Most accept the M1 was the first offering from the M stable. However, a serious case can also be made for the uniquely South African 530 MLE – a car that began a long line of locally built performance sedans.
Sharing its company today are three other 5 Series Motorsport models built at BMW’s plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria – the only BMW facility outside Germany to produce these Super Saloons. Second in our line-up is the E12 M535i, also unique to SA and something of a hybrid with its E28 interior. The third car is the E28 M5, the first truly mass-produced M, followed by the E34 M5, the last locally built Five and, more significantly, the last M model to be assembled on SA soil. All the more reason to salute these gems.
E13 530 MLE
In the mid-1970s BMW SA decided to embark on a racing programme, enlisting Jochen Neerpasch, then head of BMW Motorsport along with German tuning firm Schnitzer to assist with the programme. Two race cars were prepared based on the E12 525. One remained in Germany, while the other came to South Africa where it was replicated for race driver Eddie Keizan.
Early testing by Formula 1 driver Gunnar Nilsson was promising, lapping Kyalami in 1min39, despite a misfire. In race trim the MLE made 202kW at 6500rpm, 318Nm at 5500rpm and could hit 235kph. Drivers Keizan (Salora/Castrol) and Alain Lavoipierre (Bic/Castrol) debuted the MLEs at the Republic Day Trophy race on June 5 1976. The MLE went on to win national championships in 1976, ’77 and ’78 with Keizan dominating the 1977 edition of The Star Modified championship with 15 wins and two DNFs from 17 races. It was the world’s first factory-backed BMW saloon racer and the most successful 5 Series race car to date.
Homologation rules called for 100 road-legal units, but such was demand that more than 200 were produced. In mid-1976 the road-going MLE sold for R10 600 complete with tri-colour M stripes on its shoulders and spoilers. Other race embellishments included deep front and boot spoilers and extended wheel arches. A body fabricated from aluminium and thinner steel plus drilled boot hinges and pedals contributed to the car’s reduced mass. The racing focus continued in the cabin with Scheel front bucket seats, foam rear bench and Italvolanti Sport steering.
A Schnitzer-tweaked M30 3.0-litre overhead-cam engine with twin Zenith down-draught carbs, unique cam profile and a competition flywheel and oil cooler produces 147kW at 6000rpm and 277Nm at 4300rpm, helping the MLE to hit 100kph in 9.1 seconds and top out at 209kph. Other MLE-specific upgrades include a close-ratio Getrag five-speed ‘dogleg’ gearbox with a limited-slip differential, Bilstein shocks, stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars.
Driving it today is as thrilling as ever. A deeper growl at idle is the immediate giveaway. On the move, the engine tweaks, while a boon to throttle response and in-gear urge, have not overly stressed the motor. Still, it packs a punch for an almost 40-year-old car, a perception no doubt amplified by the intrusive road and engine noise caused by the removing of insulation in the 100kg weight-loss programme. Steering precision and feedback is a strong point while the stiffer springs, gas-filled Bilsteins and front/rear anti-roll bars contribute to excellent road-holding. With those blue velour Scheel buckets keeping you in check, the chassis feels capable of pretty serious corner speeds. This is a car that demands your attention as the additional power and reduced mass require precise inputs when driven fast. But it’s also a car that will cruise in fifth gear quite happily all day long.
While the rest of the world was being introduced to the E28 5 Series, low volumes and expensive re-tooling caused BMW SA to delay the release of the second generation 5 Series. Instead, the company decided to upgrade all E12 Fives with much of the newer E28’s interior. That’s how the uniquely South African E12/8 (known internally as model 4709) came into being.
Launched in 1981, with production limited to 1416 units, the M535i wasn’t offered with the front air dam, rear spoiler or M stripes of the European model. However, the E28 dash with its instrument cluster and controls now much more focused on the pilot added much-needed appeal. New kit included a service indicator, fuel-consumption indicator and a seven-function active check control in a padded panel above the mirror.
Unfortunately the South African M535i was again deprived of the M aero kit; however, a close-ratio Getrag five-speed dogleg gearbox was a no-cost option for the first time.
The body had M badges front and rear, fog lights and 7x14-inch BBS cross-spoke alloy rims, the caps bearing the BMW Motorsport logo. The 3453cc M30 engine featured Bosch L-Jetronic injection and was rated at 160kW and 310Nm.
Stronger front and rear stabiliser bars, uprated springs, Bilstein shocks and a ZF limited-slip differential kept the body in check. Standard cabin appointments included Recaro Sport seats, M1 steering, Pioneer radio/tape with amplifier, power windows and external mirrors, aircon, power-assisted steering and central locking.
