Most people think that the legendary M1 was BMW’s first M car, but they would be wrong. That honor is actually reserved for the BMW 530 MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition).
In the mid-1970s, BMW South Africa wanted to compete in the country’s Modified Production racing series. There was only one problem – they needed a competitive car, which didn’t exist at the time.
A call was put through to Jochen Neerpasch, the head of BMW Motorsport and a highly accomplished race driver in his own right, and the wheels were put in motion for a couple of E12-based competition cars – and a small run of production road cars for their homologation.
Both motorsport machines were immediately successful, winning 15 of 15 races in the first season. They dominated the series for the next three years too, and remained competitive until retirement in 1985.
While the race cars were very cool, today we’re looking at one of the rare road cars that BMW South Africa needed to build in order to go Modified Production racing in the first place.One For The Road
In order to meet the homologation requirements of the Modified Production rulebook, a minimum of 100 road cars needed to be built. It’s reputed that between 105 and 110 examples of the BMW 530 MLE were produced and sold to South African customers in 1976, two years before the iconic M1 was launched.
Due to sanctions during apartheid, the South African public were starved for performance cars, hence the reason why so many ‘SA special’ cars – especially BMWs – exist. Think, the 333i, M745I and 325is.
Although the road-going 530 MLE didn’t feature a full race engine, many competition-spec parts did find their way into the car, making it the first true BMW M car for public consumption, if only in one market.
These were the first BMWs that were given the ‘M’ designation on their VIN plates.
Hand-built at BMW’s manufacturing facility in Rosslyn, Pretoria, E12 525 shells were pulled off the production line and given the full Swiss cheese treatment. To shed precious pounds, holes were drilled under the seats, through the parcel shelf, through the c-pillars and rear seat panel, and inside the bonnet. The clutch pedal and boot hinges were also drilled, all in the name of weight-saving. As this work was laboriously done by hand, meaning no two cars were exactly alike.
The 100-odd homologation road cars were all white with striping in the famous BMW motorsport colours. Exclusive to the 530 MLE was a special fibreglass air dam and boot spoiler, plus hand-cast rubber arch extenders. Luis Malhou, owner of Custom Restorations and also the owner of this particular car (chassis #21), says that some of the arches he’s removed from 530 MLEs still had normal flathead screws with wires welded into their slots to add strength and to hold the screws into their moulds.
The cars were all fitted with Scheel sport seats trimmed in blue velour cloth, and featured matching blue vinyl door panels. You also got an Itavolanti steering wheel and wooden shift knob denoting the 5-speed transmission’s dogleg 1st gear.
Electric windows, power steering and air-conditioning? Forget it.
Special BBS Mahle 14-inch wheels were created as one-offs for the 530 MLE, and then wrapped in 195/70R14 tyres.
By the way, the 530 MLE never came with an ‘M’ badge, but seeing as it’s BMW’s first real M car – although unofficially – Luis felt it was quite fitting to add genuine old school ones to his car.
At its core, the 530 MLE used the same 3.0L M30 engine found in previous generation E9 and E3 vehicles, but in this case it was tweaked with a hotter cam and high compression Mahle pistons, and fed by twin down-draught Zenith INAT carbs. The result was 147kW (197hp) and 227Nm, fed through a Getrag close-ratio gearbox and ultimately the rear wheels via a BorgWarner limited-slip differential. According to Luis, some cars had oil coolers too.
In testing, this homologation special could go 0-100km/h in 9.3 seconds, and reach a top speed of 208km/h (129mph).
Subsequently, the suspension and brake systems were upgraded too. BILSTEIN shocks with firmer springs featured at all four corners, along with ventilated discs up front and solid discs in the rear.
Over the years, Luis has owned six 530 MLEs in varying states of condition, and restored three from the ground up. This specific car was previously owned by Luis’s father; he sold it in 2004 and Luis found it again in 2007 and bought it back. It was in terrible condition at that time, and it took some work for Luis to restore the car to its former glory.Factory Finish
Luis’s restoration handiwork is so good, that when BMW South Africa was looking to add a 530 MLE to its own museum, he got a call. Initially, BMW SA wanted to by Luis’s car, and then Luis’s brother’s (yes, the Malhous own two), but that wasn’t going to happen.
In a stroke of luck though, Luis was able to track down chassis #100 (complete with matching-numbers engine), which had originally been owned by the 530 MLE race team’s manager, Peter Kaye-Eddie.
With Luis’s build team at Custom Restorations including four retired BMW employees who worked on the original 530 MLE project – William Mokwape, Walter Mahlangu, Jacob Matabane and Cassie Calaca – it took a full year for the job to be completed.
The complete nut and bolt restoration wasn’t an easy process, but the end result it simply stunning, as seen in the video above. This car could have easily been left to rot away, but now it has a safe home alongside some of BMW South Africa’s special cars in its local museum.
Both on the track and off, the BMW 530 MLE was a very special machine. In fact, due to the car’s popularity, a further 100 examples were made after the initial homologation run of white cars, but as these were built on the production line, weren’t given the lightweight treatment, came in different colors, and featured more creature comforts, they’re seen as a watered-down version, and therefore are far less sought after by collectors.
But thanks to passionate owners like Luis, the legend of the original BMW 530 Motorsport Limited Edition lives on.
Press Photos by BMW GroupGallery