- Post is under moderationSouth African Special Taking a look at the #BMW-E12/8 #M535i , a rare model unique to the South African market. Just when you thought you knew all about the unique South African #BMW models another one comes to light, the unusual E12/8 M535i Words: Johann Venter. Photography: Oliver Hirtenfelder.
Internally known as ‘model 4709’ this hybrid #BMW-E12 M535i comprised E28 components before the E28 was even manufactured in South Africa. Sounds like going back to the future. Today the word hybrid is all too common in motoring diction. In #1982 it was almost unheard of in motoring circles, but what we see in front of us today is exactly that: a hybrid. Was the #BMW-M535i-E12 the first mass offering by BMW’s M Division? In a word, no. That honour was reserved for another South African special: the #BMW-530MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition). Regular readers will be familiar with the four models unique to South Africa as documented by then deputy editor Sebastian de Latour on his visit to South Africa in 2012. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the height of the Apartheid era in South Africa where world isolation was the order of the day, BMW South Africa was producing some of its most sought-after models.
How and where did BMW get a foothold in a country positioned on the southern tip of Africa? Like in all corners of the world immigrants bring along their culture to the new frontier they settle in and South Africa is no different. A German immigrant was so attached to his motorcycle he brought it with him to South Africa and so it became the first BMW vehicle to land on South African shores, in 1928.
Another German, #Gunter-Ludwig , started a small garage in 1931 named Club Garage, which later went on to become Club Motors. In 1932 Gunter acquired the rights to become the sole importer of BMW motorcycles to South Africa. By the late 1950s Club Motors imported the first BMW car, the Isetta, and continued to import a range of BMW vehicles until 1968. Club Motors would go on to become one of the biggest independently owned BMW dealerships in South Africa. So what has all this to do with the E12 M535i? Indulge us, if you will, and let us elaborate briefly on how South Africa started a trend of developing unique BMW models.
In the mid-’60s BMW was firmly on the mend; expansion was on the cards, and it set its sights on acquiring the Glas factory in Dingolfing which had been hit by financial difficulties. Glas was relatively well-known for its Goggomobil, somewhat of a rival to the Isetta. The sexiest thing to leave the Glas production-line was arguably the 1700GT designed by Italian Pietro Frua which BMW continued to produce for a short stint as the 1600GT. Glas also produced a 1700 Saloon (also penned by the Frua design studio in Turin) which would have been in direct competition to BMW’s 1800.
And so with the constellations aligned a path was set in motion in 1968 whereby Pretoria businessman Hannes Pretorius, together with Gunter Ludwig (of Club Motors), his son and several other shareholders formed Euro-Republic Automobile Distributors (Pty) Ltd. This is the very company that would assemble the Glas-bodied 1700 into the 1800 SA and 2000 SA under license at the Rosslyn plant just outside Pretoria. BMW AG shipped the four-door bodies and tooling it inherited from the Glas outfit to Rosslyn where they were fitted with the M10 1773cc and 1990cc motors. Brazil was the only other country in the southern hemisphere that these cars were exported to. In 1972 BMW AG took complete ownership of Euro-Republic Automobile Distributors (Pty) Ltd which became a subsidiary of the German company, by which time the operation was also assembling the larger E3 2500 and 2800 saloons, followed eventually by the 3.0S.
In 1974 the SA models were updated (by raiding the parts-bin of other models) and brought closer inline with the look of BMW models of the time. The taillights from the E12 were installed upside down, the front received the grille from the E3 and front indicators from the E9 Coupés. At last, sporting the BMW kidney in the centre of the grille, these models were renamed the 1804 and 2004.
Talk about hybrids! After it took complete ownership, BMW AG invested 9 million Rand (approximately £5.6 million) on tooling and assembly setup for the E12 5 Series which was launched in South Africa in 1974, two years after it had made its European debut.
