The forgotten ancestor of BMW M cars: on track in the 530 MLE TOURING CARS

The forgotten ancestor of BMW M cars: on track in the 530 MLE TOURING CARS

Before BMW’s new Motorsport division had put its name to a model, it helped to build a little-known racing car that dominated South African saloon car racing. Is the BMW 530 MLE the first M car? asks Mark Smyth

The notion of what wins on Saturday sells on Monday has driven production car racing for decades. From the European Touring Car Championship of the 1960s to the BTCC, there’s an almost unrivalled passion among those who love to see a race car based on something they can buy in a dealership.

Back in the 1970s, production car racing was even more intense, with countries around the world having their own championships and their own celebrated drivers. It was extremely competitive. Which is why, in South Africa, BMW wanted to stand on the top step of the podium. To do so, it had to create a car that would create a legacy that many are unaware of in the form of the BMW 530 MLE.

The 1970s was a decade in which some of the greatest battles in Formula 1 played out every year on the tarmac of the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit in Johannesburg. It was also the decade in which South Africa had its first and only Formula 1 World Champion in Jody Scheckter.


It was also a troubled decade. The world had not yet turned its attention to the racially divisive policies of the Apartheid era National Party government. It would only be in the 1980s that Eddy Grant would release Gimme Hope Jo’anna and Peter Gabriel would focus the world’s attention through the song Biko, after the murder of activist Steve Biko in 1977.

1976 saw the government force schools to teach in the Afrikaans language and the people revolted. It led to the Soweto uprising that year, one in which up to 700 people were killed. For many the shooting of schoolboy Hector Pieterson on 16 June 1976 marked a turning point. The picture of his body being carried featured in newspapers around the world and the global movement that would eventually bring down the Apartheid government in 1994, over twenty years later, began.

In contrast to the political situation in the country, motor sport was thriving. Niki Lauda took victory in the 1976 South African Grand Prix in the Ferrari 312T, beating pole-sitter James Hunt in the McLaren by 1.3 seconds, with Jochen Mass taking third. F1 was the jewel in the crown of motorsport in South Africa and it even had its own national F1 championship.

But it was modified saloon cars where some of the best action was taking place on circuits around the country. Ford, Mazda and Nissan all had factory teams. Privateers challenged them in cars with Chevrolet V8s beneath the bonnets. Competition was fierce and BMW wanted in.

BMW South Africa was the first subsidiary for the company outside of Germany and its Rosslyn manufacturing plant, opened in 1973 outside of the capital, Pretoria, was its first overseas production facility. One of the models it produced was the E12 5 Series, first introduced in 1975 and it was this model that the company chose as it directed its attention to local motor sport.

“The BMW 528s just weren’t competitive,” says Peter Kaye-Eddie, manager of the BMW racing team in South Africa in the 1970s. “To be competitive they decided to come racing.”

In order to compete, BMW had to create a homologated road car. It would turn out to be more than just a performance 5 Series, but unofficially, the first BMW M model, the 530 MLE or Motorsport Limited Edition. Initially 100 were made, but it proved so popular that a year later a Type 2 version was produced with 118 manufactured. Only seven Type 1 versions remain, most in South Africa but one is rumoured to be in Italy or Holland.

BMW 530 MLE restored

Motor Sport headed to Kyalami to experience chassis number 100, a car which was donated to BMW by Kaye-Eddie and which had stood in his yard for over twenty years. Its meticulous restoration began in October 2018 using the expertise of classic restorer and MLE enthusiast, Luis Malhou of Custom Restorations. He even called in two retired BMW employees who worked on the original.

But it was not just the road car that was restored. Only one of the two original race cars remains and it too has undergone a full ground-up restoration at the hands of the experts at Evolution 2 Motorsport in Johannesburg. They’re the same people who originally built, and a few years ago restored, the only BMW 7 Series race car in the world: a 1984 E23 745i.
Two 530 MLE race cars were built in South Africa with the assistance of BMW AG and tuning company Schnitzer which also worked on the 3.0 CSL touring cars. Only one remains and it belongs to Kaye-Eddie, who scrapped the other a number of years ago, allegedly after it was damaged in a drag racing incident. Scrapping it was a decision that he understandably regrets today. 

“Sometimes you make decisions which aren’t the best,” he told us. That regret is partly because in 2011 a Swiss businessman found out about the car and offered to buy it for two million Swiss francs (£1.5 million). He wanted to restore it and get Kaye-Eddie to race it at historic events.

“I told him I’m not a racer, I’m an owner,” says Kaye-Eddie, who these days is involved in Volkswagen junior motorsport but over the years reckons he has mentored over 50 racing drivers, including some currently competing in DTM.

Unbeaten first season for the 530 MLE

The decision to build a race car was definitely the right one for BMW. In its first season it won 15 out 15 races with drivers Eddie Kaizan and Alain Lavoipierre taking the first of three consecutive national championships in 1977, ’78 and ’79. It was also driven by British driver Mike Hailwood and South African Paddy Driver, both more famous for their motorcycle racing successes. The 530 MLE totally dominated the modified production car scene in the country and continued to be successful well into the 1980s.