We brought together 50 of Autocar’s most passionate BMW M owners to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary

We brought together 50 of Autocar’s most passionate BMW M owners to celebrate the brand’s birthday. They explained what makes BMW M so magical

Over the past 50 years, BMW M has created a swathe of game-changing race cars and track-bred road cars that have redefined performance: from the BMW CSL ‘Batmobile’ that started it all in 1972, to the BMW i4 M50 that is taking the brand into the electric age (with plenty of iconic cars in between, and plenty still to come).

A car is nothing without a passionate driver behind the wheel, though, and BMW M fans are some of the most committed and knowledgeable around. Over the last five decades, it’s fair to say that BMW M’s enduring success has been driven just as much by people power as it has been by horsepower.

To celebrate BMW M’s 50th anniversary, we brought together some of Autocar’s most enthusiastic BMW M owners for our very special 50th anniversary Autocar M-Fest at Caffeine & Machine. Two of them got to go on a very special VIP trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed (watch the video below to see how they got on). But there were plenty of other amazing cars to see, and amazing tales to hear.

So, we swapped our driving shoes for loafers and joined the crowd to get the fans’ story of 50 years of BMW M in their own words.

Find out more about BMW M’s 50th anniversary

Where the passion for BMW M started

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “I’m from a family of mechanics. I liked taking engines apart, but I was never into cars. Coming out of school one day, I heard this exhaust note unlike anything I’d heard before. I ran to the end of the road, and it was a BMW M3 E30 in Alpine White. Gorgeous. I rushed home, searched for ‘BMW M3’ online, and the then-current BMW M3 E46 popped up. It just stuck with me. I had a poster of the E46 on my wall, and two years ago I bought one. Even though it’s a 2005 car – getting on for 20-years-old – it’s a timeless iconic design. Curvy and aggressive at the same time. You could take the number plates off, and people would think it was a new model.”

Neville d’Mello (1989 BMW M3 E30): “My love of BMW M started when I was 17, flicking through Max Power, Fast Car and Performance BMW. I fell in love with those 1980s and 1990s era cars. My first BMW at the age of 19 was a 320i E30. I used to do track days at Castle Combe and Silverstone. That was when I fell in love with the M3 E30: the look, how they performed on-track, the flames from the exhaust. I got the bug to get one of my own. My M3 E30 was my first BMW M car. I’ve had it 21 years now. After that I bought an M5 E30 Touring which had an engine conversion with the 3.6-litre from the M5 E34. That was the beast of my fleet. My last BMW M car was the M5 Touring E61, which I still own. It’s a bit of an addiction to be fair.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “I’ve been into cars since I was a kid. I used to drive my parents mad knocking paint off the skirting board with toy cars, since I could crawl. Other kids had comics; I had car magazines. The BMW M models tended to be the ones that journalists would fawn over, so I knew they were special. When the BMW M5 E39 came out I just loved that shape. I still remember the first day I saw a brand new M5 E39 on the road. There’s something about seeing a picture of a car, then seeing it in the metal. Big V8, naturally aspirated, manual gearbox, real-wheel drive – it just ticked every box for me. I decided I had to have one of those to try it for myself. When I found my particular car, it was kind of that cheesy, corny, love-at-first-sight thing. Love at first drive, as well.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “For me, it was a BMW M car driven by Tiff Needell on the old 1990s Top Gear in my early teens. It was a family car, going sideways with lots of smoke: the perfect balance of a car that could take the kids to school, but could thrash an airfield. I bought a Ford Focus RS to nip the performance inkling in the bud, but I kept looking for BMW Ms. In 2015 I saw this car. It used to be my daily driver, but now I’ve got a company car it has become a hobby car. I think it has always been the car for me, and the fact I’ve kept it this long proves it really.”

