Finally restored to its former glory, we were given the rare opportunity to drive the special SA-built 1976 BMW 530 MLE on track...

The mechanical odometer reads 143 950 km. An intricate dog-leg shift left and down puts the 530 MLE’s Getrag-sourced gearbox into first. The clutch response is in stark contrast to the reaction of the weighty accelerator. Releasing the left pedal with just the right amount of throttle input requires skill.

But the tachometer’s needle steadily rises and with it the note of the atmospheric inline-six. It resonates through the cabin as the 3,0-litre’s revolutions increase from adagio to a dynamic beat until it reaches a crescendo. Car number 100 sets off down the main straight at Kyalami Circuit a mere two weeks after the completed project was unveiled to the rhythm of Mango Groove’s Special star.

Only 110 examples of the type-1 530 MLE (Motorsport Limited Edition) were produced at Rosslyn in Pretoria as homologation vehicles of the ’76 E12 racecar, which competed in the local Modified Production Series until the mid-1980s. An additional 117 units of the road-going version were assembled the following year. It’s believed only a few 530 MLEs remain in existence (just one racecar has survived) and this is one of them.

This car (serial number 770100) belonged to BMW racing driver and race-team manager Peter Kaye-Eddie. It’s fitting that four previous employees of BMW South Africa who worked on the MLE production line in 1976 assisted with the restoration process carried out under the direction of Luis Malhou of Custom Restorations. The MLE is immaculate, with only subtle wear on the inside revealing its vintage.

Slight vibrations pulse through the cockpit. The speedometer needle hovers over 50 km/h. Windows rolled down, there’s no synthesised sound permeating the MLE’s cockpit; it’s mechanical yet warm. Ample feedback is relayed from the tarmac to the leather-clad tiller, which requires a gradual tilt as the MLE approaches a left-hand corner.

The unusual dog-leg transmission necessitates a quick glance at the five-speeder’s double-H layout before making a calculated shift into second gear followed by a swift downward movement into third. The close-ratio cog-swapper enables effortless changes. It’s a pure, tactile experience. Sited above the delicate lever’s wooden knob is the original Sanyo Rally II car radio. A centrally mounted analogue clock is surrounded by a plastic roundel dial, which can be rotated to adjust the speed of the blowers; it’s an elegant design. The minute hand settles on 17h35. Of my allocated 15 minutes with the MLE, only 10 remain.

Retracing its track-focused twin’s steps around Kyalami – although at a more sedate pace than with lap times in mind – warrants concentration. This is interrupted by a V8 baritone harmonising with the MLE’s high-pitched six. A new-generation M5 briefly occupies its spiritual forebear’s side mirror. The South African-built 530 is arguably the genesis of all M cars. Engraved on its engine plaque is the renowned single letter M, which has come to signify the Bavarian automaker’s halo models. Driving side by side, the F90 dwarfs the first-generation Five and provides a unique photo opportunity. Inching closer to the tracking vehicle, a light prod on the brakes garners a faint response from the stoppers. However, their bite should improve the more the car is driven, as it still needs to be run in.

The M5 bids its South African relative auf Wiedersehen and makes its way into the pits. With one final lap remaining, I steer the 530 MLE onto the straight. Boasting 15 first-place finishes from as many consecutive starts, thus handing BMW three championship titles in three years, the E12 remains the most successful racing 5 Series in history.

I twist the metal key anti-clockwise. The free-breathing six-cylinder goes to rest. The odometer reads 143 960 km. I have a good feeling soon this item’s numbered tumblers will continue rolling. Diederik Reitsma, general manager of group communications at BMW SA, says his wish for the restored 530 MLE is that it’s never relegated to a museum display but rather that it be enjoyed on the road: driven, as it should be.  



FAST FACTS

Model: 1976 BMW 530 MLE
Engine:
3,0-litre, 6-cyl, petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Power: 147 kW @ 6 000 r/min
Torque: 277 N.m @ 4 300 r/min
0-100 km/h: 9,3 seconds* (9,2**)
Top speed: 208 km/h* (196,3**)
Weight: 1 233 kg* (1 405**)
Price in 1976: R10 595