BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

| 11 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

Thanks to its incredibly vibrant motorsport scene during the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa has produced more than its fair share of homologation specials, with many familiar European cars gaining larger engines on the Cape than they ever received back home.

In 1976, however, BMW SA led its Munich parent company in producing what many consider to be the first true ‘M’ car, two years before the M1.

BMW’s purchase of Glas and its Dingolfing factory in 1966 is the unlikely starting point for BMW SA, which became the marque’s first overseas subsidiary and manufacturer.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

Needing to homologate a more powerful 5 Series to go racing with, BMW South Africa built a short run of 530 MLEs

The German firm shipped the tooling for the Glas 1700 saloon out to Pretoria and, with a change of engines and badges, produced the BMW 1800 and 2000 (later renamed 1804 and 2004) solely for South Africa until 1974.

The Rosslyn BMW works then switched to producing the new E12 5 Series, in 520, 525 and 528 forms.

However, the much heavier 528 was uncompetitive in the modified-saloon racing that took place on circuits across South Africa, which was judged to have a strong influence on the sales charts.

Ford, Mazda and Nissan all had well-equipped factory teams in the country – and BMW SA needed more power.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The BMW 530 MLE’s interior is largely standard E12 5 Series, bar the seats and the steering wheel

BMW Motorsport was still in its infancy in the mid-1970s and, though it had been successful with the 2002 and 3.0 CSL on track, no ‘M’-branded road car had yet been seen.

Still, BMW SA made the request, and the answer was the twin-carb, 2986cc M30 straight-six, as seen in 3-litre variants of the ‘New Six’ E3 saloon and the 3.0 CS coupé.

BMW Motorsport had already fitted a few of these larger engines to the 5 Series back in Germany for its own use, meaning that the actual development work BMW SA needed to do was limited.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The BMW 530 MLE’s road-biased set-up means it copes well with broken British lanes

In race tune, the uprated engine produced 275bhp and gave the 530 a dominant debut year in South African saloon-car racing, winning 15 out of 15 fixtures in the 1977 season and bringing the team the first of three consecutive national championships from 1977-’79.

It would remain competitive into the 1980s, but 100 roadgoing versions had to be built first.

The 530 Motorsport Limited Edition, or MLE, could have been a cynical homologation special, with the larger engine simply dropped into a fairly standard 5 Series, but to BMW SA’s credit, it went much further.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The extensive (if haphazard) drilling of the BMW 530 MLE’s bulkhead

The first thing you notice is the car’s BMW Motorsport striping, with the blue, violet and red bands contrasting the white paintwork that was the only colour offered in the initial run of 110 cars.

Though it wasn’t the first of its kind to be available with a racing-inspired livery – the 2002 turbo had used a similar style – the 530 MLE was unusual among BMWs both before and after it for being delivered only with the Motorsport stripes as standard.

The decal design would directly inspire those seen on the M535i, built by the parent company back in Germany in 1980, though they were optional on the later car.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

Though not a bona-fide Motorsport engine, BMW’s M30 ‘six’ got a lighter flywheel, uprated cams, pistons and oil cooler (plus Webers on this car)

More substantially, the MLE gained deep plastic front and rear spoilers.

At the nose, the bumper bar is almost exactly the same as that used on the M535i a few years later, complete with a splitter that juts out, parallel to the ground.

At the rear however, the MLE features a ‘ducktail’ spoiler, delightfully low-volume in appearance, simply stuck to the bootlid with glue and more dramatic than any other wing fitted to a 5 Series.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The first 110 BMW 530 MLEs got Motorsport stripes as standard

The feel of a skunkworks competition car continues when you open the boot, with the hinges and the entire rear bulkhead peppered with weight-saving holes, drilled out in a clearly uncalculated manner.

There’s also a hastily relocated battery back here, rather than far out front behind one of the headlights as on the regular E12.

Inside, however, the impression of a racer-for-the-road softens.

The dark-blue velour Scheel seats are not as aggressively bolstered as the fixed-back buckets from the same brand as seen in the 3.0 CSL that had gone off sale in 1975.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The pre-facelift bonnet without a raised centre is a clue to this BMW 530 MLE’s earlier vintage

Indeed, the interior still maintains a luxurious air, with coordinated dark-blue door cards and carpets, and touches of wood.

The steering wheel is a bit racy, however: it’s a small-diameter Italvolanti that can be used with or without a padded plastic centre boss.

The owner of this car runs it without.

Unsurprisingly, the roadgoing MLE couldn’t be sold with its engine in full-fat race tune, but it still produced 197bhp – a 20bhp increase on the standard output of a 3-litre M30, thanks to a hotter cam and high-compression pistons.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The moulded plastic dashboard would have been high-tech stuff in the mid-1970s

Mated to shorter gearing, it offered eager acceleration and this one is likely a bit quicker still, because it now runs on triple Weber carbs rather than the original twin Zeniths.