Mike Hodder (2021 BMW M4 G82): “My uncle had a BMW M3 E30: one of the first in the UK. He kept that car for a long time. I bet he wishes he still had it now. He had a Dakar Yellow M3 E36 as well. It was always BMW M cars. Growing up and through different business I’ve had, I’ve always been into BMW – everything from the X5M down to the M3 and the 135i. I’m love them all. I can’t get enough of them, really.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “My BMW M5 is not showy. You have to look for the subtle details that mark it out, that hint at the performance, rather than shouting about it. It’s powerful, purposeful, muscular. The flared arches, staggered wheels, the signature quad exhaust, the slightly different mirrors. But you can park it outside a nightclub or golf club and be Mr or Mrs Discrete. That’s what BMW M has always been for me. There’s something there for the enthusiast to see. It speaks to them I think, more than shouting too much to the world at large about what’s there, and the potential, that the vehicle has.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “Funny story: my car was the press car used for the Autocar road test. I only found out when I bought it, as there was an option code 901, which was for press preparation. A year or so later, I was sent a link to a picture of the car being drive sideways by an Autocar journalist. I like that it’s done its dues, served its purpose and the performance has been used. It adds to the story of the car. I’ve since found a copy of the magazine on eBay. The car will be 20 years old this year, so it’s nice to see it when it’s just two months old.”

A driving experience unlike any other

Mike Hodder (2021 BMW M4 G82): “On any performance car, whether you’re on the road or the track, it has to feel stable, it has to give you confidence, it has to feel planted. Some of BMW’s competition are just too powerful or too wayward. But BMW M cars have got it absolutely right. They’re a precision tool.”

Neville d’Mello (1989 BMW M3 E30): “I’ve driven other performance cars, but with a BMW M you simply have a better connection with the car. It’s the racing pedigree. The power to weight ratio is the perfect balance. The way it goes round corners, it just sticks – it’s on the button. It’s the raspiness of the exhaust note, the engine revs at the top end. The way it changes gear.”

Anthony Mason (2022 BMW 1M): “For me, it’s the way it handles, the feeling it gives you. You can tell when the back is going to jiggle; when the front is going to lean out. You’re encapsulated in it. You can put four adults in it and drive very gently and they don’t notice. Then you get a mate in it and go down some rural roads and it just comes alive. It’s such a surprising car, because its little. It looks chunky, and people don’t expect it to do what it does. And what it does is very, very good.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “It’s the whole package. It’s the balance, the feel, and the throaty sound when you’re driving it. The car just talks to you. It’s not too powerful, not too slow; just the sweet spot. It’s the steering. The poise and precision through the corners – so planted and surefooted. It always goes where you want it to, and never feels unsettled. You never feel like you’re anywhere near the limit, it’s always more capable than you as the driver. There has not been one time when I’ve been driving my car when I haven’t got a smile on my face.”

David Mollison (2019 BMW M2 Competition): “The BMW M2 is a great handling car with a fantastic chassis: the weight distribution, rear-wheel drive. It just sticks to the road. It’s also easy to live with, whether it’s a daily car, or if you want to press on. It serves multiple purposes, which is what I like in a small, compact car. The engine is very torquey, and really comes alive at higher revs. Plus, it’s a manual, which is important for a fun driver’s car. It puts a smile on my face every time I get in it, even if it is just a short drive.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “It’s pure. Yes, it’s a cliche to say it’s a big V8 with a manual gearbox and not much electronics. But it’s true. There’s not a lot to interfere with the driving. It lets you get on with it. You feel it through the steering, through the seat of your pants. It’s a beautifully damped drive, so it’s brilliant on British roads. It’s not too big, so you can place the car and you’ve got space to move around a bit. And it keeps gripping. Its capabilities are vastly beyond mine, and I like that. It eggs you on and flatters you as a driver. It’s looking after me, and daring me to go a little bit further. But I don’t have to. It’s the sound of the thing as well. It engages all the senses to tell you how well you’re doing. You feel it; you hear it.”

