South Africa has always been a hotbed for big-engined cars with a distinctive sporting nature. With sunny skies and wide open roads, many have enjoyed the freedom to exploit their cars to their full potential.
The BMW marque enjoys a large following here, the roots which stem back to the early Seventies, when BMW S.A. was a fledgling company producing adapted Glas saloons, vehicles from a company which BMW had purchased in 1967.
In 1971 local assembly began on the large E3 2500 and 2800 saloons, with the 3.0S and 3.0L following shortly thereafter. However, sales were slow, and BMW began to think seriously about the viability of their South African operations.
After much deliberation, the decision was made to continue, and in March 1974 the E12 5 Series was launched. The first car to roll off the assembly line was a 520 Manual, and by 1975 the range had been expanded to include the 525 and 528. BMW’s gamble to persevere had paid off; sales were on the rise as South Africans took to the 5 Series with great enthusiasm.
Late 1975 saw the launch of the 518 at an elaborate affair held in Swaziland. Although much admired as the “economy” 5 Series, it was another car on show which caught the press’s attention, an experimental 528 Manual, a variation of a car which had previously only been offered in Automatic form. All agreed this was some car, but BMW S.A. Marketing Manager Ron Meatchem’s rationale was that the 528 was primarily a luxury vehicle, and demand for a Manual version would be insignificant. However, if such a car were to be offered, it would have to be of a more sporting nature as there was an unfulfilled demand for “exotica” due to import restrictions.
This aroused the interest of the racing fraternity, who saw this as the opportunity to establish BMW as a motor sport force to be reckoned with in S.A.. At the time a lone CSL was being rather unsuccessfully campaigned on local racetracks.
Negotiations were entered into with BMW Motor Sport in Germany for a modified production racer. The go-ahead was given almost immediately. Under the famous direction of Jochen Neerpasch, a concept car based on the 525 was produced. This car found its way to the brothers Schnitzer, who ultimately were responsible for much of the development work. BMW Motor Sport must have placed much importance on Schnitzer’s input as the car was flown by Sabena Airlines to the tuning company. Once all parties were pleased; two track cars were prepared, one in Germany and the other in S.A. These cars would compete in “The Star Modified Production Series” competition, then the most prestigious saloon car racing series in the country.
Early trials hinted of the success to come, with the late Formula 1 driver Gunnar Nilsson lapping Kyalami in 1 min 39 sec, despite a misfiring engine. However, there was one more hurdle to overcome before these two racers could be unleashed on S.A.’s racetracks.
In order to gain race approval, 100 identical road-going versions of what had by now become known as the 530 Motor Sport Limited Edition had to be sold to bona fide members of the public. BMW produced proof of these sales just in time for the Republic Day Trophy race.
The Republic Day Trophy race on 5 June 1976 saw the beginning of a S.A. racing legend with the first of many victories for the 530 MLE. With these racers, BMW gave us the real thing; genuine large capacity production line cars with race-bred pedigrees. The racing engines used produced an impressive 202 kw at 6750 r/min with 318 N.m peak torque at 5500 r/min, and a maximum fifth-gear speed of 235 km/h. To keep this beast on the track, Bilstein gas dampers were supplied all round, anti-roll bars were fitted front and rear, and tandem brake boosters with release valves prevented rear brake-lock. Low profile Dunlop tyres were fitted to 406 mm Chaparral wheels, 279 mm wide at the front and 305 mm wide at the rear, with 275/600 and 300/625 tyres fitted respectively. This powerful package was neatly tucked into an aggressive-looking E12 body with flared wheel arches and the brightly decorated BMW Motor Sport colours.
Sponsorship was received from, amongst others, BIC, Salora Television, and Castrol. The two BMWs were unchallenged, with Eddie Keizan and Alain Lavoipierre, the initial two drivers, achieving all-conquering success. Track records were broken at regular intervals, and the opposing Mazda and Ford Capri challenges were vanquished. To really stamp their authority on the competition, fifteen victories were achieved from fifteen consecutive starts, with Keizan eventually moaning that his only competition was his teammate.
Keizan got what he asked for in 1978, when Mazda released their Capella Rotary Coupe. Immensely powerful, and wickedly quick, the Capellas provided stiff opposition from their first race. As the season wore on, the Capellas got ever closer to Keizan and Paddy Driver, eventually eclipsing the BMWs, and effectively ending their factory-backed racing careers. However, BMWs’ goal had been achieved. Over a period of two and a half seasons, the 530 MLE had firmly established the marque in South African motor sport circles, and started a tradition that is still very much alive in this country.
