Rare South Africa-only BMW restored to its former glory… BMW E12 530 MLE BMW South Africa had a gaping hole in its classic fleet, it turned to Luis Malhou, the absolute authority on the 530 MLE, to rectify the situation… Words: Johann Venter. Photography: Jan van der Walt, BMW AG Icon.
The E12 530 MLE is the jewel in the crown that was missing from BMW South Africa’s classic fleet. A BMW that was offered in race trim to South African motorists in 1976, designed with the sole purpose of racing and made available for use on public roads so it could be homologated. Motoring journalist and author Jeremy Walton attributed the MLE as the closest to a works 5 Series BMW achieved in a road car. As the old adage goes ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ – better yet win on Sunday, which was exactly BMW’s intention. So much so that it turned to BMW Motorsport, an upstart at the time, headed by Jochen Neerpasch who understood the urgency and even enlisted outside help with the development, which came from Schnitzer.
And so even before the E26 M1 saw the light of day the ‘M’ moniker would be attached to a car destined for the southern tip of Africa, christened 530 Motorsport Lightweight Edition… who would have thought? You’d be forgiven for assuming that this is the M535i, it would only make an appearance in 1979, the precursor to the M5. Strangely enough when the M535i came to market in SA in 1981 it was devoid of the aero kit.
“Because these cars were hand-built they are not all exactly the same”
The MLE is effectively the first ‘Super Saloon’; a title BMW established and has owned for decades. When the MLE went on sale in 1976 it was like no other BMW that had been on offered in South Africa. Yes, BMW Motorsport offered the E9 CSL with all the aerodynamic appendages, albeit tucked away in the boot which new owners had to install themselves, the ‘Batmobile’ must have seemed outrageous at the time considering that BMW was a conservative German marque. Very few if any were seen on South African roads at the time, the 2002 Turbo with its flared arches, chin spoiler and rear winglet was another exuberant offering by BMW Motorsport.
Only one made it to SA in a rather toned down Yellow, sans the Motorsport stripes, subverting its aggressive stance – it was a one-off that had been ordered by Nicky Oppenheimer, one of SA’s leading philanthropists and businessmen.
So when the MLE splashed onto South African roads it was a complete departure from BMW SA’s modus operandi. Conservatism had been kicked to the curb and a street legal racer had been born, with go faster M tricolour stripes running down the shoulder of the car and embellished on the front and rear spoilers. The deep front spoiler, boot spoiler and extended wheel arches overtly displayed its purpose. South African motorists embraced this departure from the norm and appreciated that they were being offered a track car for road use. Demand was such that the 100 required for homologation were quickly snapped up with BMW extending the production run to 216. Not that the MLE was cheap, it cost R10,600 at the time which is approximately £6563 with only a radio thrown in as a no cost optional extra.
The emphasis was squarely on saving weight, the spats, front and rear spoilers were all made of glass-fibre. Its lightweight construction meant that the body was fabricated from lighter gauge steel and aluminium, with thinner glass, boot hinges and pedals (except the brake) were drilled and so was the rear firewall, parcel/speaker shelf and floor pan underneath the front seats – the rear-bench was made from foam without springs for support. The cockpit reflected the sporting nature of the MLE with Scheel bucket seats and a special Italvolanti Sports steering. At the businessend was a M30 3-litre SOHC motor, which had been tweaked by Schnitzer, fitted with twin Zenith down-draught carburettors, a trick cam, competition flywheel, plus an engine oil cooler. To effectively transfer power to the road the MLE was fitted with a close-ratio five-speed dogleg ‘box, with a limited-slip differential, Bilstein dampers, stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars.
The MLE achieved the 0-62mph dash in 9.1-seconds, topping out at 130mph with maximum power of 197bhp coming in at 6000rpm and with 204lbft torque achieved at 4300rpm.
The road cars were primarily based on the two race cars that had been developed by BMW AG in conjunction with Schnitzer, using the E12 525 body as a basis. One of the racers was shipped to SA, while the other remained in Germany. The car that landed in SA was destined for Alain Lavoipierre carrying the Bic and Castrol livery, a second car was replicated for Eddie Keizan decked out in the Salora TV and Castrol livery. It is uncertain what happened to the Lavoipierre MLE but there is speculation that the Keizan MLE has been found and will undergo a restoration. BMW SA have been keen to locate the other racer developed by BMW AG as that never would have been raced and technically should be in a near perfect condition. On a recent visit to BMW Group Classic I had a discussion with Benjamin Voss, head of Communications Marketing and PR, who explained that unfortunately they were unable to establish what happened to the car and even after consulting with Jochen Neerpasch it did not become any clearer what had happened to the MLE. I was however rather impressed to see housed in their collection two other South African specials, the E30 333i and the E23 745i. The 333i E30 has always been seen in SA as a consolation prize for not receiving the E30 M3, only 210 were produced fitted with the M30 3.2-litre engine from the E23 733i.
