Built for Speed: Performance History of BMW Race Cars

If you attend one of the many sports car races, track days, autocross events, or historic races held across the United States every year, you will find one constant: the presence of BMW cars. Founded in 1916, BMW has one of the most storied histories in all of motorsports. They initially started manufacturing aircraft engines and produced their first motorcycles, which also have a great competition history, in 1923. The first car to wear a BMW badge was produced in 1928 and was based on an Austin 7, but BMW really came into their own with the introduction of the 328 in 1936.        

Many of the performance cars coming out of Europe in 1930 focused on making large engines designed for Grand Prix racing, but BMW took a different route. The 328 was powered by the M328 1971cc inline-six, built to compete in the 2-litre class and was successful right out of the gate. It claimed class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the RAC Tourist Trophy, and the Mille Miglia. The success continued into the 1940s with an overall win in the Mille Miglia, and a 328 was even driven to victory in the 1948 Australian Grand Prix against a diverse array of machinery, many of which had much larger displacement engines. BMW race cars were starting to win races around the globe, and their reputation was beginning to grow.  

Post-War Rebuilding

In the aftermath of the World War II, most manufacturers were not focused on automobile racing, and BMW was no different. But motorsports enthusiasts around the globe picked up where they left off by organizing events and driving prewar cars or building specials utilizing leftover parts, and it’s no surprise the BMW 328 was a favorite. Several specialists built formula cars and streamlined sports cars utilizing 328 parts and engines with varying degrees of success.  The Bristol Company in England started producing 328 engines that found their way into cars such as the AC Ace (the precursor to the Cobra) and the Frazer Nash Le Mans replica (one of which won the first 12 Hours of Sebring in 1952). Even without factory support, BMW-based racers were still competing against the best competition available at the time.  

Post-War BMW was focused on building small, affordable, fuel-efficient cars, and many were powered by flat twin-cylinder engines based on BMW motorcycle power plants. While not initially conceived as race cars, they proved successful on track, and the 700 and 700 RS models took many class and overall wins, including Hans Stuck winning the German Hillclimb Championship in 1960 with a 700. BMW maintained a presence in formula car racing, but really started to see success after the development of the M10 engine. Introduced in 1962, the M10 was a single overhead cam four-cylinder that was initially designed to be a 1.5-litre powerplant for BMW’s new sedans and small coupes. The new M10 powered 1600 coupe, which would turn into 2002, was the spark that turned BMW into the Ultimate Driving Machine. 

Popularity in the United States 

The 1600/2002 was light, nimble, and handled like a dream. As these cars began to filter into the United States, they became a favorite for winding mountain roads, spirited driving, and club racing. The 2002’s success led to the creation of the first 3 Series, the E21, which in this country was also powered by the now popular M10 engine. When a turbo and a racing cylinder head were added, the M10 became the basis for the M12 which, when properly tuned, would produce over 1000hp, and powered everything from factory-backed E21 widebody Group 5/IMSA racers to race-winning, flame-spitting Formula One cars. 

While the 2002 model had gained a following, BMW was still not becoming as large a presence on the U.S. scene as they wanted, and to accomplish this, BMW of North America was founded in 1975 and hit the ground running. Entering a factory-backed team at the most prominent U.S. sports car races and racing a widebody lightweight version of the BMW E9 coupe powered by an inline six-cylinder engine, and the cars were successful right off the bat. Known as the 3.0 CSL, this legendary racing model won the 1975 12 Hours of Sebring and would be that year’s IMSA champion. In 1976, a BMW CSL won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the brand was on the motorsports map. BMW was here to stay. 

During the 70s, BMW race cars were not just finding success in the U.S., but all over the world and becoming a true icon of motorsport. BMW’s M division (BMW Motorsport) was founded in 1972 with a focus on producing competition cars but would eventually also produce performance street cars which are highly coveted by enthusiasts. The first of the famous BMW Art Cars was a 3.0 CSL with a paint scheme designed by Alexander Calder who raced at Le Mans in 1975. Art Cars designed by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and John Baldessari would continue the tradition of competing in major endurance races. BMW models like the 3.0 CSL, mid-engine M1 supercar, and BMW-powered prototypes would continue to race and be a fan favorite for years to come, but no BMW model before or since has been as successful on the racetrack than the upcoming 3 Series.

The 3 Series and Beyond 

Starting with the E21, the 3 Series picked up where the 2002 left off and was a real driver’s car.  The E30 came next with more options available such as a four-door model and a six-cylinder engine in the U.S. The first M car was introduced with the M3 in 1986 and cemented BMW’s racing legacy around the world. The E30 M3 won championships all over the globe and took multiple overall wins at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring and Spa. The E36, E46, and E90 3 Series all followed the tradition of winning races and championships. The 3 Series platform became such a popular model for racers and enthusiasts that any performance part or possible upgrades imaginable are available for competition or street use and having the options available to upgrade these cars continues in the modern era.

While stock BMWs still hold the title of the Ultimate Driving Machine, and while the factory still produces championship winning race cars, modified street cars make up the bulk of BMW race cars competing in and winning races over the past several decades. Performance upgrades like engine modifications, UHMW control arm and suspension bushings, engine mounts, wide wheels and tires, lightweight body panels, and polycarbonate windows all help to give a competitive edge that get car and driver to the winner's circle. The 3 Series has been joined by the 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 series and Z models when it comes to BMWs currently being used in competition, quality aftermarket parts are available for them at Condor Speed Shop.

BMW race cars are still competing all over the world and at all levels of competition. From IMSA races and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb to budget endurance races and track days, BMWs are more popular than ever on the road and the track. While vintage 2002s and CSLs can still be found at tracks around the world, modern M4s and M6s are out there writing history in the moment and show no signs of slowing down any time soon. 

July 16, 2021 by Carlos Mendez

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