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BMW 1M Firestarter (Words as published in Straight Six in June 2020)

You would have good reason to believe that the fastest ever developed BMW M Car, may also be one of its least capable. With not enough time or money, there were a number of limitations. There would only be the choice of three colours, the front wing vents would be fake, the interior was a single colour choice, and the chassis and drivetrain would rely heavily on the M and non-M BMW corporate parts bin.


You could be forgiven to expect this particular M Car to be a bit of a, well, a bit of a lemon. But what we actually got was something else entirely. As the late Keith Flint from the Prodigy used to belt out, what we ended up with was “…a Firestarter, twisted Firestarter!”

The 1 Series M Coupe, or 1M as we more commonly know it nowadays, was developed in a staggeringly short time of less than two years from the BMW Board giving, the then head of M GmbH Dr Kay Segler, the green light. And when the bloke responsible for some of the world’s fastest and best handling production cars states the speed of this development cycle as “we were very, very fast – I mean tremendously fast!”, you can probably put your house on the fact that things did move pretty speedily.


From the outset of the E82 1 series development, an M iteration was always on the idea’s board, initially it was expected from what was to become the M135i; a highly capable and fast car, but which ended up under the newly developed “M Performance” moniker than a true “WBS…” Chassis number, or M Car. There is a difference.


The principle idea of creating the 1M and receiving that green light from BMWs management board, was received around July 2009, where it would evolve from a clay model to a full working protype within 12 months. The timelines were tight for a reason. The next generation N55 motor already existed, and the E90/92 M3 with which it was to share parts was coming towards the end of life. If the 1M was to be built, it had to be done now and quickly.


The prototypes were rumoured to be named after the M Engineers favourite spiced rum, Pyrat (Pirate); the link to the skunk works project approach of this particular M car and the pirating of its components surely not accidental. However, this wasn’t the reason according to BMW, who cited in their early official communications to 1addicts.com that the name Pirate was actually referring to the hope that the new 1M would, “plunder unknown territorial waters and to make it easier to gain a foothold in the BMW M world”. A bold intent if ever there was one.


So passionate were the management and engineers about the 1M, that they embarked on a fairly confident approach to their marketing for the car along its very short development cycle. Journalists were invited by BMW to come and see and ride in the camouflaged protypes at the Ascari circuit in Spain in July 2010, and invited back again four months later to actually drive the pre-production prototypes themselves, albeit for only 20 mins around Munich. This approach ramped up the huge sense of anticipation to fever pitch but with BMW, literally, in the driving seat.


Layered on top of this press / car journo engagement, BMW released, arguably bravely, several videos and private event unveilings during the second half of 2010 all designed to tease the public with this new orange painted M Car. A special cover, resplendent with orange stitching, was even designed and manufactured in such a way that one bit of the car could be exposed at any given time, a rear quarter here, a front wing there; exposed without the full car ever being shown. It turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius, with the car commanding prestigious amounts of print column inches and online megabytes of video & commentary.


Eventually the wait was over. After the lacklustre press release on the 10th Dec 2010, BMW posted an 11 ½ minute video on YouTube via Bimmerpost. But what was this? Parked next to the 1M in the opening scenes in a deserted pit lane was a blast from the past, an E30 M3 Sport Evo. If ever there was a bold statement of intent for this new 1M then this was it. Comparing any new M Car to this race car turned road car that is the E30 M3 was a huge gamble. Or, did the M Engineers know something about this new “1 Series M Coupe” that we didn’t, yet, understand? Fortunately, the world wouldn’t have to wait too much longer.

It seems BMW knew exactly what it had created in under two years; a pumped-up almost cartoonish baby M car with all of the necessary key attributes. With the exception of the bonnet, roof and doors, all other panels were unique to the 1M as they covered it’s widened track, borrowing as it did, the rear differential, suspension and brakes from the E90/92 M3. The engine was the 3-litre Straight Six twin-turbo VANOS N54 taken from the 135i, only now breathed upon by the M Engineers with a lightened flywheel to produce 335bhp and 332lbft of torque, with a further 37lbft of torque available on overboost. Mated to this torquey motor was a single gearbox option of a Getrag Type K six-speed box which was lighter and more compact than previous generations, driving those rear wheels, which on the 1M were the simply classic Style M359, as fitted to the E90/92 Competition Pack, sized at 9 x19” at the front and 10 x 19 “ rear, shod with 245/35/R19 and 265/35/R19 tyres respectively, whilst the steering is a more feelsome hydraulic set up with a super quick rack, taking only 2.2 turns lock to lock.


Driving systems wise the 1M was a fairly simple beast compared to its M car contemporaries. Pushing the M button resulted, not in an extensive menu of performance options like in the E90/92 M3, but a simple Sport map for the electronic throttle. The only other option was with DSC, where it could be turned off completely or placed in MDM (M Dynamic Mode) which made the back end a little more playful without totally removing the safety net. All of this contributed to a kerb weight of 1495kgs, and with its near 50/50 weight balance translates in to some pretty impressive performance figures. 0 to 60mph coming up in 4.8 seconds with the top speed limited to 155mph, although many road testers bettered the 0-60mph time on test.

Whilst the interior came in one colour only, black Dakota leather with orange stitching, it came with swathes of Alcantara on the door cards, dash, instrument binnacle and around the gear lever. The outside choices were also straight forward, either a no cost option Alpine white, or cost option Sapphire Black or Valencia Orange. Apparently when the Engineers showed Dr Segler the 1M Pyrat prototype, they did so in the future road map colour of Valencia Orange - named after the Ricardo Tormo Circuit in Valencia (Spain). It was from this moment that Segler apparently insisted on this future roadmap colour being made available for the 1M from launch, even eluding to it publicly as far back as August 2010, “The one thing I can tell you is that we will reveal a colour, and similar to the GTS colour, it will not be forgotten. People in some years will recognize it.” How right he was, I might ask him to predict this week’s Lotto numbers. I digress.


