Of course, joining a vintage rally without a vintage car rather defeats the purpose. BMW NA made our small group the envy of the Marathon, bending the '74-or-earlier rule and bringing along a 1980 M1 and 1988 M5 for our motoring pleasure. The upright, staid look of the M5 belied its true nature. Despite room for five full-sized bankers, the 277-bhp M5 was responsive and sure-footed with a fun-to-drive quotient reminiscent of the best-and much smaller-2002s. Even 16 years old, the M-badges attracted an admirer at a gas stop in Blowing Rock, N.C. The admiring and knowledgeable questions stopped only when he noticed the M1 parked on the far side of the pumps. The slack-jawed quiet lasted several seconds; 25 years after it was first introduced, seeing a Giugiaro-designed M1 close up still stops people in their tracks.
Given that we had time before dinner and the rain had momentarily stopped, we popped the rear hatch to show off the straight-six's Motorsport valve covers and snapped the obligatory "grinning-in-front-of-the-supercar" photo. What really did my car karma good, though, was opening the door and inviting a perfect stranger to try an M1 on for size. At 5 ft 10 in. or so, our new friend fit just fine. Jealousy reared its ugly head as I snapped another photo-this wasn't fair, at 6 ft. 2 in. I hadn't. After weeks of eager anticipation, my first drive in one of my personal automotive icons was pretty much a disaster. I gave up after 30 miles of two-lane driving, cursing ItalDesign for the lack of headroom and reaching for the Ibuprofen.
Hurricane Ivan moved inland overnight, knocking down trees at our stop and sending down a slashing cold rain. After a few photos, I climbed back into the M1 for another short blast of two-lane. With the seat pushed so far forward my knees brushed the dash, I was able to scrunch forward and down enough to get my head inside. The wildly offset pedals (the clutch is in line with the steering column) seemed perfectly positioned and suddenly I was home. At our next stop, I laid claim to the M1 for the rest of the day and the next 200 miles were car-guy heaven despite the crick in my neck and worrying about hydroplaning in the occasionally torrential rain. True, you can't see anything behind you without the mirrors, but who cares. The 24-valve six's baritone note, complete with a joyous mechanical contralto overtone, warranted calls to brothers and motorhead buddies across the country. "Hi, listen to THIS!" was all I said as my right foot went to work.
Fearing the soggy conditions and short time in the car had clouded my impressions, I contacted Jeff Zwart, photographer and director extraordinaire, for his opinion. "I owned an M1 for just over 10 years," he said. "The thing I was most surprised by right off was how well it did everything. For a limited-production car everything worked very well. The engine sounded great when you stood on it and the ride was fantastic, very solid yet supple at the same time. Little things like air-conditioning worked really well. When you think about Fiberglass cars of that time, nothing had the build quality or ride. Even a mass-produced Corvette in 1980 did not come close. I always referred to it as the first German interpretation of an exotic car. There really has not been one since unless you count Lamborghini, currently owned by Audi. Funny thing, it was Lamborghini that BMW went to, to build the first M1s. It's only because of Lamborghini's poor performance in delivery [final assembly was eventually shifted to Baur] that the M division was created. My M1 was great car with no real reliability issues. The only issue was that the seats did not provide enough lateral support for the performance the car was capable of." I couldn't agree more.
With BMW focusing more attention on corporate history and vintage car owners through a resurgent Mobile Tradition and the newly formed BMW V&CCCA off to a spectacular start, keep your fingers crossed that the Vintage Marathon 2004-USA is just a precursor of good things to come. As Lies continued, "The Europeans use their cars, over here people are not so active. Maybe this will give it a little boost." Amen.