By Stuart Grant
Add lightness! A proven formula when it comes to winning on the racetrack. But while easy to do with limited-run sports and single seater racing car design, it is not the case in the saloon world where a weight close to the roadgoing version is often the rule. The solution came from building a lightweight version of the model you want to win on Sunday and sell on Monday and then building enough road versions to homologate the machine. BMW South Africa were leaders in this thought process with numerous roadgoing homologation specials, none more iconic in the add-lightness department than the 530MLE.
In full, the MLE lettering stands for Motorsport Limited Edition – and that is exactly what it is, limited – with just over 200 produced. It all kicked off in the mid-1970s when BMW SA fired up a race programme and called on head of BMW Motorsport Jochen Neerpasch and German tuning gurus AC Schnitzer to lend a helping hand. Sticking to the ‘What wins on Sunday sells on Monday’ mantra, the chosen vehicle was BMW’s E12 5-Series and a pair of cars were developed in Germany. Based on the 525s, but fitted with a 3-litre motor, mods were carried out there before one complete car was shipped out here. Testing at Kyalami by F1 ace Gunnar Nilsson showed the potential when he posted a 1 minute 39 even though the car was not running cleanly. South Africa then set about building its own race versions badged as the 530.
By the time Eddie Keizan and Alain Lavoipierre (Bic/Castrol) debuted the MLEs at the Republic Day Trophy race in June 1976 the race motors pumped out 202kW at 6500rpm and 318Nm of torque at 5500rpm, which combined with the lightness to see a top speed of 235 kays per hour. The MLE went on to win national championships in 1976, ’77 and ’78 with Keizan dominating the 1977 edition of The Star Modified championship, winning 15 of the 17 races that season.
In road trim the 530MLE, which was powered by the AC Schnitzer-tweaked M30 3-litre overhead-cam engine featuring hemispherical combustion chambers, twin Zenith 38/40 INAT carburettors, bespoke cam profile and lightened flywheel produced 147kW at 6000rpm and 277Nm at 4300rpm, boasted a top end of 209kph and a zero to 100km/h sprint of 9.1 seconds. Power was passed down the line to the rear wheels via a dog-leg patterned Getrag gearbox and limited slip differential. Discs brakes were found at each corner, with the front ventilated items sourced from the firm’s 3-litre coupé. Bilstein shock absorbers, heftier springs and thicker anti-roll bars were added to keep the rubber in contact with the road when the Beemer was being pushed – with such a sporting attitude a regular occurrence, one would estimate.
Even in road guise the 530MLE looked the part of a racer with deep front airdam, rear spoiler and wheel spats. Red/blue stripes ran down the flanks, contrasting against Ice White, Platinum or Sapphire Blue paint offerings and accentuating the aero packages at the front and rear. Inside the cabin got some racy treatment too with body-supporting Scheel front bucket seats and a beautiful 3-spoke Italvolanti Sport steering wheel.
Weight-saving and recording a decent figure in road car form was crucial to the homologation strategy. This didn’t mean, however, that the interior is a Spartan excuse for a road car with all the gadgetry and comfort levels that one would expect of a mid-70s car are present. That said, heavy electric window motors were ignored as manual wind-up units tipped the scales at less and the rear seat was made from foam padding as opposed to a frame and spring set up.
Glassware was thinner than the regular 5-series, aluminium panels were employed in the body structure and where steel had to be used a thinner than normal gauge was utilised. To take it one step further the MLE diet plan included drilling surplus material out of the boot hinges, bonnet support structure and even the brake and clutch pedal levers. Any weight that had to remain was cleverly placed to aid the centre of gravity and a balanced distribution. So the battery was moved from the engine bay – over the rear axle and to the left to offset some of the driver’s mass.
Driving a beautifully preserved example of a roadgoing 530MLE today is a real treat. The motor, which of course has that crisp BMW 6-pot exhaust note, is silky smooth and revs up quickly as you tickle the loud pedal. The weightiness and feedback from the steering wheel is up there with the best of any car old or new and the ride, although solid, is by no means jarring. It’s a car that will impress off the line, and at carving up the twisty bits while still being perfectly happy idling along at the speed limit on a national highway.
Let’s play the numbers game then. When new, a 1976 BMW 530MLE would set you back R10 595. The heavier and less powerful 528 Beemer would have cost you R11 250 at the same time, so makes you think about how serious BMW were about homologating the MLE. The 528 also weighed in at 1 380kg while all the drilling and clever material usage saw the MLE tip the scales at 1 233kg.
And like so many South African specials, getting the number of units built at the Rosslyn plant offers up a few theories. Some say 201, others 202 and 208 but general consensus is that 218 is the correct number with an initial batch of 110 and as demand took off, a second of 108. How many survive today is not known but what we do know is that while the one race car was crashed and taken off the map, the Keizan car continued racing up until 1985 and is still in Johannesburg having recently been restored back to its former lightweight racing glory format.