In 1972 BMW was brimming with excitement as it was in the final stages of constructing its four-cylinder headquarters and BMW Museum in Munich, a stone’s throw away from the Olympic Park where Germany hosted the 1972 Olympics. It also launched the E12 5 Series, named as such either because it happened to be the fifth in the range of the Neue Klasse or because it fitted in the middle slot in the new range/series… you decide! The Five was, however, the car that started the naming ‘Series’; penned by Paul Bracq with more rounded edges, a sloping rear and front indicators integrated into the bumper. It definitely was a more modern automobile, with a more driver-focused instrument layout; it consisted of a safety cell, reinforced sills and strengthened frontal structure. The introduction of the E12 5 Series, however, made BMW less of an exotic and more of a mainstream car manufacturer.
One can’t possibly talk about the South African M535i without mentioning the 530 MLE, developed as a homologation special in South Africa to go racing in. The initial production figure was 100 but demand was such that over 200 were produced. This is truly the first car to make it out of the M stable – even relying on Schnitzer expertise with the development. The 530 MLE is probably the most significant of the unique BMWs produced in South Africa, a race car offered in race trim to the road-going motorist – designed for the track and sold to the public in order to qualify to go racing. It is the closest BMW came to producing a track car for public roads prior to the M3.
It would also have a consequential outcome on the development of the #BMW-M535i . Let’s make a very brief acquaintance. Exterior: deep front spoiler and boot spoiler, made of fibreglass with extended wheel arches. M tricolour stripes adorned the shoulder of the car as well as the front and rear spoilers. Lightweight construction: body fabricated from aluminium and lighter gauge steel, drilled boot hinges and foot pedals. Interior: Scheel front bucket seats, foam base rear-bench and special Motor Sport steering. Engine: #M30 3.0-litre overhead cam motor tweaked by Schnitzer, with twin Zenith down-draught carburetors, special cam, competition flywheel plus an engine oil cooler. Running gear: close-ratio five-speed dog-leg ‘box with a limited-slip diff, Bilstein dampers, stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars. This all resulted in the MLE achieving 197hp at 6000rpm and 204lb ft of torque at 4300rpm.
The 530 MLE achieved tremendous success on the track in South Africa over a short racing career but it was the most successful E12 racer in the world and in no small part thanks to Eddie Keizan and Paddy Driver behind the wheel. In his book, Unbeatable BMW Jeremy Walton attributed these cars as the closest to a works 5 Series BMW achieved in a road car. Sebastian de Latour did a feature on a replica 530 racer in the 2011 September issue of BMW Car and as part of his South African trip did a full feature on the 530 MLE in the 2013 March issue of BMW Car.
After the 200 odd 530 MLEs sold, BMW SA continued to produce the 530 as the flagship in the 5 Series range. These cars, however, were far removed from the homologation special, still sporting a 3.0-litre M30 motor. They had little in common with the original and were really just sporting luxury saloons. It is significant to look at the M535i when it was launched in Europe as the car that was introduced in South Africa two years later was slightly different. At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1979 BMW unveiled for the first time a car that would be mass produced that would wear the Motorsport badge. The E12 M535i was available in European markets from 1979 to the end of May 1981 with a total of 1410 being made, of which 450 were right-hand drive.
The engine was the same unit used in the E24 635CSi which had been developed from the in-line six-cylinder found in the Batmobile and closely linked to the #M88 motor which powered the M1 supercar. The 3453cc engine has a bore of 93.4mm and a stroke of 84mm with a SOHC iron-block using Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection resulting in 218hp at 5200rpm and 224lb ft of torque at 4000rpm. The suspension geometry was similar to that of a regular Five with Macpherson struts in the front and semitrailing arms in the rear. The M division did, however, provide uprated springs with Bilstein dampers. Brakes comprised the standard four-pot brake callipers but with 3mm thicker ventilated discs up front. To put the power down a five-speed close-ratio Getrag gearbox with a limited-slip differential was fitted.
What really got pulses racing were the embellishments: the deep colour-coded air dam, a chunky rubber boot spoiler, and BBS 6.5x14-inch cross-spoke alloys. Ice white cars got the tricolour BMW Motorsport stripes running down the side (by now made famous by the 2002 Turbo). In keeping with the sports theme Recaro Sports seats and an M1 steering were also on offer.