The engine bay was so crammed that owners had to choose between air-conditioning and power-steering but could not have both, highly collectible and sought-after today. An M7 in all but name, the 745i was equipped with the M88 engine from the M1 E26, between ’1983 and ’1987 a total of 249 were produced. The 745i at BMW Group Classic belonged to a friend of mine and was featured in the May 2013, issue of BMW Car. Of significant relevance is that a BMW works 745i piloted by Tony Viana won the Group One national championship in 1985. Viana campaigned a second 745i the following year in the ‘Wesbank Modified Championship’, making these the only two 7 Series campaigned on the race track.
Testing of the MLE by Formula 1 driver Gunnar Nilsson proved propitious as he lapped Kyalami in 1:39 seconds, despite an engine misfire. In race trim power was up to 275hp achieved at 6500rpm with 235lb ft torque at 5500rpm, hitting a top speed of 146mph. The MLE debuted at the ‘Republic Day Trophy’ race on 5 June 1976; history records that Eddie Keizan comfortably took the lead followed by Alain Lavoipierre, who eventually won the race when Keizan’s car suffered a broken throttle linkage.
The MLE was destined to compete in the ‘The Star Modified Production Series’, the most illustrious racing series at the time in SA. Keizan would go onto securing a hat-trick in his MLE from ’1976 to ’1978. He totally dominated the ’1977 season winning 15 out of the 17 race championship, winning every race he finished.
The MLE was the first BMW factory-backed saloon car in the world, and to this day the most successful 5 Series race car.
Let’s now focus our attention to chassis number 21 to the right of the car being restored in our pictures. It was Luis’s Dad’s car it was their family car. In 1979 his Dad traded their Alfa Berlina in for the MLE, as legend has it from a racing driver, who also owned a racing MLE. The story unfolds when the race driver pulled into the petrol station that was part of the Forsdicks BMW dealership which Luis’s father managed, he was duly made an offer he could not refuse. The following day under the pretence of taking the Alfa for a service; he returned that night with the MLE, needless to say Luis’s Mum was not very happy. In fact she insisted that Luis’s Dad remove the stripes before she would drive the car.
Luis recalls, “I remember my Mum doing the school run in the MLE. But in the early 2000s it got put out to pasture, it had become old and expensive to maintain. My Dad eventually sold it in 2004 without telling me, I was devastated! By 2007 I’d traced the new owner and offered to buy the car, by then it was very dilapidated. I always wanted us to keep the MLE without even knowing the true significance of it. Only when I started restoring the car did I became aware of how special it was, and that is mainly thanks to Ulrich Thieme, the world-renowned expert on the BMW E12. The restoration was done at home in my garage and it took me a year. I used five MLEs to complete the restoration, I bought one car just for the Italvolanti steering wheel.”
Luis’ brother was not to be outdone, which meant a second MLE needed to be resurrected: “My Brother and I both have a tremendous passion for these cars as the MLE played a pivotal role in our lives when we were at an impressionable age. His car is chassis number 13… the previous owner called me looking for parts as he had been in an accident. I helped with what I could but he never got to restoring the car, I became aware of this, so I offered to buy the car and after three years of pestering him it finally happened. It is a two owner, matching numbers car, with merely 130,000km on the clock, it was in pretty good nick except for the front end accident damage. It therefore did not require a complete restoration, we did strip it down completely and had it repainted and the engine was rebuilt, and the gearbox and diff overhauled. The seats were recovered, the original velour is no longer available so we found material as close as we could get.”
