In 1981 the 530 MLE competed in the Kyalami 9 Hour endurance race, finishing fifth with South Africans Robbi Smith and Brian Cook behind the wheel. It was then promoted to fourth after the factory-entered Lancia Beta Monte Carlo of Michele Alboreto and Emanuele Pirro was excluded for a technical infringement. That meant the BMW was beaten only by a trio of Porsches, including the winning 936 of Jochen Mass and Reinhold Joest, the 908 of Jurgen Barth, Siegfried Brunn and Jean-Michele Martin and the 935 of Derek Bell, Mauricio de Narváez and Giampiero Moretti. Impressively, the 530 MLE also finished three places ahead of the BASF BMW M1 Procar of Hans Stuck and Walter Brun.
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.
BMW 530 MLE Chassis 100 before restoration
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 745i touring car won the 1985 South African Group One Championship
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.