A re-assessment of what really was the first BMW M road car.
BMW Motorsport GmbH, the Munich manufacturer’s sports division and the go-to specialists for creating the coveted M models, was established in 1972. In the public conscience the legendary M1 of 1978 has long been regarded as the first M vehicle, but the car presented in this article casts doubt upon that assumption. Two years earlier, what is now regarded as the first M car, although it did not actually wear the M badge anywhere on its body, saw the light of day in South Africa.
The new South African Rosslyn BMW plant opened in 1973; in that same year executives from BMW SA approached Jochen Neerpasch – the head of new Motorsport GmbH – for his assistance in creating a car to compete in the popular Star Modified Production Series touring car championship.
BMW and Neerpasch saw the potential commercial benefit of achieving success in South African motorsports and agreed. Two three-litre E12 5-Series competition cars were prepared. Around the same time development of a roadgoing version of that same car started as well because the homologation rules required a minimum of 100 vehicles to be produced in order to be eligible for competition. Its name would be 530 MLE (for Motorsport Limited Edition).
The two special 275 Bhp racing 530 MLE’s saw action in competition for the first time in the 1976 season, and with devastating effectiveness: they won 15 out of 15 races in that first year and would go on to win three titles in a row – South African driver Eddie Keizan taking the honours in all three.
The roadgoing 530 MLE also went on sale in 1976. Its engine was naturally not as highly tuned as the racing cars’ but by having engine guru Paul Rosche augmenting the M30 inline six (the engine was given a hotter cam and special Mahle pistons) with the assistance of the brothers Schnitzer of Freilassing in Germany the
driver of a 530 MLE had a respectable 197 Bhp at its disposal, enough for a top speed of 130 Mph and a 0-62 time of 9.3 seconds.
All MLEs were virtually handbuilt at Rosslyn; regular E12 bodyshells were taken off the production line and lightened by drilling several internal parts such as the parcel shelf, rear seat panel, the inside of the C-pillars and so on. Even the clutch pedal and the boot hinges were treated in this way.
During the first year between 105 and 110 (sources don’t agree) 530 MLEs were constructed; all painted white with striping in the BMW Motorsport GmbH colours. Some other unique touches were a fiberglass front and rear spoiler, Scheel sports seats, an Italvolanti steering wheel, firmer springs, Bilstein shock absorbers and BBS 14-inch light alloy wheels.
In the interest of weight saving niceties such as power steering, electric windows or air conditioning were not fitted to any 530 MLE. Even though the homologation requirements had already been met in 1976, the following year another hundred or so 530 MLEs were made for a total of around 216 cars- making these the very first M cars, albeit created for and available in one specific market only.