1972 bmw gullwing turbo concept at como
Máté Petrány

By 1972, the Cold War got a touch calmer, thanks to a trio of agreements negotiated by West Germany with the Eastern Bloc. The Federal Republic of Germany beat Spain and Canada to host for the first time since Berlin’s infamous 1936 event, and the Summer Olympics even featured a mascot for the first time in the name of Waldi, the wiener dog. Munich was ready to show off the brighter side of the Iron Curtain to the entire world, partly using BMW’s forward-thinking, safety-focused supercar concept, the gullwinged Turbo.

By the time the Bavarians got ready to host the Olympics in 1972, the air was filled with optimism. Unfortunately, terrorism took care of that feeling soon enough, but before chaos cast a shadow over the games, Munich’s Olympiapark was an impressive sight to behold. What’s more, next to it, BMW’s new headquarters was ready for its grand opening as well. Known as the “BMW-Vierzylinder” due to its four-cylinder shape, Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer’s 22-story building has been a protected landmark since 1999.

A piece with the Vierzylinder was the Turbo concept, a bold answer to the C111 experiment run by Mercedes-Benz over in Stuttgart. It was a commendable effort from BMW, especially given that the three German premium brands were far from being straight up competitors at that time. The historic flagship Mercedes was at the top of its game once again, while newcomer Audi had just absorbed bankrupt NSU in its quest to distance itself from parent Volkswagen. At BMW, the road car division was proud to unveil something fresh: its first 5 Series. The E12 project began ​​with Marcello Gandini’s two-door 2200ti Garmisch concept by Bertone, presented at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show, only to progress into the stylish production sedan by 1972, designed by former Mercedes employee Paul Bracq, still aided by Gandini.

Motorsport became increasingly important for BMW’s marketing efforts as well, and the company already employed two great engine masters in the name of Paul Rosche and Alexander von Falkenhausen. Former Opel executive Bob Lutz also convinced the board to bring order to its touring car efforts and lured over the man who beat BMW’s privateer teams with his punchy Ford Capris: Jochen Neerpasch. With just five employees and reigning Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft champion Hans-Joachim Stuck, Neerpasch set up BMW M GmbH in 1972, only to start working on the 3.0 CSL.

Since BMW is celebrating fifty years of M in 2022, at Como, we could do a side-by-side comparison of the road-going and Procar versions of the BMW M1, only to continue with the rare trio view of the 1972 Turbo Concept, the M1, and 2008’s M1 Hommage concept.

The Turbo is Paul Bracq’s masterpiece, yet it wasn’t the only interesting BMW unleashed for the Olympics. The 1973 oil crisis was also just around the corner, and since BMW began its EV development all the way back in 1969, it could use a pair of orange BMW 1602 Elektros as VIP shuttles. These prototypes were capable of 60 mph, or a maximum range of 37 miles, granted by a dozen 12-volt batteries replacing the 1.6-liter four-cylinder.

BMW also ended up building two nearly identical Turbo concepts. The first features slider windows, because the team couldn’t complete the development of that gullwing door in time for the games. The second was produced later with regular glass, and used to support the Turbo’s global tour.

The M1 is a Giugiaro design, first developed and prepared for production on behalf of BMW by Lamborghini. However, despite having a modern factory and skilled team at Sant'Agata Bolognese, Lamborghini ran into financial difficulties. This meant the race car program had to be finished by Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing crew in England, while the road-going M1 became the responsibility of a small engineering firm called Ital Engineering. Marchesi & C did the frame, Transformazioni Italiani Resine (T.I.R.) the bodywork, and Italdesign took care of paint and interior, all done in Moncalieri. Finally assembly and quality control went to Baur back in Germany.

Introduced in 1978, the M1 became the first M product, as well as the first mid-engine BMW road car. Thanks to Jochen Neerpasch, it also spawned a one-make racing series with a fleet of widebody M1s supporting the F1 calendar.

While from a technical standpoint, there’s no relation between the Turbo and the M1, it’s quite clear that the Olympics special gave BMW the confidence to invest in a halo supercar. That, and the 3.5-liter DOHC M88 straight-six engine, derived from the M49 evolution of the 3.0 CSi’s powertrain.

Máté Petrány

Fast-forward to 2008 and the M1 Hommage, Chris Bangle’s creation for the 30th anniversary of the BMW M1. This daring concept was revealed at the Concorso d’Eleganza on Lake Como, only for BMW to move towards its i8 hybrid project instead of producing a true supercar. However, the now 14-years-old show car still had a trick up its sleeve for the 2022 Concorso.

Once most people left Villa d’Este Friday evening, BMW Classic’s crew had to move the M1 Hommage up a hill. Because this car is a painted clay model on a rolling tubular steel frame, it had to be towed by an X5. Next thing we knew, some technicians stuck an external steering wheel on a long column through its rear plate holder, because that’s how they can steer this thing, up to a certain angle. Not the kind of rear-steer the current M8 comes with.

Máté Petrány

That’s the beauty of such small events. If you don’t mind putting in the steps, or staying long enough into the evening, with a press pass at hand, you can try hunting for these tiny tidbits. Keeping that in mind, the following day, once I went to see the BMW Concept XM inside a container that was somehow large enough to fit the vehicle, I figured it may be worth checking out what’s parked backstage.

Hidden behind the massive XM blackbox was the first Turbo itself. The holy cow, the wow factor from the ‘72 Olympics, casually parked before its afternoon display.

Máté Petrány

The BMW Turbo is the 2002’s platform pushed to the extreme. Weighing just 2,161 pounds with a transversely-mounted 1,983cc fuel-injected turbo engine tuned to produce up to 280 horsepower, the gullwinged show car acted as BMW’s grand technology demonstrator.

Passive safety innovations included a graded phosphorescent orange exterior for improved visibility in sad weather, a balanced axle load distribution system, an ergonomic interior oriented towards the driver, the ignition system requiring fastened seat belts, a steering column featuring three universal joints and a projector pad, door posts doubling as roll bars, and extended bumpers mounted on hydraulic shock absorbers.

These bumpers actually offered three layers of protection. Individual deformation sections mean that in case of a light collision, the first section collapses while leaving the light units intact. The synthetic material also springs back to its original shape. A more intense accident would trigger those shock absorbers, and only a really hard frontal impact could reach the crush zones of the Turbo’s bodyshell.

BMW also added some active systems, including ABS, a radar-based stopping distance indicator, and the vehicle’s ‘Check Control’ onboard diagnostics, which displays first and second brake circuit pressures, brake wear and oil levels. Still, as BMW put it in 1972: “The driver controls the car, not the car the driver.”

Máté Petrány

The odometer slowly turning to show 28 kilometers in a concept car may feel like a non-event. Yet no matter how short the parade loop may be at Villa d’Este, hundreds of people, including lots of children saw the 1972 BMW Turbo, Paul Bracq’s tour de force in action. A fifty-years-old dream machine with open gullwing doors. The first of the two that were made in 1972, and BMW Classic chief Helmut Käs even let a kid jump into the driver's seat. He also told me the mileage, because the Turbo has a digital dash, so you need the ignition on to read the mileage. Once such an important and iconic vehicle gets out the museum’s gates, a single precious, happy, loud and proud mile of travel is so well worth it.