The South African Connection

A re-assessment of what really was the first BMW M road car.

BMW 530 MLE. Image: Stefan Kötze

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 530 MLE. Image: Thesouthafrican.com

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.

Image: motorsportmedia.co.za/ Dailyrevs.com

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.

BMW 530 MLE. Image: Cars.co.za

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.

BMW 530 MLE. Image: Cars.co.za/ Dailyrevs.com

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

17 thoughts on “The South African Connection”

  1. The 530 MLE is a great way to start my day. 15 out of 15 wins isn’t bad 😉 There were more specials from BMW South Africa, like the 333i. As far as I know the weight reduction was not only done by drilling some panels, but also by using aluminium and thinner steel in some places. But the drilling of the panels is of course the most visible. Here’s a shot of the rear sheet panel.

    1. A really interesting South African BMW was their E23 745i which didn’t have the nasty turbo contraption but the S88 four valve version of the M30. It’s a pity that this version never was available outside South Africa.

    2. That’s probably Rosslyn’s finest. A right hand drive version of the 745i was impossible because the turbo would occupy get in the way of the steering column. To create the 745i SA BMW South Africa used M88/3 engine instead. Apparently much to the chagrin of Munich. I’ve never come across one, but from what I’ve heard the 745i SA is a lot more noisy than the regular 745i, which might have been unacceptable in this particular segment. On the other hand, the M88 sounds great.

  2. I suppose the Batmobile (3.0 CSL) doesn’t count because it preceded the formation of the Motorsport division, though it did wear the proper stripes.

    1. In the Batmobile era BMW asked potential US customers for their interpretation of ‘BMW’ and many told them that BMW meant British Motor Works and they wouldn’t buy one because they were British.
      As a consequence BMW gave their US cars a ‘Bavaria’ model designation and started IMSA racing using cars with that big ‘Bavarian Motor Works’ windscreen sticker.

    2. Gooddog: It is a bit of a grey area and certainly open to discussion; the 3.0CSL indeed appeared before M GmbH was established but was an M car in spirit and looks, and the 530MLE was a product of M GmbH but not badged as such (not in terms of that famous little M badge at least); so the general opinion of the 1978 M1 being the first remains absolutely defendable.

    3. Might I suggest the 1800 Ti/SA as the spiritual predecessor of the M cars?
      It’s a homologation special like the E9 CSL or E30 M3 and looks the part with non-adjustable bucket seats and 120 PS from 1800cc.

  3. Every day is a school day on DTW. I’d never heard of BMW’s South African operation before, so thank you, Bruno.

    1. About a year ago DTW covered the South African BMW 2004, their extended life version of the Glas 1700…

    2. I believe some UK market BMWs are sourced from South Africa.

  4. Not a particular BMW fan, I still appreciate what we learn here at DTW, especially about cars and car culture outside Continental Europe. I feel that we know very little about these topics, at least people like me who have sourced their knowledge mainly from the German motor press.
    In this particular case, I’m not sure if it actually was covered in said press – in 1976 I’d only have been able to look at some BMW pictures and recognize it as a car…

  5. Thanks for your article, Bruno.
    The SA market gave some interesting cars, like the Sierra XR8, the Alfa GTV 3.0 or the BMW M52 2.8 engined Land Rover Defender.

    1. b234r: You’re welcome, glad you enjoyed it. Both the Sierra XR8 and Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0 will be covered soon on DTW!

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