Classic racing cars: BMW legends

8 min reading time
BMW racing cars have been driving around the world’s tracks for more than 90 years. Here we take a look at 12 milestones in the history of the Bavarian automotive manufacturer: from long distance racers to touring cars, and F1 bullets to Formula E EVs. All highlight BMW’s passion for motor sports. Buckle up and hold on as we step on the gas – and the electricity.

4 February 2021

Activate push notifications

Innovative mobility, exciting trends for the future and high RPMs: Subscribe now to get notified of new content.

Subscription successful.

Subscription failed. If you need help follow the link for support.

How does this sound?

You can also listen to this article via Changing Lanes, the official BMW podcast. 

Apart from this and other narrated articles, Changing Lanes offers you fresh new episodes every week, packed with exclusive insights on tech, lifestyle, design, cars, and more – brought to you by hosts Nicki and Jonathan. 

Find and subscribe to Changing Lanes on all major podcasting platforms.

Screech, bam, boom, wham, rumble – for racing fans, the noises that race cars make as they go barreling around a track are a symphony. The roar of the engine in a vintage BMW race car is sweet music to the ears of motor sport fanatics. A tail pipe sonata. Except for the last entry on our hit list of race cars bearing the kidney grill (➜ Read more: The BMW kidney grill through time), for which the notes are completely different. This time the musical score is made up of the humming and whooshing of electric vehicles.

But one thing remains the same for both combustion engines and EV racers: BMW racing cars get fans’ pulses racing. This is particularly true of the old race cars or the land rockets from the turbo days of Formula 1. Come along for the ride, as we travel through the history of BMW motorsports – from high-tech EVs in Formula E to the most successful touring car of all time, right back to the origins of BMW motorsport in the 1930s.

BMW 328 Mille Miglia (1940)

BMW sweeps the Mille Miglia in Italy in 1940.

The BMW 328 is indelibly linked to the tradition of BMW motorsports. In 1940, the racing car made a clean sweep at the legendary Mille Miglia (➜ Read more: The ultimate bucket list for car enthusiasts), scoring the overall victory, the team victory and third, fifth and sixth places. But even before this, the BMW 328 was racking up wins – such as its first race triumph at the 1929 “Alpenfahrt” and the 1936 “Eifelrennen”. At the Mille Miglia six years later, the BMW 328 cemented its reputation as the most successful sports car in Europe at the time. The winning car was driven by Fritz von Hanstein and Walter Bäumer, both from Germany. After 8 hours and 55 minutes and an average speed of about 105 miles an hour, they won the race by a wide margin.

BMW 700 RS (1960)

The BMW 700 RS is the perfect racing car for winding tracks.

Racing doesn’t require much power when the design is right. The best example of this is the BMW 700 RS. With only 70 PS and weighing in at just 1,410 pounds, this lightweight racer still managed to achieve an impressive 100 mph. In 1960, the BMW racing car won the German mountain championship with driver Hans Stuck at the wheel (➜ Read more: Charlie Martin – bringing the rainbow to motorsport). Stuck was just getting started back then. The car itself went on to win quite a number of races until 1964.

BMW 2002 TI (1970)

© BMW Group Archiv
BMW wins the very first 24-hour race on the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring in Germany.

Today, the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring in Germany is a classic. The first of its kind was held in 1970, and BMW race cars were among those at the starting line. Behind the wheel were semi-professionals and also amateurs such as Germans Clemens Schickentanz and Hans-Joachim Stuck (son of the legendary “mountain king” Hans Stuck – see above). Their vehicle was the BMW 2002 TI, which with 180 HP and a top speed of around 137 mph achieved an impressive overall win. The BMW 02 series is today considered the forerunner of the compact sports sedan.

BMW 3.0 CSL (1973)

This car is responsible for establishing the popularity of the BMW M colors in motorsports. A BMW 3.0 CSL on the track.

No list of the best of BMW’s classic racing cars would be complete without the BMW 3.0 CSL (Coupé Sport Leichtbau). Rather than list all its wins, it would be easier to list the places where the touring car did not do well. As well as triumphing in the European Touring Car Championship on six occasions, it also came first in its class at Le Mans (France) and secured an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona (USA). Some models packed up to 800 PS (➜ Read more: Outstanding BMW engines) and just blazed around the circuits. The BMW M colors were first revealed to the world on its exterior in 1973 (➜ Read more: A history of the BMW M logo). And it also became the first BMW Art Car (➜ Read more: Wild at Art – the history of the BMW Art Cars). Without a doubt, the BMW 3.0 CSL is a special milestone in BMW’s racing history.