It’s fair to say the motoring press overwhelmingly fell for this M Car. Evo magazine took a 1M car on their long-term fleet for 8 months and 16,000 miles. If that mileage is not telling enough, Nick Trott, then editor, wrote of the 1M back in early 2012, “I can genuinely say that I’ve never felt so thoroughly taken with a car so quickly. If you don’t have the money to buy a 1M, I’d warn you never to drive one. It gets under your skin. Even a short drive will have you attempting to discover new and possibly even illegal means by which to raise the money to afford one”.


And of course, another journalist, who was lucky enough to be invited on the early Pyrat Protype passenger rides and drives in 2010, was Chris Harris. He was so smitten he bought his own Sapphire black 1M, tastefully modified with a Litchfield Stage 1 tune and Akrapovič full system exhaust. When testing against the M2 for Top Gear back in 2017, Harris stated (probably whilst going sideways) of the output from those M Engineers, “The result is one of the naughtiest cars I’ve ever driven, it’s not the fastest but it has just got this personality of wanting to be a bit troublesome”. He goes on to say, “…this is a very exciting car. I feel connected in a way I don’t in the M2”. High praise indeed.

Complaints about the 1M from the motoring press, and there are always a few of course, were levelled mainly at the engine, suspension and brakes. The engine, was criticised for not being an “S” code and therefore not a true M engine, despite its character and performance. The initial damping was criticised for being a little too stiff, resulting in the car’s handling being a little nervous and at times even spikey. And the brakes, whilst there seemed no detractors for fast road driving, those that took the car to the track criticised the brakes for overheating within a couple of laps, but frankly that was common criticism of all BMW M cars of that generation...


The business case and plan were to initially sell 2,700 1M’s globally, another reason no doubt on the simple execution and limited colour / trim choices. Production of the 1M was performed in BMW’s Leipzig factory in Germany, the demand over the 16-month production cycle surpassing the initial estimates, with total global sales reaching 6,309 units.

In two countries a limited-edition plaque was added. In the UK, “ONE OF 450” was added, whilst in France the cars were numbered 1 to 100. In the overall production, the colours were split fairly evenly for the UK’s 450 cars. In fact, out of all the 2,103 UR92 European spec right hand drive cars produced, only one car was ordered in BMW Individual “Atacama yellow”, rather than the White, Black or Orange, and that car was shipped to Singapore. Needless to say, the 1M was quite the success the BMW Board had not expected.


Driving

This stunning 1M you see here on these pages is photographer Dean Grossmith’s, and I know it well. Dean had been talking to me more and more about wanting a 1M since early 2019, and with ample encouragement and a very brief session of man maths, he reached a decision to go for it. Finding the right one became a priority after the summer holidays. After a whole second of deep consideration, I volunteered my services to find Dean the best car I could for the budget. I’m sure like most of you, if you’re reading this magazine you are first and foremost a BMW enthusiast, so volunteering to go find a specific and very cool BMW is really no hardship at all.


After a couple of weeks searching, I found a 1M with only 9,000 miles in Dean’s desired colour of Valencia Orange. Only thing being that the car was in deepest Lincolnshire on a Potato Farm, which is fair old distance from the South East coast of England. Cutting a long story - about payments not going through on time, Dean having to go back days later to collect it, a very long drive and getting home at 2am – short, the 1M has been Dean’s prized possession ever since last September.


So although I know the car well, being handed the keys for the first time by Dean was a moment of mixed emotion; on the one hand it was, “jeez, I’d better not find a ditch with this one”, and the other emotion, “Whoooooaaaaahhhhhhhh – yes baby!!”.

I count myself as fairly fortunate to be able to drive some pretty cool cars writing for Straight Six and partnering with the local BMW Specialists and main dealers, but driving a 1M had been a long-held ambition never fulfilled. But here I was sat in a 1M in a sea of familiarity. With so much of the switchgear carried over from my own E90 M3 I felt comfortable, even the steering wheel is the same. Push the engine “Start” button and everything changes. That bark from the 1M is completely unique.


Within minutes of driving the 1M around Sussex’s Ashdown Forest I feel immediately at home, the car just feels so damn right, and particularly right sized for an M Car. Only a short while later, my confidence has grown further, I’m now pushing on, that N54 motor is a real peach, really torquey, that exhaust note unique and raucous, almost old school turbo sounding. Changing gears on the Getrag box is an absolute joy, so much so I am deliberately changing more than is frankly necessary, first to enjoy the action and secondly to hear that quad pipe exhaust sing again, bwaarrrpppp!

The roads are dry but it’s single digit cold. Dean has fitted Michelin PS4S’s to the 1M, and brilliant as they are in these lower temperatures, the Traction Control light is flicking away, letting me know that I’m spinning the wheels up again, even in third at full bore acceleration out of the corners as that monstrous torque is released, it’s pretty scary but in such a cool way. This car is completely nuts! It’s so agile that with that torque fest of an engine it makes for a compelling M Car proposition, and despite “only” having 340hp, it is properly fast. It’s also letting me know exactly what is going on; it feels that I could really wring it out properly being given the right roads and conditions.


And as soon as it started, my time with the 1M is over. It won’t be the last time I drive it, I know that, but the next time just can’t come soon enough. As I step away, I keep staring, then taking a bunch of photos of it so I can post them out on Instagram later, remembering and sharing my drive.


What this car has is a personality, and a bloody big one at that. Keith Flint sang as the 1M is, “I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated, I’m a Firestarter, twisted Firestarter…fell intoxicated”. Until the next time Valencia Orange 1M, until the next time…

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