We spoke to Jochen Neerpasch, founder of BMW M
This year marks the 50th anniversary of BMW M, in case you haven’t heard already. There’s no better man to talk to on M Division’s anniversary than the one who started it all: Jochen Neerpasch.
At the 2022 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, where BMW M exhibited some of its most legendary cars, we had the chance to sit down and talk to Neerpasch. We discussed the beginnings of BMW M, its history and its direction. Neerpasch is considered the founder of the M division, so we were naturally excited to talk to him and hear how the auto industry’s most famous letter came to be.
From Ford to BMW
Before becoming the eventual founder of BMW M, Jochen Neerpasch was already a highly successful director for Ford’s racing division. During his time at Ford, Neerpasch achieved enormous success, having played a crucial role in the development of the dominant Ford Capri RS. This dominance at Ford caught the attention of BMW, which wanted its own racing division to make its mark on the European touring car scene. BMW therefore poached Neerpasch from Ford.
“It was at the end of January. One evening I received an unexpected phone call from [BMW board member] Bob Lutz,” Neerpasch said. “At that time, I was in charge of competition at Ford and we developed the Capri  RS, and it’s very successful, it won the German championship and we beat the BMW coupes. So Bob Lutz called me and asked if I was interested. They wanted to reorganize the activities of BMW Motorsport.
Initially, Neerpasch feared joining Lutz and BMW. At the time, BMW’s racing program was a bit of a mess and was left to tuners, like ALPINA and AC Schnitzer. Additionally, Neerpasch and his much lighter Ford Capri dominated BMW’s cars. So why switch to a losing team?
“My second reaction was that it could be the possibility of creating an independent racing organization and using the experience of racing for high performance cars. he said. “Then the next day I went to Munich.”
It was there that Neerpasch first met Bob Lutz and together they discussed a potential future and negotiated a deal. After informing his former boss, he had to continue at Ford until May, which is why BMW M was officially founded as a registered GmbH on May 24, 1973.
When Neerpasch started at BMW M, it was really at ground level. There were no offices, no crew, no drivers and no mechanics. It was then that Martin Brown and, more famously, Paul Rosche as BMW M engine man, joined. Among the team’s first drivers was Hans-Joachim Stuck and the car Neerpasch started working on was the legendary BMW 3.0 CSL. However, it didn’t start as they hoped.
At the time, Neerpasch and his team brought a new style to motorsport, with new and forward-thinking ideas, and the old-fashioned executives of BMW AG didn’t like that. There was also friction between the tuners, who had previously won contracts from BMW AG, as well as lots of money, to race and now BMW had its own motorsport division for racing and for parts, which hurt the business of these tuners. Despite friction from tuners and the setback of costumes in Munich, BMW M was able to settle in, develop and launch a new racing car in just eight months.
BMW M succeeded with the 3.0 CSL, but it was becoming too expensive to develop a race car from a road car and Neerpasch wanted a car that was developed to be a race car and a road car from from scratch, which is why the iconic BMW M1 project began. Neerpasch came up with the idea of configuring the BMW M1 as a car that could be used for several different motorsport events, including rally racing and Group 4 and Group 5 touring championships.
The M1 could have been the Porsche 911
As you may know, the M1 ultimately failed and never really raced in many championships except for its own single-car M1 Procar series. However, something that still bothers Neerpasch 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 had been developed year after year, it [could have been] like the 911 for Porsche. Imagine a BMW M1, continuously developed over generations, to be a constant fighter against the Porsche 911?
It’s crazy to think that what started as a motley operation with no offices and a team brought together seemingly overnight could grow into the performance car giant it is today. Jochen Neerpasch is one of the people most responsible for the success of BMW M today and it was a pleasure to speak to him on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the brand he created.