BMW’s factory in Rosslyn, South Africa is the automaker’s oldest outside of Europe, and can trace its roots back to 1968, when BMW drivetrains were mated to bodies by Hans Glas (think Glas GT) that had been shipped from Germany. 1973 saw BMW AG take full ownership of what would become Plant Rosslyn, with the establishment of BMW South Africa and the very first non-European manufacturing site. It wouldn’t be long before local racing interest grew, and BMW South Africa soon reached out to Jochen Neerpasch, a former racing driver who was then the head of BMW Motorsport; he facilitated delivery of two E12 5 Series cars that had been fully prepared for racing by Paul Rosche and the Schnitzer brothers.
The race cars had to be homologated, however, with 100 street versions sold—and thus BMW set about producing a road-going type that would be sold as the 530 MLE exclusively in South Africa. Production was limited to just two model years, with a total of 227 cars resulting, 110 for 1976 and 117 for 1977.
The example recently acquired by BMW South Africa believed to be among just a handful that remain in any condition, and was reportedly owned by Peter Kaye-Eddie, the original manager of the 530 MLE racing team. It’s also said to be a numbers-matching car, chassis and drivetrain, and is one of the slightly less-common Type 1 versions made for 1976.
A restoration of this nature is by no means a light undertaking. Despite its interesting provenance, the 530 MLE (for Motorsport Limited Edition) in question, which bears chassis number 770100, is in neglected condition after reportedly spending at least twenty years without seeing use. Rust is extensive, and present not only in places like the rocker panels and fenders, but also the nightmare scenario represented by the A-pillar on display below.
Many of the individual bits and pieces that come together to make it a usable vehicle are also gone, like the trim, bumpers, lighting, and even the glass. Important things remain, however, like the black fender arches which help house enlarged Mahle BBS mesh wheels.
Saving this rare homologation special will be no small task in terms of money and manpower, but BMW South Africa promises to return it to its former splendor, with input from those who originally built them—more on this later—and work carried out by a shop specializing in high-dollar restorations.
These cars are certainly special, and the low number of 530 MLEs speculated to remain in existence distinguish themselves from the 525i upon which they are based in a number of ways. Inside, the Motorsport Limited Edition treatment included hand-drilled pedals, manual-crank windows, and the deletion of air-conditioning. The color scheme for Type 1 was Ice White on a Navy Blue velour interior, with heavily bolstered Scheel bucket seats used for the front occupants. A special three-spoke sport steering wheel was also fitted, with an enlarged rim and the classic BMW Motorsport clock roundel in the center.
Weight-saving measures also extended to the body, in the form of hand-drilled panels and brackets. Elsewhere, aluminum and thinner steel are used in place of conventional stamped sheet metal.
The M30B30 engine used is a conventional SOHC, 12-valve production unit, but is among the highest-output variants of the three-liter six, making 197 hp at 6,000 rpm and 204 pound-feet of torque at 4,300. Those figures are achieved by way of dual twin-choke Zenith 38/40 INAT carbs, and helped, along with the lightweight construction, to achieve impressive period performance of under ten seconds to 100 kmh (62 mph) and a top speed of 129 mph.
Other hardware changes include a more aggressive camshaft and a lightweight flywheel, and the addition of an oil cooler behind the front spoiler. A five-speed close-ratio Getrag gearbox and a Borg-Warner limited-slip differential comprise the drivetrain, while the suspension was also tightened up by way of Bilstein dampers paired with improved coil springs and sway bars all around. Stopping power comes courtesy of four-piston front brake calipers gripping ventilated rotors.
The original wheel-and-tire setup included fourteen-inch Mahle BBS 7J alloy mesh wearing a BMW stamp, wrapped in 195-section rubber.
Racing versions were more potent, with 271 hp and 234 pound-feet of torque available, which made possible a terminal velocity of 146 mph in fifth gear. They proved impossibly tough to beat on the race track, with fifteen wins resulting from fifteen starts. According to Unbeatable BMW by Jeremy Walton, the 530 MLE is the closest thing that exists to the idea of a works 5 Series, and history has proven competition versions to be the most successful 5 Series racing platform ever developed.
Production of homologated road-going versions like the one scheduled to be restored was initially limited to 100 units for just one year, as a price nearly double that of the more pedestrian 520 was forecasted to make for slow sales. Demand proved strong, however, and in addition to 110 being constructed for 1976, an additional 117 were made for the following year, with slight differences between them, the most obvious being added color options.
The 530 MLE is important beyond its rarity and racing success however, as the model can also be considered a forerunner of the the modern M car. The 530 MLE predates the M535i by a few model years, and is among the first examples of a production sedan that was built for racing and homologated for the general public. The now iconic Motorsport stripes also graced them from the factory, a treatment that had previously been reserved for the 2002 Turbo and the 3.0CSL; that livery was subsequently democratized to the M535i, which is largely regarded as the first conventional M car after the M1.
The video below was recently posted to the BMW South Africa YouTube channel, and is moving in the way it shows the excitement and pride of former Plant Rosslyn employees who made their living building the 5 Series. 530 MLE 770100 is also unveiled in its current unrestored state, and those interested in keeping up with the process are encouraged to follow #BMW530MLE on social media.—Alex Tock
[Photos and video courtesy BMW AG.]