I give Audi a lot of credit for bringing the R8 to market. It took a fair amount of gall for a company best known for mid-range all-wheel drive luxury sedans to up and produce a supercar-beating mid-engine road car capable of being used year-round and every day. It’s a feat nearly without precedent. Of course, I said “nearly”.
That’s because BMW pulled off a similar trick the best part of thirty years before Audi did it. And arguably the development of what would become BMW’s fledgling Motorsports division was even more impressive than what Ingolstadt pulled off. The M1 burst onto the scene at a time of economic austerity, global oil crises and came from a company who not only didn’t have a history of producing such cars, but didn’t have connections to others who did (unlike Audi’s corporate Lamborghini partnership).
Speaking of Lamborghini, because of BMW’s lack of expertise in supercar design it was the Sant’Agata firm that was employed to produce the M1. But because of Lamborghini’s lack of expertise at being…well, a company capable of producing something on a schedule, BMW engineers had to first liberate the early molds from Italy and then find someone who could produce the car. Ultimately, it was a combination of ItalDesign in Turin, Marchesi metal working in Modena to build the frames and Karosserie Baur in Stuttgart that stuck the M1 together. Though it doesn’t exactly sound like a match made in heaven, and indeed the M1 was a relative sales flop, it has nonetheless grown to cult status as one of the most user-friendly supercars of the late 1970s:
There are a few strange similarities between yesterday’s 1987 Volkswagen Scirocco 16V and today’s subject – the much more elusive and legendary BMW M1. Both were sporty cars developed from more pedestrian beginnings. Both featured high-revving dual-overhead cam motors. But the interesting part comes in the sublet of construction, and the design. Both have links to Giugiaro, but both also borrowed heavily from other designs.
In an article I penned for The Truth About Cars last year, I covered some of the development of the Wedge Era and how those spectacular show car designs channeled their design language down to more pedestrian models. One of the stars of that article were the cutting-edge looks from Giugiaro’s ItalDesign – the firm, and man, responsible for some of your favorites such as the basic shape for the Audi Quattro. But while the Quattro launched its brand into the luxury realm and redefined the 80s, the undisputed German star of the wedgey wonders was the BMW M1.
While cars from the 1980s are really starting to stretch their legs, most cars from the 1970s seem to lay in a no-man’s land of value, minus of course Porsche 911s. There’s been some recent appreciation for the R107 but generally the cars that are heavily valued are the last of the run 560SLs from the late 1980s, so while that was a late 1960s design it’s not really a 1970s car at that point. Go through the ranks though – with a few exceptions, the 1970s equivalents are undervalued compared to their successors. W116s are cheaper than W126s, E12s and E21s are budget BMWs relative to clean E28 and E30 pricing, early 924s and 928s are close to being given away judged against the last of the run cars and Audi? Go find one from the 1970s. The one area where 1970s products currently outshine their replacements is on a limited scale, but at Volkswagen clean 1970s models tend to be valued more highly than those from the 1980s. It’s easy to see why in most cases; swallowtail Rabbits are just plain prettier than the later Westmoreland cars, the Bus, Thing and Campervan models captured the last of the 1960s spirit and are so ugly they’re cute, and then there’s the Scirocco. Modest underpinnings it might have had, but in one of the most brilliant strokes of design from Giugiaro the lines are pure magic:
You have to ask yourself when pondering the Aztec, “Did Italdesign really think they’d make 1,000 of these in the late 1980s?” Certainly anything seemed possible then – the world was in the midst of a supercar revolution. Porsche introduced the revolutionary Group B based 959, while Ferrari had the twin-turbo brothers GTO and F40. Then there were countless others on the horizon – Jaguar XJ220 and XJR-15, an all-new Lamborghini Diablo, the Bugatti EB110 and Cizeta-Moroder V16 – even some wild U.S. based creations like the Vector and Callaway Sledgehammer Corvette. But perhaps more wild than all of these was the wild “Aztec” from Italdesign. Giugiaro’s company had long been pioneers of advanced and cutting edge designs, but they really outdid themselves with the Aztec. As if taking inspiration from some of the best futuristic designs from the 60s and 70s, the Aztec looked part jet fighter, part rocket ship, and part Star Trek communicator. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to have someone like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford pull up in an Aztec at a movie premier; it was as otherworldly and futuristic as both Hollywood and the sets of Star Wars and Blade Runner. But even if there were more wild designs that you might have seen on the show circuit in 1988, Giugiaro – with the aid of some hefty backing from Japanese capital – was crazy enough to produce road going versions of these cars. What was not surprising, then, was that there was a market for them – though, admittedly, it was as limited as the daily drive-ability of the car.