As would become a theme for the fast BMWs that followed this trendsetter, it’s actually a bit too weighty in the controls at very low speeds.

The gearshift is a touch stiff getting into first, the steering unassisted, and the clutch heavy when being used delicately.

And even the acceleration feels slightly restricted low down in the rev range.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The timber gearknob contrasts with the BMW 530 MLE’s wonderfully ’70s blue trim

Claims of 0-60mph in 9.3 secs don’t look hugely impressive on paper, but that figure doesn’t equate to the way it picks up once out of the blocks (nor does it to the seat-of-the-pants stopwatch).

Once into the middle of the rev range in second gear, at around 20mph, the 530 starts to come to life, as if it has suddenly shed weight.

A zingily responsive throttle pedal allows you to poke the MLE forward at will, the big ‘six’ feeling utterly nonplussed by the car’s 1233kg – a real flyweight figure for a mid-size ’70s saloon.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The 14x7in BBS Mahle alloys look great on this BMW 530 MLE

That’s no accident: there are discs of steel drilled out of the bodywork wherever possible, along with less sound-deadening and thinner glass, while electric windows, power steering and air conditioning were all unavailable in the name of weight saving.

Weight was even taken out of the rear-seat base by removing the steel frame, leaving just the foam.

All in, the MLE saved more than 150kg on a standard 528.

The agility you can feel through the small steering wheel once you start really leaning on it gives a sense of disconnection, because your eyes are still showing you the incredibly airy, upright interior of an E12 5 Series.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The famous stripes appeared on the BMW 2002 turbo before they were seen on an ‘M’ road car

Going back to the Neue Klasse, BMW’s classic saloons have always featured an unusually tall and boxy glasshouse – indeed, the steering-column extension fitted to this car by its owner, which raises the height of the wheel, is evidence of the lofty cabin’s comfort for taller drivers.

All of which means that, as you throw the car from corner to corner, it feels like piloting an almost empty box down the road.

It’s a brilliantly communicative chassis, too, benefiting from stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars than a standard 528, along with new Bilstein dampers.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

Even the boot hinges were not safe from BMW SA’s gung-ho quest for lightness

Eminently adjustable, it’s predictable in how it will step out at the rear by virtue of its Borg-Warner limited-slip diff, not unruly or wildly tail-happy.

With such muscle in such a light package, it quickly becomes addictive to point the nimble nose in your desired direction and then steer on the throttle.

And then there’s the sound…

BMW’s straight-sixes of this era are well known to play an appealing tune, but in this fettle, breathing through triple Webers muffled only by small, mesh-topped trumpets, the MLE has a high-rev bellow that comes straight from the race track.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The BMW toolkit remained in the stripped-out 530 MLE

It is truly rip-roaring above 4000rpm, a glorious, tearing bark all the way to the 6500rpm redline, which draws instant comparison with the mighty M1 supercar.

This rawness transports you away from the cosseting velour of the interior and reiterates this 530 MLE’s status as a true motorsport special.

Even at idle it has a sporting sound, a slightly uneven glugging thanks to the hotter cam.

It tends to smell a bit rich, and has the thirst of a competition car, too.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

‘Once into the middle of the rev range in second gear, the 530 starts to come to life as if it has suddenly shed weight’

Perhaps the single most racy thing about the car, however, is its Getrag 265 gearbox.

The advantages of the dog-leg five-speed are both quick gearchanges on the road and the entertainment value of first-time drivers accidentally selecting reverse.

More than that, though, it’s the gearing. Unlike many of the M cars that followed it, the MLE isn’t equipped with autobahn-spec ratios that reserve its best performance for barely-legal speeds.

Instead, top provides about 20mph per 1000rpm – the sort of gearing you’d normally find on buzzy little hatchbacks, not executive saloons.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

There’s plenty of room for rear-seat passengers in the BMW 530 MLE

Thanks to the general refinement of the 5 Series on which it is based, however, the MLE never feels rough, uncouth or uncomfortable.

Even with all that weight loss it doesn’t rattle inside and, despite the stiffened suspension, it is still very much a road-biased set-up.

Tackling a typical British back-road, including all of the undulations and sudden potholes that involves, reveals a firm but extremely well-controlled ride.

It isn’t the last word in isolation, that’s for sure, but where you expect those rear trailing arms to get flustered as the car hits a nasty surface on an adversely cambered corner, the BMW stays true.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The front hosts Scheel bucket seats

With an almost unique mix of power and lightweight agility on the one hand, plus luxury and strength on the other, it isn’t hard to see why the 110 MLEs BMW SA needed to build flew out of showrooms, despite being about twice the price of a contemporary 520.

The current condition of British lanes being what it is – surely not much better than the rural routes of ’70s South Africa – today has quickly demonstrated how well the 530 MLE suits twisty roads with poor surfaces in a way that the later German-built M cars don’t.

