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The first BMW M car?

The question of which BMW M car was the first is the subject of debate. Most will adamantly say it was the famous M1 supercar which first appeared in 1978. Officially, BMW itself supports this opinion, but unofficially things become more interesting, even among many in Munich.

That is because before the M1 came along and even before the M535i that debuted in 1979, there was the 530 MLE, the first BMW to be adorned with a nameplate featuring the now famous M. It also wore the stripes of BMW Motorsport GmbH division, although of course these had been used on the 3.0 CSL before.

 E12 5 Series a perfect base for saloon car racingAbove: E12 5 Series a perfect base for saloon car racing

Like all great motorsport models, the 530 MLE was born from the need to homologate road cars in order to compete on the track and BMW wanted to dominate a national saloon car championship. That championship was not in Germany though, it wasn’t even in Europe, but in South Africa, where the German car company had opened its first production facility outside of its home country in 1973. That facility produced the E12 5 Series and what better model to base a race car on for a saloon car championship.

E12 5 Series on race track

Above: Bootlid spoiler, BMW Motorsport decals and wheel arch spats mark this E12 5 Series out as something quite special

At the time, BMW Motorsport was headed up by Jochen Neerpasch and he agreed to get involved in the project to create what became the BMW 530 Motorsport Limited Edition (MLE). In total just 218 road cars were produced.

BMW 530 cabinAbove: No air-conditioning, thinner glass, manual window winders and drilled foot pedals beneath those rubber covers – all important weight-saving measures

Luxuries such as air-conditioning were removed and attention was paid to other areas where weight could be reduced. As a result, each MLE featured lightweight body panels, thinner glass and hand-drilled pedals. Beneath the bonnet sat the 3.0-litre straight-six engine from the 3.0 CS, producing 179hp.

BMW 530 engine

Above: Inline Six taken straight from the 3.0 CS – a gem of a unit, easily massaged into a 278hp motorsport powerhouse

Then there were two race cars, developed by BMW South Africa with assistance from BMW AG and Schnitzer. They used the same engines as the road cars, upgraded to produce 278hp and benefitted from changes to the bodywork, suspension and brakes to ensure they would be competitive on track.

BMW racer

Above: Bar aero-specific bodywork additions and suspension and brake upgrades, it’s all 530 MLE

Competitive they certainly were, achieving exactly what BMW wanted, winning all 15 races in the first season to secure the 1977 championship, a feat that was repeated over the next two years.

Today only a handful of 530 MLEs remain, one of which recently found its way to the UK, but the debate continues as to whether it really is the first BMW M car. A senior BMW executive recently came close to resolving the discussion, before choosing to officially refer to it as an early experimental M car. The debate therefore goes on, but there’s no doubt that the 530 MLE holds a special place in the history of BMW and most especially its famous M division.

BMW 530MLEAbove: The first unofficial M car has earned its place in BMW’s equally unofficial Heritage Hall of Fame

by Mark Smyth

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