BMW’s M division is one of the most successful and legendary names in in the car world, but it all started out with a Ford.
In the late 1960s, Ford was at the top of the world in terms of car racing. Their edict of Total Performance set down a few years earlier had come to fruition with four back-to-back-to-back-to-back wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, they had taken over Formula 1 with their Cosworth DFV V8, and they had seen success in just about every series from stock car racing in America to rallying in Europe.
(This story originally ran Feb. 4 and is being republished for BMW’s 100th birthday.)
In 1969, Ford’s UK division was working on developing the company’s rallying program, while Ford’s German division came forward to work on their touring car program. Ford UK’s work produced the little Escort, which went on to become possibly the most successful rally car of all time. Their German counterparts meanwhile turned Ford’s sporty two-door coupe Capri into the more briefly dominant Capri RS 2600.
Why was its success so brief? I’ll get into that in a minute.
Turning A Street Car Into A Touring Car
The Capri RS 2600 that debuted in 1970 was the brainchild of Jochen Neerpasch, who had recently become head of Ford’s Motorsport Department in Cologne.
Previously, he was a factory-backed driver for Porsche, finishing third at the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans, but he figured it was time to retire. “You can only win at Russian roulette for so long,” he said as he announced he was leaving the then-horrifically-dangerous world of sports car racing for something more sedate.
The changes Neerpasch made to turn the ordinary Ford Capri road car into its thundering race version will sound familiar to any devoted BMW M car fan.
The engine got more power thanks to getting bored out (from 2.6 liters stock to 2.8 and then finally 2.9), dry-sumped, and fuel injected. The body was lightened with a stripped-out interior, a fiberglass hood and fiberglass doors. The suspension, brakes, and wheels were all correspondingly upgraded from stock.
Neerpasch and his team continually developed the vehicle, getting more power out of the engine and getting more weight out of the car. Ultimately, in race spec, the car was producing 280 horsepower while weighing a mere 950 kilos. The minimum weight mandated by the official racing organizers at the time was 900 kilos, so the Capri ended up being both one of the most powerful and one of the lightest cars in its field.
And it was hugely successful. It won the German Touring Car Championship, it won the European Touring Car Championship, and it completely destroyed its competition in Group 2 endurance racing. At the height of the Capri’s success, it was even beating cars in the significantly higher spec Group 4.
At the Nürburgring 1000km race that year, the Capris that Neerpasch ran were only slower than the top prototype sports cars of the day. I’m talking Ferraris with Formula 1 engines in them.
To get such a light and powerful car on track, Neerpasch had to produce road car versions of the car to homologate it for racing use. That produced the Ford Capri RS 2600. While it didn’t get the plastic body panels of the racing version, it still ditched its big bumpers to save weight and it got new wheels, a spare and lightened interior, an uprated engine, a new transmission (except in right-hand drive), and a thoroughly reworked suspension.
These things got Bilstein shocks, Ferodo brakes, and the front cross member got re-drilled to give the car some negative camber. A thousand of these cars needed to get built so that the car could go racing, but the car was so desirable that over 3,000 got sold.
It was this same homologation requirement that forced BMW to produce the brand-defining E30 M3, and that car’s story was much the same with demand outpacing the regulatory requirement.
“In those days, if you had a road-going BMW 1602Ti it was not hugely different from a touring car racer,” Hans Stuck reminisced to Motorsport Magazine years later, speaking on his days racing for both Ford and BMW during the ‘70s. “They were much, much closer to a road car than a race car is today. Plus there were not that many speed limits then in Germany, so there were lots of places for practicing.”
Meanwhile, At BMW
Now, while Ford in Cologne was busy collecting win after win with the Capri, BMW a few hours away in Munich was struggling to compete with their two-door competition coupes.
Their 2800CS that also raced in Group 2 made nearly as much power as the Capri, but weighed hundreds of kilos more. They were nothing more than moving chicanes, as one spectator remembered. Ford straight up shamed BMW, winning 13 of 16 races in ‘72.
What did BMW do to beat the Capris? They poached the man behind them.
In secret, BMW hired Neerpasch away from Ford in the midst of that devastating 1972 season. Neerpasch then used BMW’s money to bring his top talent along with him.
And this was the official birth of BMW M. It was Neerpasch and his technical director Martin Braungart who got the now-legendary Motorsport division going at BMW and the results were immediate. BMW won the European Touring Car Championship in 1973 with the 3.0 CSL, a heavily reworked version of the 2800CSs that Neerpasch’s Capris used to destroy.
These were incredible races, with full factory teams from Ford and BMW racing against each other. Many of the best Formula 1 drivers of the day ran the cars. Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Rolf Stommelen, Henri Pescarolo and Reine Wisell, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Jochen Mass, and Hans Stuck all raced BMW CSLs and Ford Capris in the period. Here’s a nice picture of contemporary F1 driver Ronnie Peterson, the Super Swede, at the wheel in ‘74 with Braungart taking notes.
Victory typically went to Neerpasch and his BMWs.
“They were just fabulous,” one contemporary driver told Motorsport Magazine. “The best touring car you could ever drive—so easy, light on the steering, and you could slide the thing everywhere.”
Neerpasch’s biggest edge was homologating the car with a completely outlandish for the time aero kit with a massive rear wing. It was expensive to buy a CSL road car; at £6899 it neared Aston Martin money. Getting a road-going CSL with the “Batmobile” package cost an absolute fortune, very nearly two and a half times what you would’ve paid for a V12 Jaguar E-Type. That gives a hint of how expensive the entire homologation process was for BMW.
Ford couldn’t match those homologation costs, didn’t come through with a wing package of their own, and the BMWs consistently walked away from their rival Capris. Sometimes, they leapt.
