The forgotten ancestor of BMW M cars: on track in the 530 MLE
Before BMW's new Motorsport division had put its name to a model, it helped to build a little-known racing car that dominated South African saloon car racing. Is the BMW 530 MLE the first M car? asks Mark Smyth
The notion of what wins on Saturday sells on Monday has driven production car racing for decades. From the European Touring Car Championship of the 1960s to the BTCC, there’s an almost unrivalled passion among those who love to see a race car based on something they can buy in a dealership.
Back in the 1970s, production car racing was even more intense, with countries around the world having their own championships and their own celebrated drivers. It was extremely competitive. Which is why, in South Africa, BMW wanted to stand on the top step of the podium. To do so, it had to create a car that would create a legacy that many are unaware of in the form of the BMW 530 MLE.
The 1970s was a decade in which some of the greatest battles in Formula 1 played out every year on the tarmac of the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit in Johannesburg. It was also the decade in which South Africa had its first and only Formula 1 World Champion in Jody Scheckter.
It was also a troubled decade. The world had not yet turned its attention to the racially divisive policies of the Apartheid era National Party government. It would only be in the 1980s that Eddy Grant would release Gimme Hope Jo’anna and Peter Gabriel would focus the world’s attention through the song Biko, after the murder of activist Steve Biko in 1977.
1976 saw the government force schools to teach in the Afrikaans language and the people revolted. It led to the Soweto uprising that year, one in which up to 700 people were killed. For many the shooting of schoolboy Hector Pieterson on 16 June 1976 marked a turning point. The picture of his body being carried featured in newspapers around the world and the global movement that would eventually bring down the Apartheid government in 1994, over twenty years later, began.
But it was modified saloon cars where some of the best action was taking place on circuits around the country. Ford, Mazda and Nissan all had factory teams. Privateers challenged them in cars with Chevrolet V8s beneath the bonnets. Competition was fierce and BMW wanted in.
BMW South Africa was the first subsidiary for the company outside of Germany and its Rosslyn manufacturing plant, opened in 1973 outside of the capital, Pretoria, was its first overseas production facility. One of the models it produced was the E12 5 Series, first introduced in 1975 and it was this model that the company chose as it directed its attention to local motor sport.
M division gets involved in the BMW 530 MLE
BMW had enjoyed success in motor sport before with such models as the 328 in the 1930s, the 2002 in the European Touring Car Championship in the 1960s and the 3.0 CSL in the early ‘70s. However, its international BMW Motorsport GmbH division was in its infancy in 1976. Headed up by Jochen Neerpasch, it would be another two years before the famous M1 would make its international debut and the enthusiasts would have to wait until 1979 for the M535i to debut. BMW SA needed to create something now and so it approached Neerpasch for assistance in building a unique model.
“The BMW 528s just weren’t competitive,” says Peter Kaye-Eddie, manager of the BMW racing team in South Africa in the 1970s. “To be competitive they decided to come racing.”
In order to compete, BMW had to create a homologated road car. It would turn out to be more than just a performance 5 Series, but unofficially, the first BMW M model, the 530 MLE or Motorsport Limited Edition. Initially 100 were made, but it proved so popular that a year later a Type 2 version was produced with 118 manufactured. Only seven Type 1 versions remain, most in South Africa but one is rumoured to be in Italy or Holland.
BMW 530 MLE restored
Motor Sport headed to Kyalami to experience chassis number 100, a car which was donated to BMW by Kaye-Eddie and which had stood in his yard for over twenty years. Its meticulous restoration began in October 2018 using the expertise of classic restorer and MLE enthusiast, Luis Malhou of Custom Restorations. He even called in two retired BMW employees who worked on the original.
But it was not just the road car that was restored. Only one of the two original race cars remains and it too has undergone a full ground-up restoration at the hands of the experts at Evolution 2 Motorsport in Johannesburg. They’re the same people who originally built, and a few years ago restored, the only BMW 7 Series race car in the world: a 1984 E23 745i.
Two 530 MLE race cars were built in South Africa with the assistance of BMW AG and tuning company Schnitzer which also worked on the 3.0 CSL touring cars. Only one remains and it belongs to Kaye-Eddie, who scrapped the other a number of years ago, allegedly after it was damaged in a drag racing incident. Scrapping it was a decision that he understandably regrets today.
“Sometimes you make decisions which aren’t the best,” he told us. That regret is partly because in 2011 a Swiss businessman found out about the car and offered to buy it for two million Swiss francs (£1.5 million). He wanted to restore it and get Kaye-Eddie to race it at historic events.
“I told him I’m not a racer, I’m an owner,” says Kaye-Eddie, who these days is involved in Volkswagen junior motorsport but over the years reckons he has mentored over 50 racing drivers, including some currently competing in DTM.
Unbeaten first season for the 530 MLE
The decision to build a race car was definitely the right one for BMW. In its first season it won 15 out 15 races with drivers Eddie Kaizan and Alain Lavoipierre taking the first of three consecutive national championships in 1977, ’78 and ’79. It was also driven by British driver Mike Hailwood and South African Paddy Driver, both more famous for their motorcycle racing successes. The 530 MLE totally dominated the modified production car scene in the country and continued to be successful well into the 1980s.