You could, however, order a sleeper devoid of the trimmings which even meant excluding the M badges. The M535i was the fastest Saloon car on the planet, a trend which BMW still tries to uphold today with the Five. At the time it was good for 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 138mph.
The South African M535i was launched in 1981, two years after the European version. It was to be the replacement for the more civilised 530 that had been sold after the departure of the MLE. The South African M535i was not offered with the front air dam, rear spoiler or M tricolour stripes of the European model, which was pretty strange given that just a few years earlier BMW SA had offered the 530 MLE race car as a road-legal vehicle with all the fireworks including the war-paint to anyone with the right amount of cash. The MLE literally paved the way for the M535i, demonstrating what could be done with a big block six-cylinder in a medium-sized saloon. BMW SA also did not see the need on launch to offer the close-ratio gearbox, instead a normal H-pattern ’box with overdrive was fitted.
Other than that it pretty much was standard fare, on the outside with just the usual smattering of M badges. Also standard were the 7x14-inch #BBS crossspoke alloy wheels with the centre caps bearing the BMW Motorsport logo.
Underneath it again had the M30 3453cc engine with #Bosch-L-Jetronic injection, strengthened stabiliser bars front and rear with Bilstein gas dampers and a ZF 25 per cent limited-slip diff. On the inside there were Sports Recaro seats, an M1 steering, a Pioneer radio/tape deck with amp (European markets mostly got Blaupunkt), electric windows, air-con, electric mirrors, power-steering and central-locking all as standard. An electric steel sunroof was a cost option. The M535i produced 218hp (160kW) at 5200rpm and 228lb ft (310Nm) at 4000rpm and was good for 138mph (222km/h) at the top end. Wheels magazine compared it to a Porsche 928 and Car magazine in South Africa had the following to say: “The new M535i is difficult to categorise. It’s not a pure sports sedan like the 530, nor is it pure luxury car. To some extent it combines the best elements of both to produce a really fast car with a high standard of comfort and equipment.”
While the rest of the world in 1982 was gearing up to become acquainted with the E28 5 Series, South Africa continued with its hybrid philosophy. With manufacturing volumes too low and retooling deemed too expensive the entire E12 5 Series model range received instead the new E28 5 Series dashboard (which became known as the E12/8) and fuel-injection also became standard across the range. With the new E28 dash the cockpit inside the M535i definitely became more driver- centric with the instrument cluster and controls focused on the driver. New technological marvels were introduced equipping the car with a service interval indicator, fuel consumption indicator, and active check control above the rear view mirror in a padded safety panel – checking seven key functions.
Unfortunately, the South African M535i was once again deprived of the M aero-kit but for the first time the close-ratio Getrag five-speed dog-leg ‘box was available as a free option. Both gearboxes (five-speed overdrive) were paired with a taller 3.07:1 final drive. The M535i also had a unique set of tyres and wheels: metric-sized 165x390mm alloy wheels, as used on some European E28s fitted with 200/60VR390 #Michelin-TRX tyres. When Car magazine South Africa tested it, it concluded: “It’s a great car – developed specially by the Motor Sport Division of BMW A.G. for the motorist who wants exceptional performance in a luxury sedan.” Only 1416 examples of the Model 4709 E12 M535i hybrid were assembled in South Africa until production ended in December 1984. It was then replaced by the E28 M535i in January 1985.