Some Assembly Required
What is particularly amazing is that none of this was legal! In 1973, even as BMW started selling the Batmobile, Neerpasch’s rear wing hadn’t been type-approved for use on the road. BMW had to deliver the cars with the rear wing stored in the trunk. The buyers had to mount the things themselves.
So Neerpasch homologated his race car with parts that weren’t even homologated for the road. No wonder the guy had a reputation for bending the rules, and no wonder the car collected six European Touring Car Championships through the ‘70s.
The most ridiculous moment in the Batmobile’s development was when it was turned into the first BMW Art Car, when the great Alexander Calder painted his friend’s 3.0 CSL for the 1975 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The project probably peaked in 1977 when Neerpasch’s team turbocharged the CSL to something in the neighborhood of 800 horsepower. BMW didn’t even have a transmission that could handle the performance of the car, as Motorsport Magazine reported.
Neerpasch’s influence on M as a brand was not limited to the work he did setting up the competition cars. Another Motorsport Magazine article from 1980 reviewing the M5's precursor, the M535i, called Neerpasch “shrewd” and described how he set up the formula for the modern M car as a means of making some money for his race team:
The idea of putting ever larger engines into the 5-series escalated with Jochen Neerpasch’s arrival in 1972 at the Munich competitions department, for their shrewd former Porsche driver and Ford competitions man saw a way of offsetting some costs by providing the wealthier motorist with a better BMW, or part-paying drivers like Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson with these special 5s. Not a tuned BMW in the way that Alpina engineered their conversions, but an appropriate melange of standard parts.
Even earlier, in 1976 Motorsport Magazine reported that Neerpasch’s small 90-person M division did tuning work on the lower-level 528:
There’s much more to BMW’s competition activities, of course, most of which is well-publicized. Less well-known is the Department’s increasing interest in fast road cars, particularly the 528. To special order, and for an extra 10,000 DM on top of the standard 528, it is possible to have them produce a 3.3-litre injection-engined version with Bilstein shock-absorbers, ventilated discs all round, special seats and special, 7 in. wheels. A standard, part-completed 528 is taken from the production line, two Competitions Department mechanics carry out the conversion and then the car goes back to the normal production line for final finishing. The cars even carry the normal factory warranty, for the engines are unmodified.
And that has been BMW M’s core ever since. They convert road cars into winning race cars, then make money back for BMW by letting that racing shine rub off on some motorsport-tuned special edition road cars.
So BMW’s M division was basically started at Ford. The mindset, the talent, everything. Neerpasch at Ford developed his formula for turning a road car into a winning race car and BMW took that and moved it into M.
Think about that the next time you see an M3 driving around, or, humorously, every time you see Ford trying desperately to beat Bavaria’s best.
One Legend Rises As Another Falls
Epilogue: If you’re wondering what happened to the Capri after Neerpasch left Ford, it sort of struggled for a while under its new directors, as contemporary driver John Fitzpatrick recalled, moaning that the new guys at Ford couldn’t figure out how to tune the car. “They used to understeer like hell,” Fitzpatrick told Motorsport Magazine. “You couldn’t throw the car into a corner to provoke a slide or anything like that. It was just terrible. When you pressed on they actually went up onto two wheels, as the roll centers were all wrong. It was just unbelievable.”
In 1978 and 1979, German race team Zakspeed took over and turned the car into a four-cylinder, 700 horsepower widebody monster of a car. The Capri went from racing in Group 2 to Group 5, and there it went back to its dominating ways.
As for Neerpasch, he had nine extremely successful years at BMW. His race program culminated, too, with a transition to Group 5 racing, though he elected to ditch the front-engine 3.0 CSL altogether in favor of an all-new mid-engine chassis. This became the BMW M1.
Sadly, this new brainchild cost him his job. He contracted out the construction of the car to Lamborghini, which promptly when broke. That delayed the M1 from getting made, and the racing regulations changed before the car went into production. The M1 ultimately used a straight six engine just like the 3.0 CSL, however Neerpasch had actually tried to get BMW to sign off on developing an all-new 3.0 liter V8 for the car. He wanted to use it to power a Formula 1 program. BMW execs didn’t like that plan, and following the delays with the M1, they fired Neerpasch.
He worked out fine, making his way to Mercedes’ successful Le Mans program a few years later, and BMW won the ‘83 F1 Driver’s Championship with their turbo four-cylinder engine.
I got my biographical information on Jochen Neerpasch from a brief note in Porsche Carrera: the Air-Cooled Era 1953-1998, a history of the BMW M1 on Car and Driver, this wonderful old interview from Motorsport Magazine, and this retrospective on GrandPrix.com. It includes that lovely quote from Neerpasch describing why he ended his career as a race car driver to work for Ford.
This other article from Motorsport Magazine also notes that while Neerpasch and Braungart were the first leaders of M, it was Bob Lutz who had the idea for BMW to start its own dedicated motorsports division.
I bumped into this story in the first place on this sweet driving review of the 3.0 CSL from Chris Harris for EVO, which is a great read.
I got my information on the Capri RS 2600 race specifications from this excellent history on Bonham’s and I got my information on the Capri RS 2600 road car specifications from this Silverstone Auctions listing as well as from the Australian RS Owner’s Club. This feature from Motorsport Magazine gave more information on how the road car and the race car related to each other.
For accounts of how the Capri performed on the race track, I went to my regular source of the now-down but still outstanding IMCA-Slotracing.com. It was written by none other than Jean Pierre van Rossem, who watched all the races of the time and later went on to run a Formula 1 team. There are some interesting details of his life I’m leaving out, but that’s a story for another time.
Photo Credits: Ford (top two images, photos of RS 2600 road car, and cutaway), BMW (the two pictures of the Calder art car), Getty Images (all other photos)
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.