in our showrooms as a homologation special, slightly watered down but at eye watering cost. ‘Race at the weekend and buy on a Monday’ had worked pretty well as a strategy for many manufacturers (and would work well for BMW a decade later) but for BMW it really didn’t fly in the 70s. This was primarily because a 3.0 CSL cost as much as a decent house in the Home Counties, but also because a nascent dealer network was still in formation, and BMW had absolutely no track record as a maker of expensive sports exotica, as far as the British buying public were concerned. Added to the fact that with a total run of 500 in RHD – many of which languished in a field in Belgium for many months – you were unlikely to see one in a showroom near you anyway. 70s cars were all pretty unreliable, and the CSL was no exception – not that this seemed to bother many of the original owners I’ve spoken to. But who cares? I mean… just look at it. It is as beautiful now as it was then – I should know because I got married in mine, and it made even me look great. Everywhere you go, heads turn and people nudge their friends and point. It drives like a dream too. So, no competition, really, it has to be #1 for me.

The 80s are the decade where BMW shone, quite suddenly, and after a slightly shaky start, they just didn’t look back. There are many fabulous Ms to choose from over what must be their finest decade, but I am going to plump straight for the E12 M535i. Messing with our heads by plumming a massive 3.5 litre straight six into a family saloon and covering it with stripes and badges, spoilers and stickers, BMW had stumbled on the best idea they ever had. The E12 was the first proof that their family saloons were a well enough made and a versatile enough platform to really push the envelope. Riding off the back of the ‘success’ of the M1, they made 450 of these little hooligans, throwing in a slipper, nicking the steering wheel from the M1 parts shelf and fitting a dogleg gearbox. The result was nothing short of a game changer, and even today you’ll appreciate the rawness, the edgy handling and the pure grin factor that made this car better than every other saloon car in play. Someone at Munich HQ must have nudged his mate and said ‘Wow, zis is really Schön’, because the M5 was born shortly after, and the rest is history.

For the 90s I’m going to sort of cheat. Well, in fairness, what beats a Sport Evo? The last of the E30 M3 production run, also known as the Evo 3 of course, was also the final homologation of the all-conquering track hero that made such an impact in the 80s. They made some smashing kit in the 90s, but really, with those sculpted seats, and 235 bhp squeezed out of that 4 pot, in a car that weighs less than my fridge – go on – what could beat that (BMW spent the next decade trying). Today, the Sport Evo is the holy grail for a huge swathe of collectors, and it won’t be long before a really good one will set you back 250 grand – but don’t let that distract you. The last of the M3s got every lesson learned on the track in one big yummy package, developed almost live as the wins racked up. While the 90s would see the E30 M3 left behind as a road car in the performance stakes – as the decade ended it would seem almost pedestrian compared to its successors – nobody would match that lightness, the nimble handling and almost telepathic link that forms between driver and machine. This was a dying of the light that would still blind you – like the death of a star.

At the end of the nineties, BMW suddenly went up another gear. Controversially ditching the classic quad light and grill look that had been evolving slowly for 20 years, they produced the E39 5er saloon. By the turn of the millennium, the self-styled ‘fastest saloon car in the world’ – the M5 version – had won over everyone who got behind the wheel. With a beautifully laid out, light, comfy cabin, it was able to transport the whole family in comfort, whilst simultaneously racking up hours of service as the Nurburgring ‘taxi’. I think the E39 M5 has the most sublime chassis BMW ever made, and with an engine that unites thuggery with high tech – you just want to drive, and drive. By 2002, having been thoughtfully facelifted, the last of these super saloons were rolling off the line, and again, BMW would struggle to repeat the trick. If you’ve never driven one, trust me, you need to.

My final selection goes large – the imposing M6 Gran Coupe. In an era of anodyne, shapeless blobs, the GC stands out as a beautifully designed, imposing Top Dog of a car. With an interior shaped like the cockpit of a fighter jet and enough power to overthrow a government, the M6 GC had me drooling the minute I saw it. It handles, too – not like a Sport Evo, but with physics-defying grip and enough feel to give you the confidence to chuck it around like a car half the size. The Gran Coupe felt overlooked at the time, and repeating the usual trick of depreciating faster than a bullet, it soon became the second-hand buy of the century. In a world of mega-fast saloons, it takes a lot to stand out- but for me, the M6 GC is the perfect illustration that the chaps at M have very much still got it.

As we paddle through the unknown waters of this strange new decade, with its plagues, wars and famines – to say nothing of the electric revolution – the one question, of course, is ‘where do we go from here?’. Whatever the answer, I’m just happy to work and play around these automotive titans. More power to your elbow, and Happy 50th birthday, dear M.

Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (July 2022 issue)