1976 BMW E12 530 MLE review

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: David Shiff

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Somewhere in South Africa, a long time ago a group of people hatched the first M car

 

1976 BMW E12 530 MLE

A trivia quiz question for you: what was the very first ‘M’ car out of BMW? Until very recently, I, perhaps like you, would have given a very different answer to the model you see here: the 530 MLE. And, if you didn’t know what the hell that was, don’t be embarrassed. Before some recent high-profile attempts at a revival of the model, it was (from the point of view of most people) more or less a ghost.

That’s because, if you lived outside South Africa during the late sixties, through the seventies and into the eighties, this model didn’t happen. Nothing to see here. At the time the country was coming under huge international political pressure over apartheid and increasingly the subject of economic embargoes.

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Light airy lines bely the E12’s purpose

BMW meanwhile established first a modest CKD assembly offshoot in the country, which in turn became an increasingly sophisticated satellite factory. It developed to the point where it was producing models for the substantial domestic market and accompanying race culture. Plus, it started to explore export opportunies, with modest success. Australia received some of the production.

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Further into this feature, you’ll see a group shot of four out of five distinct South Africa models. One of them is the E30 333i, and I recall seeing an example of it being quietly slipped into a local model launch a few decades ago as a kind of informal market test. The response was very positive, but we never saw it here. Maybe pricing was an issue.

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The Paul Bracq-designed body comes alive in these colours

At the other end of the corporate scale, South Africa also produced a brief (under 200 examples) run of a 745 variant, with a 3.5lt M1 powerplant in the snout.

And then we get to the 530 MLE. This dates back to 1976 and was driven, of course, by domestic motorsport needs. The local branch of Bimmer had a bee in its proverbial bonnet over winning the local variant of touring car racing and needed an homologation car.

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At the time, the obvious and perfectly workable solution was to grab the E12 or 5-series sedan and stick a warmed-up 3.0lt version of the M30 engine. Variants of the SOHC powerplant were around in for nearly three decades and helped to cement the marque’s reputation for producing exceptional inline sixes.

In the case of the car you see here, the engine was tweaked to produce a published and probably over-conservative 147kW in production form. When we say production, we’re talking tiny numbers. Just 110 of the first series is believed to have been built for the 1976 model year, and 117 type 2 variants for 1977.

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That does beg the question of why bother? Well, despite the modest number, Africa as a whole and South Africa in particular was a modest but lucrative car market, where prestige brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz did well.

South Africa also luxuriated in an incredibly lively and competitive race scene where, much like Australia at the time, there was a very real ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ ethos. And that in turn explains the MLE tag on this model: it stands for Motorsport Limited Edition.

It also helps to justify the liberal and distinctive use of the now traditional BMW motorsport colour scheme.

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Mahle wheels allowed more rubber and less unspriung weight

For BMW South Africa, the launch of the model was an outrageous success on the race circuit. It took out all 15 rounds of the Modified Production series that year and went on to clinch the title for another two.

For afficianados of the brand, this is also a somewhat controversial model. While BMW’s M division can trace its history back to 1972, head office didn’t apply the all-important ‘M’ tag to a product until the launch of the exotic M1 at the Paris Motor Show of 1978. Its next, more achievable use was for the M535 of the following year.

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All simple and straight-forward, yes? Of course not. Anyone with a connection to BMW in South Africa will happily tell you the first commerial use of the ‘M’ appellation was in fact with this car – not only was it called a 530 MLE, but the all-important bilingual factory ID plate (in English and Afrikaans) described it as a ‘530 M’. So, the first pukka M-car.

Since we’re talking of firsts, owner Clive Massell tells us this was the first use of the BMW Motorsport warpaint on a showroom vehicle. Perhaps this is a loose use of the term ‘showroom’, given the 110 first editions were by all accounts snapped up immediately.

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M30 powerplant

Just how special were these things? They were to all intents and purposes hand-built. We’re told the build started with pulling the 110 bodies off the production line and putting them on a weight-saving program. This may have lacked subtlety, as the team behind the MLE’s effectively went in and drilled every component they could lay their hands on, without trashing the structural integrity. So, for example, if you strip one down now, you’ll find panels and even pedals which have been hand-drilled to slough off weight.

Meanwhile the engine was treated to a cam, pistons and and modifications to the head. It breathed through twin Zenith carburettors and, frankly, we would not be surprised if the factory power claim was a little light-on. Under-quoting performance was common over this period. However even at 147kW, we’re talking a quick car for 1976.

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That air-cleaner is hiding a pair of Zenith carburettors

In any case the drive train is completed with more premium gear. For example the transmission is a dogleg Getrag five speed, while the diff is a limited slip unit.

Brakes were upgraded, with discs at both ends and fairly uncommon for the time four-piston front calipers – something which has caused this car’s new owners a little grief as they try to track down replacement parts. Of course the suspension was also altered, and the package finished off with Mahle wheels.

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Scheel seats were an extra

Inside, the upgrades include the Scheel seats and distinctive steering wheel.

This example is build number 70 and is a little famous in certain circles as the car BMW used for its print and TV advertising. It’s in exceptional conditional and one of the few that’s in unmolested condition.

"It’s more difficult to find one of these than an M1," explains Clive. "With an M1 there are a few available. But there are only four of these left in South Africa, including the two works race cars."

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Purposeful cockpit is all about making the driver feel special

That rarity has seen values skyrocket, well ahead of the rest of the classic car market. Clive recalls being offered a sister car for around Au$6500 a decade ago, but they’re now changing hands for roughly 20 times that figure!

Something that has lifted the profile of the series was a recent effort by BMW South Africa to restore build number 100 from the ground up – something that can easily be found with a web search.

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Distinctive steering wheel sets it apart

Though clearly a BMW tragic, Clive is realistic about what it’s like to drive. "Any small modern car will probably out-run it," he confesses, "But back when they were new they were very special."

Our experience with other BMWs of the period suggests it would still be a good drive today, and would handle far better than your average seventies four-door.

It’s interesting to look back on this machine and think about the long and varied history of M cars that have followed in its wake.

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You can’t help but wonder if the people who pulled those bodies off the asembly line and got stuck in with the drills and special parts had any idea of what was to come. Probably not. But we’re willing to bet they would be pretty happy with the outcome.

SA FLEET

FOR THE ultra-dedicated BMW nut, there is a mini fleet of South Africa produced models that is a bit special.

The folk at Makulu Car Services and Southern BM have so far assembled four out of the target five.

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They are, from left to right: 745M, 530 MLE, E30 333i and E28 M5. There’s a fifth model missing from the group: an E30 2.7 Shadowline.

The four above are part of a growing collection that is (Covid restrictions aside) becoming part of a mini museum in Moorabbin, Melbourne.

The showroom can be found online via southernbm.com.au

1976 BMW E12 530 MLE

ENGINE: M30 2895cc OHC inline six
POWER: 147kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE: 250Nm @ 4500rpm
GEARBOX: Five-speed dogleg Getrag
BRAKES: discs front and rear
SUSPENSION: Independent, MacPherson strut front, independent trailing arm rear
WEIGHT: @1200kg

 

From Unique Cars #446, November 2020

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