This year marks the 50th anniversary of BMW M, in case you haven’t already heard. There’s no better man to talk to on the M Division’s birthday than the man that started it all–Jochen Neerpasch.

At the 2022 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, where BMW M had some of its most legendary cars on display, we had the chance to sit down and talk to Neerpasch. We discussed the beginnings of BMW M, its history, and where it’s headed. Neerpasch is considered the founder of the M Division so we were naturally thrilled to talk to him and to hear how the most famous letter in the auto industry actually came to be.

From Ford To BMW

Before becoming the eventual founder of BMW M, Jochen Neerpasch was already a highly successful manager for Ford’s racing division. During his time at Ford, Neerpasch was extremely successful, having been crucial in developing the dominant Ford Capri RS. That dominance at Ford caught the eye of BMW, who wanted its own racing division to make its mark on the European Touring Car scene. So BMW poached Neerpasch from Ford.

“It was late January. One evening I got a phone call, unexpected, from [BMW board member] Bob Lutz,” said Neerpasch. “At that time I was competition manager at Ford and we developed the Capri [2600] RS, and it very successful, it won the German championship and we did beat the BMW coupés. So Bob Lutz called me and asked me if I was interested. They wanted to reorganize the BMW Motorsport activities.”

Initially, Neerpasch was apprehensive to join Lutz and BMW. At the time, BMW’s racing program was a bit of a mess and was left to the tuners, such as ALPINA and AC Schnitzer. Plus, Neerpasch and his much lighter Ford Capris were dominating BMW’s cars. So why switch to a losing team?

“My second reaction was, this could be the possibility to build up an independent race organization and use the race experience for high performance cars.” he said. “Then, the next day I went to Munich.”

That’s where Neerpasch first met Bob Lutz and they discussed a potential future together and negotiated a deal. After informing his former boss, he was required to continue on at Ford until that May, which is why BMW M was officially founded as a registered GmbH on May 24 1973.

The 3.0 CSL

When Neerpasch first started at BMW M, it really was at the ground level. There were no offices, no team, no drivers, and no mechanics. That’s when Martin Brown and, more famously, Paul Rosche as BMW M’s engine man, joined. Among the team’s first drivers was Hans-Joachim Stuck and the car Neerpasch began working on first was the legendary BMW 3.0 CSL. Though, it didn’t get off to the smooth start they hoped for.

At the time, Neerpasch and his team brought a new style of motorsport, with fresh, forward thinking ideas, and the old-fashioned executives at BMW AG didn’t like that. There was also friction between the tuners, who’d previously been getting contracts from BMW AG, along with big money, to go racing and now BMW had its own motorsport division for racing and for parts, which hurt those tuners’ business. Despite the friction from tuners and pushback from the suits in Munich, BMW M was able to set up shop and develop and launch a new race car in just eight months.

BMW M was successful with the 3.0 CSL but it was getting too expensive to develop a racing car out of a road car and Neerpasch wanted a car that was developed to be a racing car and a road car from the ground up, which is why the iconic BMW M1 project began. Neerpasch had the idea to set up the BMW M1 as a car that could be used for several different motorsport events, including rally racing and both Group 4, and Group 5 Touring championships.

The M1 Could Have Been The Porsche 911

As you may know, the M1 eventually failed and never really raced in many championships, save for its own single-car M1 Procar series. However, something that bothers Neerpasch still is that, when he left BMW M in 1980, BMW was ready for Formula 1, so the suits in Munich lost interest in the M1. “But I think if the M1 would have been, year-by-year developed, it [could have been] like the 911 for Porsche.” Imagine a BMW M1, continuously developed over the generations, to be a constant Porsche 911 fighter?

It’s crazy to think, what started out as a ragtag operation with no offices and a team thrown together seemingly overnight could become the performance car giant that it is today. Jochen Neerpasch is one of the people most responsible for the success that BMW M is today and it was a thrill to talk to him on the 50th anniversary of the brand he created.