Fire up the engine and, like all BMW cars of its era, it quickly settles into a big-block, six-cylinder, hum. Navigating the dogleg box can be tricky and the clutch quite heavy; drop it, flatten the loud pedal and the M535i squats, lifts its nose and the exhaust makes a mechanical growl very different from a modern BMW. It still feels quick – but then it only weighs 1465kg. The ride is compliant but the trade-off is pronounced body roll. Turn-in is not sharp – relying on a recirculating-ball set-up – but this car feels as rattle and vibration-free as when it was new.
Launched in 1986, the M5 was BMW’s first truly mass-produced M-car. With an engine lifted from BMW’s M1 supercar, performance was stellar – a top speed of 250kph and 0-100kph in 6.75 seconds made it the fastest locally assembled car at the time. Most M5 units were barely distinguishable from their more run-of-the-mill brethren. The same could not be said of the SA-produced cars which were specced with an M Technic aero kit and every conceivable optional extra. Nappa leather covered the dash, centre console, cubby, upper door panels, sun-visors and ceiling. Every M5 also came with 7.5x16�? cross-spoked BBS alloy rims and Shadowline trim with a colour choice limited to Cirrus Blue, Dolphin Gray, Diamond Black, Henna Red and Ice White – the last two unique to the SA M5.
The cabin feels like a larger version of the E30 with thin upright A-pillars, expansive glass and a typically driver-centric dashboard layout. Turning the key heralds a whine from the starter motor and a buzz from the fuel pump before the 3453cc, quad-valve, in-line six gives an initial roar then settles into a bassy hum. Stiffly sprung pedals, a long-throw Getrag 280/5 five-speed gearbox, an M88 engine that is happiest in the upper rev ranges, marked body roll and a chassis naturally inclined to oversteer make for an involving driving experience. Just plodding along feels rather mundane but squash the accelerator pedal and the M tech kicks in.
More advanced Bosch Motronic ML-Jetronic fuel injection replaced the M1’s Kugelfischer system for smoother and faster acceleration. A second surge of power hits at about 6000rpm thanks to the 264-degree camshafts and equal-length exhaust headers. The fireworks ends as the limiter kicks in at 6900rpm.
Macpherson struts and semi-trailing arms, thicker front/rear anti-roll bars and Borge shocks with shorter and stiffer springs keep the car on the road; four-piston anti-lock brakes shed speed.
Rather than a reinvention from M Division, the E34 M5 was an attempt to perfect what was available from the M88 quad-valve, in-line six from the previous M5.
An increase in capacity, to 3535cc, plus much improved mapping and control of the air/fuel mixture via Bosch’s engine management system resulted in outputs of 232kW and 360Nm. Electronic fuel- injection was more precise and electronically controlled butterfly valves in the inlet manifold allowed better power delivery further down the rev range. But not all the changes were to the electronics – a new, forged-steel crankshaft, reprofiled cams, equal-length stainless steel headers and a higher compression ratio also featured.
Cabin ambience went up a notch, too, with better ergonomics than the E28 M5. The seat adjustment switches moved to the side of each front seat and the trip computer to the instrument binnacle while lowered, more supportive leather Recaro Sport seats offered a sportier driving position. It was also the first M5 to have red dials.
Start the engine, and the additional sound insulation is immediately noticeable. More low-end torque than its predecessor helps the car pull smoothly from 1500rpm, with the motor really sparking from 3500 right to the 7200rpm limiter.
The engine has great elasticity, handling city driving without feeling sluggish but coming over all Bahnstormer when you need it to. With more power and luxury came 180kg more weight so firmer twin-sleeve gas shocks, 25% firmer springs and thicker anti-roll bars were fitted. As before, the recirculating-ball steering feels vague at dead centre but gets meatier and more feelsome as lock is applied.
The E34 carries over the Getrag 280/5 five-speed manual gearbox but a shorter gearshift enables quicker, more accurate shifts. The limited-slip differential (25% lock) will still allow powerslides.
Limited-run cars, hand-built cars are rare. The MLE was just that. It may well be out of reach for most but it is a South African icon, both on and off the track.
Easier entry into the pre-Bangle 5 Series Motorsport Club starts with the E12/8 M535i. Although a production-line model its unique-to-SA, BMW Motorsport underpinnings, smoothness, refinement and power make it all the more special.
The E28 M5 might have been produced in Germany for global sale but those assembled at Rosslyn are distinctly different. Raw and assertive, it’s the hooligan in this group. The partially hand-made E34 M5 is a ‘Gentleman’s Express’, more comfortable and refined yet still the fastest of the lot.
By - JOHANN VENTER