To BMW S.A.’s surprise, the 100 homologated road-going 530 MLEs were quickly snapped up by an enthusiastic public, so quickly in fact that BMW S.A. decided to produce an additional amount to satisfy demand. Final production figures are unknown, but a reliable source puts the figure at 201.
In retrospect, the overwhelming demand was not so surprising. These cars were strikingly different to anything BMW S.A. had previously offered. At an expensive R10.595,00 one got a massively capable vehicle. In appearance alone, the cars stood out from the crowd. All were white, with a deep front spoiler, bootlid spoiler, and extended wheel arch spats, the two spoilers being made of fibreglass. To further enhance the appearance, the BMW Motor Sport colours emblazoned the waistline and the two spoilers.
To make them true lightweights, the body was fabricated using aluminium and lighter guage steel, with punched holes in various areas, and drilled bootlid hinges and foot pedals. The interior was covered in a rich navy blue velour, with front bucket seats by Scheel. Interestingly, the rear bench had a foam base, instead of the conventional steel frame, no doubt another attempt at weight reduction. A special Motor Sport steering wheel rounded out the sports-orientated cabin.
The 2985cc six cylinder overhead cam motor was a factory tweaked version of the same motor found in the E3 3.0L saloon, producing a higher 147kw at 6000r/min and 277Nm of torque at 4300r/min. Fuel and air were delivered via two twin-choke Zenith down-draught carburettors and a truly huge air filter system. Besides a special cam and competition flywheel, a engine oil cooling system was found neatly stored behind the front spoiler. This set-up enabled the car to pull cleanly from as little as 40km/h in fifth gear, and thus provided the 530 MLE with a nice blend of bottom-end flexibility and eager top-end performance. Top speed was 208km/h with 0-100km/h coming up in 9.3 seconds. The motor was mated to a Getrag 5-Speed close ratio gearbox with first gear at a dogleg away from the driver. The rear end was transformed with the addition of a Borg Warner limited slip diff, with Bilstein gas dampers and uprated springs allround, as well as an uprated anti-roll bar up front and an additional anti-roll device at the rear. Four-piston brake calipers and ventilated discs provided the stopping power. This whole package rode on special BBS Mahle 7J alloys and 195/HR 14 inch tyres.
Thoughts on a Legend
Looking back, one might wonder what was so special about the 530 MLE? After all, it enjoyed only a relatively brief moment in BMW track history, and only in a small country at the foot of Africa. Well, for starters, it was the first production 5 Series breathed on by the BMW M gurus. The brothers Schnitzers’ expertise in it’s development give it further credence. It was the only 5 Series produced that contained all the BMW M cosmetics as standard, including all of the mechanicals developed up to that time. The track successes achieved by the two racers have never been equalled by any other 5 Series. In fact, British author Jeremy Walton, in his book “Unbeatable BMW”, describes these cars as the closest to works 5 Series there have ever been. As a comparison, the track cars lapped Kyalami in roughly 1min 36sec at a speed of 220km/h, with the then Formula 1 machines achieving 1min 17sec at around 260km/h.
It is almost certain that it was BMW’s first concerted foray into a sporting 5 Series, which ultimately culminated in the birth of the M535i four years later. What is certain is that the road versions were a direct development of the track cars, making them unique in 5 Series lore. Remember, the track and road cars shared the body and mechanical oddities so unfamiliar to any other E12. Eddie Keizan, the driver so instrumental in the car’s track success, claimed that, 12-inch wide wheels and racing slicks apart, the racing car was almost identical to the road version. He also described the cars as the best racers he had ever driven, citing in particular the handling capabilities. Towards the end of 1976 the now famous 530 Motor Sport cosmetics found their way as optional extras on the equally rare German-only 533i, and later still, again as extras, on the legendary M535i. Although a natural progression of the Motor Sport exterior theme found on the 2002 Turbo and 3.0 CSL, its’ 5 Series origin is the 530 MLE. As a result of the success of the 530 MLE, BMW S.A. produced a further range of cars carrying the 530 badge, until the later arrival of the M535i. These cars were primarily sporting luxury saloons having the standard 3 litre M30 motor, and have little in common with the original homologation special. Never again would BMW produce a production 5 Series for the public that had its’ origins so close to the track, making the 530 Motor Sport Limited Edition the blueprint for all later 5 Series Motor Sport products.
Today, the 530 MLE is mostly forgotten. Even among racing enthusiasts, it is but a blurred memory. As for the rest of the world, most are blissfully unaware of its existence. One of the track cars survives, along with a handful of the road versions. These cars are all that remain of a very exciting and important period in BMW racing history.
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