Anthony Mason (2022 BMW 1M): “It depends on the car – because some of them sound like and F1 car, while some sound more basic – but they all sound strong. You put a lot of load into mine with a standard exhaust, and it just has a lovely baritone through the revs. You can really hear it sing all the way through.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “BMW M cars just sound evocative. The gentle burble, the hints of performance. Until you open up the taps. On the BMW M5, it’s a relatively lazy engine to get going, but once you start rising through the revs it will just keep taking it. It’s that sort of Jekyll and Hyde part of the character which comes out in noise, just as it comes out in the drive.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “Some performance cars can be difficult to live with, but a BMW M5 is the everyday usable performance car. It can be practical, it’s easy to drive, quite liveable, not too loud. Quite discrete. Only those in the know know. Then, if you do want that sport mode and put your foot down, you get genuine performance. It’s not false. The rear-wheel drive, the noise of the five-litre V8 – an authentic performance sound – and the way it behaves on the throttle.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “It’s two different personalities in one: a performance car, and an everyday car. But it does both jobs amazingly. Underneath, it’s a BMW 3 Series: spacious, comfortable and luxurious. A lovely place to be. A proper daily driver, a comfortable cruiser or a family car. As you explore the limits of the grip, push the car further and plant your foot, it can hang on to the back of cars that it shouldn’t really be able to keep up with. It’s amazing to see a manufacturer bring that Jekyll and Hyde personality to a production car.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “I’ve had mine for a little over a decade now, and it gets used for literally everything. It’s entrenched in family life. I love that it can be a docile family car that’s just as happy doing holidays, the school run, and pootling down to the shops as it is giving you that bit of entertainment or fun on the days when you want it. It drove my daughter back from the hospital when we had her, so it’s special for that reason, too. It’s kind of the ultimate all-rounder. You’ve got the performance you need, but you don’t have to use it all the time. It can be subtle and understated; it doesn’t have to make a big shout and song and dance, and it can blend in. But, from time to time, it can be a bit of monster on those days when you want it to be. Suddenly, what’s normally just transport becomes an event.”

Bred on-track, raced to win, honed for the road

Mike Hodder (2021 BMW M4 G82): “With BMW M, it’s all about the heritage, the history, the racing pedigree. The fact you have something like the BMW M4 CSL – which can race on a Sunday, then you can buy it on Monday – is really important. It definitely gives the brand and the cars more drama, especially when you have something directly linked to road cars – like the 1990s BTCC touring cars. They looked exactly like the road car, which I thought was really important.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “It’s the race-bred technology and heritage that gives a BMW M car its Jekyll and Hyde experience. BMW know how to set a car up. They’re successful on track, and you can feel it. When you put your foot down you feel that experience and that technology in the car. You feel like it has been set-up by a race technician. The fact that they can take the dynamics and the setups of a race car and apply them to an everyday car. It blows your mind.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “If BMW didn’t have that genuine heritage, it would be a gimmick. But, with the BMW M badge and the three stripes, it has that backing, that foundation. It’s built off something real and credible. It’s genuine heritage that they have achieved and built up through real experience.”

David Mollison (2019 BMW M2 Competition): “I like the older race cars, like the 3.0-litre BMW CSL. The original Batmobile. It’s good to see where it all comes from, and even today it would draw a crowd with all of those wings and flared arches. It never looked tacky. It just looked right.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “The 3.0-litre CSL is the one car I’d call my unicorn. I’ve never been near one in real life. But, when I think motorsport, I instantly picture that car. You can always spot it in bright colours, or the white with the BMW M racing stripes. The art cars too. It’s thanks to that car that BMW M exists. Without it, none of these other BMW M cars would have been made.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “For me, it’s the BMW M3 E30 DTM cars. The BTCC cars were nice, but the DTM cars looked like they were on steroids. Another icon is the BMW V12 LMR that they developed with the Williams F1 team to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in the early 2000s.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M4 E39): “Well, everyone would like a BMW M1 wouldn’t they? It’s the dream car that says everything that BMW M is about. Built for the racetrack, it’s got heritage, it’s a thoroughbred, it’s exclusive, it was ahead of its time. And it’s gorgeous. If you stuck one of those in the middle of a car park amongst car geeks and even people who say they hate cars, they’d all gravitate towards it because it’s just a thing of beauty. It just oozes special. That’s why I think it’s the pinnacle. Then, there’s the 1990s heyday of the BTCC, with BMW battling against John Cleland’s Vauxhall and Alain Menu’s Renaults. They were the formative years for me, and there was something glorious about seeing and hearing those cars screaming and hammering around. I’ll never forget that.”