“There were only six MLEs left in South Africa in running order”
BMW SA turned to Luis and the team at Custom Restorations to restore a car for its fleet – considering them MLE experts: “Having restored my car and my brother’s I’ve become quite au fait with the MLE, but I must admit that I’ve relied on experts like Peter Kaye- Eddie team boss of Kaye-Eddie Estates who campaigned an MLE and Alec Ceprnich of Evolution 2 Motorsport who has restored and built several classic BMW race cars, who was a mechanic at BMW SA when the MLE did battle on the SA racing circuit. Alec through his work has been featured several times over the years in BMW Car. Paul Casson who started off with Bateman BMW in the UK is a master when it comes to the earlier inline six-cylinder engines. Paul has assisted with all the engine rebuilds including the one for BMW SA. Plus Basil Michaelides, who is a maestro when it comes to refurbishing and setting carburetors.”
It sounds like the team had all bases covered when BMW SA walked through the door demanding another MLE be brought to life? “It wasn’t that simple, their first choice was to purchase a road-going car, which included mine or my brother’s but we were not open to that. There were only six MLEs left in South Africa in running order, including one which originally belonged to the financial director of BMW SA, Ulli Sanne, who sold it a few years ago to a collector. When they decided to go the restoration route I could only offer chassis 148, but they were not convinced that it fitted the bill as it was a MLE in moniker only.
“The first 108 MLEs made conformed to the lightweight ideology, they where all Chamonix White. The remaining 100 or so although still sporting the 3-litre engine were very far removed from the original intent. These cars came off the normal assembly-line, whereas with the original consignment of 108, the 525 bodies were removed from the productionline and assembled by hand.
The second batch, or Mk II as they are commonly known, came in a variety of colours, with luxury appointments such as powersteering, air-conditioning, electric windows and a sunroof.”
So, how did chassis number 100 come about? “Luckily a negotiation that had stretched on for the better part of three years with Peter Kaye-Eddie came to fruition, just as BMW SA was starting to give up hope.”
We spoke with Alex Ceprnich on a previous occasion about the Peter Kaye-Eddie MLE, and this is what he had to say: “In the mid to late ‘80s Peter managed to buy the car, he’s immediate assessment pointed to a noisy engine, so we sourced a brand new one from the Auto Bavaria BMW dealership. We disassembled the existing engine retaining only the block and fitted all the new components from the engine we had sourced, therefore retaining the engine number of the car. The car was then sent for rewiring to Wayne Baker whom at the time worked for BMW SA, Wayne was to do this in his private capacity at home. Unfortunately relations between Wayne and his spouse took a turn for the worst. After he flew-the-coop she relocated the car from the garage into the elements with the windows open. By the time Peter Kaye-Eddie got to the car the interior had been completed destroyed, he took the car back home and was once again forced to leave it out in the elements albeit covered, due to a lack of garage space where it stood for over 30 years.”
Luis continues: “The restoration officially started in November 2018 after several months of negotiation. The car was a complete wreck, after being pounded by the Highveld climate for 30 years. Tin worm had taken its toll and there was structural damage, technically it should have been scrapped! Several body panels needed to be replaced, the bodywork alone took six months. The car arrived with no running gear, there was no gearbox, propshaft, differential and side shafts, those I had to source from other MLEs.
Because these cars were hand-built they are not all exactly the same, not all the holes drilled to lighten the body were drilled in the same place. Not all have the correct gear shift, some made do with those used on the 525 and not all had the navy velour seats, some had corduroy and in some instances they were black and in rarer instances a combination of black and blue. My sense is that they used what was available when materials ran short.
‘We had 90 percent of the parts, either refurbished or new, so it was then a question of assembly. We had to buy several cars for individual pieces of trim, one of those was for the dashboard, I’d sourced two other dashboards prior but they were not correct, we needed the one with the speaker placed above the cubby. From another car we sourced the roof lining; this car comes with some patina as not all the trim is brand new.”
The completed car – chassis 100 – was recently unveiled at South Africa’s BMW M Fest, an annual enthusiast show started in 2017 that’s going from strength to strength. Resplendent with its ‘MLE 100 GP’ number plate, suffice to say the car went down well, very well indeed. BMW South Africa, and the wider BMW community in SA and further afield, now have an immaculate, fully restored MLE on the books – one that does the model and its unique history justice.
The first 108 MLEs were 525 bodies removed from the production line and assembled by hand… Chassis 100 required a complete ground-up restoration. Gathering original period correct parts was a lengthy process… It’s all in the details: the MLE had a very unique specification, from the Italvolanti steering wheel to its navy velour seats. When it came to restoring BMW SA’s 530 Motorsport Lightweight Edition – chassis 100, the team at Custom Restorations, widely considered MLE experts, were put in charge… The cars were based on the race cars developed by BMW AG and Schnitzer, using the E12 525 body.