BMW M1 Procar (1979)

Can’t have too many BMW M1s: starting line at the procar race in Zolder, Belgium in 1979.

Next up is another dream car, the BMW M1. Its design was a radical departure from the BMW 3.0 CSL, but it was just as dominant on the track (➜ Read more: Spectacular street circuits). The BMW M1 even got its own racing series, the BMW Procar Series. As part of the Formula 1 Races, the best race car drivers in the world competed for position and prestige in this race piloting identical cars.

BMW Brabham BT52 (1983)

4 cylinders, 1.5 liter engine, turbocharger: BMW’s key ingredients for the world champion Brabham BT52.

Speaking of Formula 1, prestige and the 1980s, in 1983 Brazilian Nelson Piquet raced to the drivers’ title in the premier class of motorsport in a BMW-powered Brabham BT52. The special feature was the engine: for the first time in the history of Formula 1, a driver won in a racing car with a turbo engine. Its specifications were – and 40 years later still are – impressive. With just a 1.5 liter inline four cylinder, the developers tuned the engine to produce up to 1,400 HP in the qualifying spec thanks to the exhaust gas turbocharger.

BMW M3 (1987)

The most successful touring car of all time: Roberto Ravaglia in the BMW M3 (E30).

The BMW M3 (E30) touring car had a four-cylinder under its hood as well. While the car racked up win after win on the circuits (➜ Read more: The woman with the formula for race tracks), it also won over the hearts of motorsports fans. The BMW M3 is still today considered the most successful touring car ever based on Group A regulations and those of the German Touring Car Championship (DTM). In 1987, Italian Roberto Ravaglia won the world championship title in the BMW M3. Then came countless wins at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, the 24 Hours of Spa, Belgium, the DTM, as a rally car, and the list goes on and on.

BMW 320d (1998)

Glued to the track, the BMW 320d claims a historic win on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

This BMW 3 has also earned itself a place in the hallowed halls of BMW motorsport history. Why? It was the first time a car with a diesel engine took first place in the world’s most demanding endurance race in the Green Hell. Hans-Joachim “Striezel” Stuck (see above), Christian Menzel, Andreas Bovensiepen (all from Germany) and Belgian Marc Duez drove without interruption, and rarely stopping to refuel, to take top place in the 24 Hours Nürburgring.

BMW V12 LMR (1999)

Historic victory lap: BMW takes the crown at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.

Every bit as prestigious is the 24 Hours of Le Mans (➜ Read more: 24 hours of thrills). BMW competed at the high-speed circuit on the Sarthe in 1999 with the BMW V12 LMR, a sports car prototype. For an entire day, Joachim Winkelhock (Germany), Pierluigi Martini (Italy) and Yannick Dalmas (France) raced along the racing line (➜ Read more: How to find the racing line) while hundreds of thousands of fans looked on. The BMW pilots covered a total of 3,096 miles in 366 rounds with the V12 motor. This translates to an average of 129 mph, which enabled them to take the top honors.

BMW M3 DTM (2012)

Champion Bruno Spengler crosses the finish line in Hockenheim, Germany, in 2012.

The BMW M3 of 2012 was also a winning car. BMW made a comeback that year as it went on to triumph in the driver, team and constructors’ classes at the DTM. There was nothing else left to win. And especially considering Bruno Spengler (Canada) finished at the top overall in his 480 HP BMW M3 in the last race.

BMW Z4 GT3 (2015)

The BMW Z4 GT3 at the 24-hour race of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.

What’s the best way to celebrate your retirement? By winning! This is exactly what happened in 2015 with the BMW Z4 GT3 at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Eleven BMW Z4s were at the starting line, and the first to cross the finish was BMW race car number 46. The BMW Z4 went from holding 30th place to the top spot. Standing at the top of the podium were Lucas Luhr (Germany), Nick Catsburg (Holland) and Markus Palttala (Finland) after 24 hours of racing. Alex Zanardi (Italy), Bruno Spengler (Canada) and Timo Glock (Germany) dropped out of the race near the end. But BMW still managed to prove that a race car made specifically for a physical disability can compete.

BMW iFE.18 (2019)

Two winners on one team: factory drivers António Félix da Costa and Alexander Sims go head to head in the E-Prix in Marrakech, Morocco in 2019.

Rounding out the list of twelve BMW historic racing cars that have won an impressive number of races is an electric race car (➜ Read more: Comparison of EVs), which set a milestone in BMW racing history. The BMW iFE 18 is also ushering in a change in the manufacture of automobiles. BMW is proving that EVs can be every bit as fast out on the race track as combustion engines.

Photos: BMW/BMW Group Archiv; Author: Nils Arnold; Illustrations: Carolin Wabra