BMW (Bayerishe Motoren Werke) celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016 and although it didn’t start out as a car manufacturer – it focused on aircraft engines first – the firm has blossomed into one of the most iconic automotive brands on the planet. Incidentally, BMW only started making cars in 1928, having started motorcycle manufacturing earlier (in 1923).
Since the anniversary, many “Best BMWs Ever” lists have been compiled, but many of the brand’s truly iconic vehicles, such as the 328, 507 and E30 M3 played comparatively small roles in defining the brand in the South African context. Which got me thinking… which BMWs were most significant from a South African perspective? Here follows my entirely subjective list, in no particular order.
BMW E30 325iS
In the absence of a compact BMW (since the relatively low volume 2002), it is easy to understand the impact the E30 finally made when it entered local manufacture in the early ‘80s. The E21 3 Series was never imported. And… the mid-80s was also a particularly vibrant era for motorsport in South Africa. “Win on Saturday, sell on Monday” was a very real thing and the 325iS on-track success at the hands of, most memorably, the late Tony Viana cemented its place as a South African automotive icon.
Buy our Limited-Edition print featuring the iconic 325iS here.
Facing fierce rivalry from Opel (Kadett Superboss), the 325iS was continuously updated to remain competitive, with the final version of the “Shadowline”, as it was affectionately known, sporting an Alpina-sourced 155 kW 2,7-litre straight-six that to this day delights petrolheads with its sound.
- You can buy a Limited-Edition print (50 copies only) featuring this iconic car here, but hurry as they're selling fast.
- Read a driving report on the E30 325iS here.
BMW E23 M745i
Another uniquely South African development was this high-power version of the E23-generation 7 Series. It used an upgraded version of the brand’s dual-camshaft M88 engine (as fitted to the iconic BMW M1) that delivered around 220 kW. Very few were built – just over 200 units left the Rosslyn factory. An interesting note is that it was officially raced in the South African Modified Saloon Car Championship, the only time a 7 Series has ever raced anywhere with BMW sanction.
BMW E36 M3
The South African public missed out on the original M3, which is partly the reason why cars such as the E30 333i and 325iS were important substitutes, so we had to wait until the early ‘90s and the introduction of the E36 M3 for our first “official” taste of BMW’s “junior” M-car. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was an instantaneous hit, bringing scorching performance within reach of an audience who would previously have had to settle (and pay) for something far more exotic. And it was a real handful, too, with its near-200kW three-litre straight six often delivering more grunt than the driver could manage. Many pilots ran out of talent, so the M3 quickly built a name for being a “a real driver’s car”, which boosted its mystique among die-hard petrolheads even further.
BMW E30 333i
Another South African special born with racing in mind was the E30 333i, which occupies a very special place in the hearts of the brand's South African fans. The idea was pretty simple – take the compact E30 body and stuff one of the biggest BMW production engines into it. The engine was donated by the E23 7 Series, a lovely 3.2-litre straight six that delivered 145 kW. It was no “track special” though, and was officially co-developed by BMW South Africa, BMW Motorsport and Alpina. Just over 200 units of this increasingly collectable car were sold.
Yes, the beautiful Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed M1 has always been a very rare sight in South Africa, but as a halo vehicle I think it had considerable impact on the formative years of many a current BMW fanatic. Think of it as a South African BMW fan's unicorn...
The result of a failed collaboration with Lamborghini, the M1 went on to become BMW’s first mid-engined production vehicle and used a twin-cam 3.5-litre straight six to very good effect. From a South African point of view, however, following the M1 Procar championship as opening events to Formula 1 races was probably more important – F1 was particularly popular in South Africa at that time. And an M1, co-driven by our own Eddie Keizan won the Wynn’s 1000 km at Kyalami in 1979.
BMW E28 M5
The first M5 caused pandemonium when it was launched in South Africa in 1987. When it was introduced in Europe two years earlier, it was billed as the fastest four-door sedan in the world. It used the M88 3.5-litre straight six that developed a sizzling 210 kW at the time. With the E30 3 Series nearing the end of its model lifecycle and cars such as the 325iS and 333i having established BMW as a performance brand, the M5 arrived at a time when BMW was probably running the risk of lacking a “halo” vehicle. The M5, and in particular the exploits of Tony Viana on South African racing circuits, certainly remedied that!
BMW E36 316i
It may seem strange to have such an “entry level” vehicle in a list such as this, but the historical importance of the E36 316i (from a South African view) is perhaps still to be documented properly. In the early ‘90s it arrived with BMW brand cachet at previously unseen levels, and at the price offered technology and style that instantly found favour with upwardly mobile South Africans. It was a smash-hit success and a status symbol nationwide. It also, very possibly, single-handedly created the compact executive car segment in South Africa.
BMW E12 530 MLE
Thus far, you’d have noticed a trend of BMW South Africa developing unique South African specials, mostly for the purpose of racing. Pre-dating the ones listed so far, but far less well-known, is the 1976 E12 530 Motorsport Limited Edition. This car is regarded widely as a predecessor even to the European M535i, which was introduced in 1979.
In fact, you could argue that the 530 MLE was the very first M-car overall! The 530 MLE was jointly developed by BMW South Africa and BMW Motorsport in Germany to homologate the E12 5 Series for racing in the South African Modified Production class. It received the 3.0-litre M30 engine from the E3 sedan and E9 coupe and also a close-ratio Getrag manual transmission and Borg-Warner limited slip differential.
BMW South Africa recently restored a 530 MLE and allowed us to take a spin. More about that here.
1991 BMW 5 Series Art Car
The BMW Art Car series is perhaps best known for Andy Warhol’s M1, but South African Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu, joined an elite list of 15 artists when she was invited by BMW to paint an E34 5 Series. Esther’s car was the first to be decorated by a female artist and she took only a week to finish the project.
BMW E87 1M
Last, but not least, is the 1M. Its relevance in the greater scheme of things may be very debatable, but as I said at the start this is a very subjective list and after much rubbing of chin, I’ll put it this way; of all the BMWs I’ve driven through the years, this is the one I’ve loved most. I have memories of particularly entertaining blasts in the 1M, co-piloted by another name that will resonate strongly with BMW folk (Deon Joubert), that will stay with me forever.
What does your list look like?