A passionate community; a love for customisation

Jon Greensmith (2002 BMW M5 E39): “There’s a real community of BMW M owners out there who know what we’ve got. Most BMW M cars just hint at their potential, but enthusiasts… you can spot them, you know what it is that has encouraged that person to go out and buy that car. It’s that sort of community. You get nods as you’re driving around, particularly as the cars age. If they’re in good nick, you appreciate the agony that the owner has gone through to keep them that way. That sort of camaraderie and community. That’s what brought me here.” 

Neville d’Mello (1989 BMW M3 E30): “I like going to BMW shows and car meets to get to know the other enthusiasts and see what they’ve done to their cars. That’s when you get ideas for your own vehicle. I’ve done a few little mods on mine – custom interior, wheels and lights, just to make it a bit different from the original.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “I like cars that are OEM+. They look standard but feel unique. BMW M owners don’t tend to modify their cars too much. BMW know how to set a car up. Definitely a lot better than Dave down the garage. So, owners love the car they buy, and want to enhance what it already is. People that love power go for BMW M5s, while people who prefer handling go for the M3s or the little BMW ZM cars. An M car is a BMW in its purest form. Older BMW M cars are skyrocketing in value at the moment, and there’s a reason for it. They’re such good cars. They’re unlike anything else on the road, and you can’t go wrong with buying one. That’s why a lot of people are buying used modified BMW M cars and taking all the bits off them and returning them to stock.”

Jon Greensmith (2001 BMW M5 E39): “During lockdown, it was a good time to give my car a bit of love and try and take some of its years back off it again. We’ve done a full engine rebuild, new brakes, the underside has been restored and we gave it a respray. It has basically taken at least 20 of its 21 years off. My nine-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son have both been very much brought up with the car, and I think they’re going to end up fighting over it. It will remain in the family. But you’ll have to work very hard to prize the keys out of my hand.”

Looking forward to an electric future

Jon Greensmith (2002 BMW M5 E39): “When it comes to going electric, BMW M has a big advantage. It has history, a racing pedigree. It’s got a back catalogue. It knows what works, it knows what doesn’t, and it knows what customers want. Yes, we’ll miss that aural experience. But what BMW M has meant has always been a combination of things: the way that forward momentum is transmitted to the ground and feeling that through the seat of your pants. BMW know we’re not going to accept an electric BMW M car that doesn’t provide the same rush, the same performance, the same feel that we’re used to. If anyone can come up with cars for the future that still hint at the past and give us all something to continue to enjoy driving, then it’s BMW. There’s still fun to be had, but it will be a slightly different kind of fun.”

Owain Gibby (2002 BMW M5 E39): “Where you have the BMW M performance, the BMW M heritage, that experience, that performance – if that can be brought into an electric car, then it will be a great success and it will do the whole industry good.”

Connor Simpson (2005 BMW M3 E46): “I think that if anyone can do it, BMW can. They absolutely know how to set a car up and they know how to keep their character in the car. That’s what going to keep the brand alive – keeping it as balanced and as pure as they can.”

Jon Greensmith (2002 BMW M5 E39): “I think there’s stuff that BMW M gets right that you can’t make up. You can’t craft it from nothing. You know the vehicles have been designed by people who are passionate about what they’re doing. It’s not just something that’s put to market to sell. It’s put to market when it’s right, and when it’s going to give people that thrill. That’s what I’ve always liked about BMW M’s back catalogue, and it’s nice to know there are people within BMW M who are looking to do that, whatever direction our motoring future is. It’s nice to know there will be people who will still be trying to implant those essential characteristics that make an BMW M car into future models.”

Find out more about BMW M’s 50th anniversary