This MLE is a survivor in brilliant condition that only came to the UK three years ago, saving its bodywork, and is one of that initial run of 110 homologation cars built in 1976.

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

‘Breathing through triple Webers muffled only by mesh-topped trumpets, the high-rev bellow comes straight from the track’

Because of their success and profitability, however, a further 117 were built the following year – and, unlike those first cars, it was no longer a case of ‘one size fits all’.

The car was now available in three colours, and options such as power steering and electric windows were added.

“The success of the 530 MLE was a pure example of ‘what wins on Saturday sells on Monday’,” said then CEO of BMW Group South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa Tim Abbott, when the company unveiled a 530 MLE it had restored in 2019.

“It paved the way for BMW South Africa as a sporty brand and a serious motorsport contender in the country.”

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The deep front airdam on the BMW 530 MLE

To this day, BMW is adamant that the M1 was the first M car.

That was the intention after all, before the delaying debacle of Lamborghini’s involvement in the model, and it suits the brand to have a dramatic supercar as the starting point.

Certainly it flatters the narrative better than a small run of cars built thousands of miles from Germany, in Apartheid South Africa.

Had BMW SA given it the M530 badge, the case would be pretty unequivocal but, semantics aside, the MLE’s legacy beyond its home market was in setting the blueprint for the modern BMW supersaloon for which the brand has become most loved.

The influence of this car on the M535i – the model that brought the concept to Europe and to thousands more customers – is obvious at a glance.

Images: Jayson Fong

Thanks to: Ian Bergin and Duke of London

BMW South Africa’s block-party specials

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The white ducktail spoiler is unique to the MLE – the M535i got a similar item in black

The MLE was the first in a series of bespoke performance models built at the Rosslyn works.

Headed by the bold, petrolheaded Bernd Pischetsrieder (later the chairman of BMW in the 1990s), BMW SA created a line of motorsport-derived models not sold anywhere else in the world.

1. BMW 745i (1984-’87)

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The BMW 745i got the M1’s racy straight-six

Unusually, the 745i wasn’t born out of a need for homologation, but as a result of the impossibility of fitting the German-built 745i’s turbocharged engine in a right-hand-drive car.

Keen for a high-performance 7 Series, BMW SA dropped in the 282bhp, 3.5-litre M88 straight-six as found in the M1.

It would be the only 7 Series ever fitted with a BMW M engine and 249 were built, including 17 with a five-speed manual transmission, in which form they were among the fastest saloons of the day.

The car also trialled a new Nappa leather interior, which then became available on 7 Series worldwide as a ‘Highline’ option.

Two 745i racing cars were built, and were successful in the highly modified Group 1 and later Group A championships.

2. BMW 333i (1985-’87)

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The BMW 333i was South Africa’s equivalent of the M3

While the E30 M3 dominated race circuits in Europe with a 2.3- or 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, BMW SA wanted to continue racing with a big ‘six’ in the mid-1980s and decided that the 2.5-litre straight-six of the 325i wasn’t large enough.

A collaboration with Alpina led to the 3.2-litre lump from the 5/7 Series being shoehorned into the little 3 Series, an engine swap that left so little space the car could only be had with power steering or air conditioning – not both.

A dog-leg ’box was fitted and the car carried multiple Alpina details, such as orange instrument needles.

It effectively replaced the M3, a model not sold in South Africa, but only 204 were built by the time production ended after just two years, when the Group 1 regulations it was homologated for were cancelled.

3. BMW 325iS (1990-’91)

Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car

The 325iS was another homologation special built by BMW SA

The dominant saloon-car racing regulations in South Africa changed to Group N Class A in the late 1980s, and many manufacturers created homologation specials to conjure competitive cars for the new category.

Toyota had the Corolla RSi, but Opel proved BMW’s nemesis with its 16v Kadetts.

Once again, Alpina was brought in to fit one of its own units, this time a 2.7-litre straight-six, into the E30 3 Series.

Like the 333i, the model substituted the M3 in South Africa and, like that car, it had an Evo II revision to keep pace with its competitors on the race track.

It has become an icon of South African motoring and even the country’s rap culture, gaining the Zulu nickname ‘Gusheshe’ (a reference to its appeal to the opposite sex…).


Classic & Sports Car – BMW 530 MLE: the first ‘M’ car


  • Sold/number built 1976-’77/227
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2986cc straight-six, twin Zenith 38/40 INAT carburettors
  • Max power 197bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 204lb ft @ 3700rpm
  • Transmission five-speed Getrag 265 manual, RWD via LSD
  • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering recirculating ball
  • Brakes vented front, solid rear discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 2in (4620mm)
  • Width 5ft 7in (1690mm)
  • Height 4ft 8in (1426mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 8in (2636mm)
  • Weight 2718lb (1233kg)
  • Mpg 22
  • 0-60mph 9.3 secs
  • Top speed 129mph
  • Price new R10,595
  • Price now £70-100,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

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