The race car used the same six-cylinder engine from the BMW 3.0 CS, producing 275bhp and 320Nm of torque, a far cry from the 464bhp of the M1 Procars, making its success even more impressive. The carburettors were upgraded and the camshafts modified. A locked rear differential and torsion bar stabilisers were fitted as well as harder shock absorbers and larger brakes. The wheel arches were also modified but interestingly, the rear seat and even the carpets remained in place to ensure the car met saloon car regulations.
The restored 530 MLE road car is one of the 110 Type 1 models made, all of which featured lightweight components. According to Malhou, these were pure race-bred machines, while the Type 2 was less so, lacking many of the lightweight elements and having more options available to customers. All were built in South Africa, with assistance from BMW in Munich. It cost around £580 to buy in 1976, about the same price as a Porsche 911.
But is the 530 MLE the first BMW M car? We put the question to current boss of BMW’s M division, Markus Flasch.
“It’s an interesting question,” he says. “Why should it not be an M car?” At the time of its production, BMW was in the early stages of its involvement in motor sport. “It was an early experiential M car,” says Flasch, adding that “we shouldn’t overrate the value of this car. BMW M’s foundation is the M1 and M1 Procar. Period.”
That might be the official corporate answer, but by all accounts, the 530 MLE seems in every way to be the first BMW M car. It feels like it too, as we found out when Motor Sport was granted the opportunity to take the restored model on to the famous Kyalami track.
Restoration of the car started in October 2018. According to Malhou it took nearly five months just to complete the bodywork. Impressively, 90% of the parts needed were found in BMW’s parts warehouse in Germany, but as an MLE owner and enthusiast, Malhou had a number of items himself, including the unique Mahle wheels and the glass which was much thinner than the regular 5 Series road cars.
Five E12 5 Series models were acquired for additional parts, with the biggest challenges being the body work and finding an original dashboard. Final assembly began in July 2019 but even there, Malhou says there were a few hiccups. One was finding an original badge, but fortunately a former racing driver in Cape Town provided one.
The objective was not to make the car look like a brand new model, but to ensure it retained some of its historic patina. That’s clearly the case and probably contributes to this particularly 530 MLE being valued at around the same as an original BMW 3.0 CSL.
The road car features the same 3.0 litre in-line six-cylinder engine as the racing car, but it produces 179hp and 260Nm. Like the race car it has lightweight panels and glass, pedals drilled by hand, manually operated windows and no air-conditioning.
BMW 530 MLE on track
With the restoration only just completed and the 530 MLE set to be a star attraction at the BMW M Festival at the circuit the next day, I agreed to be sympathetic with this very special model. Slotting the dog-leg five-speed manual gearbox into first gear, we joined the long main straight of the 4.522km circuit. Raising the heavy clutch the engine responded smoothly. A run through the gears to acclimatise to the car’s character and it was in to turn one, the relatively new brakes proving softer than ideal. The steering was superb, testament to the engineering of the original and the quality of the restoration. The chassis responded well as the MLE retained its poise through the sharp left corner, Then a slight touch of the kerb on the next as we headed to the braking point for the hard left onto the back straight.
In the modern era of sports cars and supercars, we often discuss models that are designed for road use but engineered to tackle the track. It’s true too of performance saloons, just think back to the Lotus Carlton and today the BMW M5 and others of its ilk. The 530 MLE cruised through the long Sunset corner, coped superbly with the famous original Esses and hit its mark perfectly to turn down the notorious Kyalami Mineshaft. Like a modern performance saloon, it was comfortable, with an easy driving position. It showed its potential on the circuit, but also its luxury nature which defines it as a BMW 5 Series, even one from the 1970s.
Like the famous E9 BMW 3.0 CSL, the 530 MLE epitomises an era where winning races was everything and if you had to produce a few road cars to facilitate that then all the better. It was created for the track, to beat its rivals, to create sales on Monday. It was the second car to wear the famous BMW Motorsport colours, but the first to feature the M in its name, making it a very unique model indeed. It’s a rarely known chapter of motor sport history but more than that, it’s a chapter that contributed to defining the future of competition and performance for BMW.
South Africa’s luxury race car
BMW South Africa produced a number of unique models including the famous 333i, one of which sits in the BMW Group Classic museum in Munich. But like the 530 MLE, there is another that made a name for itself in motor sport, the 745i. Only two 7 Series race cars were built in the mid-1980s and to this day they remain the only 7 Series race cars in the world. Like the 530 MLE, BMW South Africa had to produce a number of road cars, in this case 209. The 745i produced in Germany used a turbocharged straight-six engine, but the South African- built model used the M88 engine from the M1 supercar, giving it 34hp more than the German version. The race car was built to full Group A touring car specification with the engine producing 470hp. It made its debut in 1984 with limited success but then in 1985 it beat rivals like Alfa Romeo, Ford and Mazda to a championship victory. Very few versions of the road car remain and only one race car which was fully restored in 2017.