Enough with the #BMW-SA history lesson, let’s get acquainted with this M hybrid. It’s hard to believe that the M535i in front of us is 33 years old and yet this is a very honest car that gets driven regularly. It is definitely no show queen; the odometer shows 110,203 miles (177,355km). One definitely gets the sense that BMW’s philosophy at the time was to build cars that would stand the test of time. The Polaris silver paint works well with the chrome accents. The #Alpina shovel-spoiler in the front suits the car much better than the standard air dam that was fitted to European models as the lines are just so much cleaner and sharper. Step to the back and the spoiler found on the boot is also from Alpina. It’s smaller in size than the M article and again cleaner, in my opinion. Sometimes less is more. The stance is perfect thanks to a set of BBS cross-spoke rims 7x16 inches in the front and 8x16 inches at the rear as found on the E23 745i. It is rounded off with ContiPremiumContact 2 rubber (205/55R16 in the front and 225/50R16 at the rear) which fills the arches nicely. As I open the door I am transported back to my youth, the E12 is the very reason for my fascination with BMW. I remember there was a car that I drooled over almost every day. I could not miss it as it was on my way home from school. It was a Petrol blue E12 528i. A few years later a friend bought an E12 M535i in Henna red. It was my first experience with a dog-leg ’box, it went like a bat from hell. Then being inside the M535i was like being inside the Starship Enterprise, with an orange glow from the instrument binnacle and the red lights from the check control. Such fond memories!
Once inside I am completely gobsmacked; it is immaculate. There is not a crack or a blemish on the dash, it virtually looks new. The Recaros, covered in Marine blue velour, do not even have a scuff. The M gear lever perfect and the biggest show piece has to be the four-spoke Alpina Sports steering.
One turn of the key and the engine sparks to life and in true BMW fashion of cars of this era it quickly settles down into a big block six-cylinder hum. I find these dog-leg boxes still tricky today and the clutch is quite heavy. Drop the clutch and flatten the loud pedal and, exactly as I remember, the M535i squats down on its haunches and the nose reaches for the stratosphere. The exhaust lets off a mechanical growl that’s much different to BMWs of today. This car still feels quick today. Then again it only weighs 1465kg.
The ride is compliant but the trade-off is the body-roll, which is more prevalent than in more modern Bavarian metal. Turn-in is good but not sharp as it relies on a recirculating ball setup but this car feels as solid as when it was new. The fit and finish is perfect. There are no rattles or vibrations. The four-pot brake callipers make easy work of dissipating high speeds and the Bilsteins ensure the wheels stay planted. The owner of the M535i, Shaun Sing, is a BMW Master Technician who started Tune Tech 20 years ago. It’s one of the most reputable independent BMW workshops in South Africa. Tune Tech not only services BMW products it does tuning and performance upgrades and builds race cars. Strangely enough Shaun qualified as an aircraft mechanic but found BMW far more appealing and in 1987 joined the Stuart Bromfield BMW dealership. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ten years ago the original owner brought the car into Tune Tech to have the brakes looked at. Shaun somehow convinced him to part with this rarity. Shaun received the car with all the books/manuals, including the original brochure and a file with all the receipts for work that had been carried out. Since then very little has been done except that the fuel tank has been replaced, as well as all four headlamps, and the Bilsteins have been refurbished. Thankfully Shaun also removed the foglights, got the front spoiler and rear spoiler from Alpina, fitted the Alpina steering and the 745i BBS rims – all cosmetic enhancements that really set off this magnificent piece of South African motoring history.
BMW set the trend for building the fastest Saloon cars in the world and the M535i really is the benchmark from where it all started. The BMW Rosslyn plant continued to build a variety of BMWs which included the E28 M5 and E34 M5, which was also the last in the 5 Series range made at the plant. Today Rosslyn is referred to as plant nine in BMW’s global hierarchy and only manufactures the F30 3 Series Saloon, 330 a day or one every four minutes; 85 percent of production is shipped to about ten markets worldwide. It’s a far cry from the days of the E12/8 M535i.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Ron Silke and Ulrich Thieme of www.e12.de
The M535i was the fastest Saloon car on the planet, a trend which BMW still tries to uphold today with the Five.
These three cars above can be viewed as the forefathers of the ‘South African Special’. The white car at the top is a 2000 SA which was built in South Africa using the shell of a Glas 1700 with BMW mechanicals. (This particular example hails from Rhodesia and was originally known as a Cheetah). The green machine is a post 1974 2000 SA with a BMW grille and upside down E12 rear lights while the E12 below it was the 530 MLE – a locally built homologation special.
Drop the clutch and flatten the loud pedal and the M535i squats down on its haunches and the nose reaches for the stratosphere.Stream item published successfully. Item will now be visible on your stream.