The Greatest BMWs Ever (from a South African point of view)

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BMW (Bayerishe Motoren Werke) recently celebrated its 100th anniversary 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.

Photographs were hard to find, so if I have inadvertently used a copyrighted image, let me know.

BMW E30 325iS


Cosmetically similar, European specification 325i Sport shown.

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. 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.

BMW E23 M745i


The BMW 745i racing car, finished in iconic Winfield livery.

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 E36 M3 coupe cemented the M-car cult in South Africa.

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.

You may be lucky and find a good example here.

BMW E30 333i


The 333i has become a very collectable modern classic.

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.

BMW M1


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.

Video footage from AutomobilSport magazine

BMW E28 M5


The original M5 was the fastest sedan in the world at the time of its launch.

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


The E36 316i, arguably the origin of the compact executive segment in South Africa.

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 Motorsport Limited Edition


Origin of the M-car species, the South African 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.

1991 BMW 5 Series Art Car


South African artist Ester Mahlangu's Ndebele 5 Series is one of only 15 BMW Art Cars.

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


A personal favourite, the fiery 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’m yet to form a final opinion on the new M2 which sits opposite me in the office as I type up this list, but for it to equal the memories that I hold of a few particularly entertaining blasts in the 1M, co-piloted by another name that will resonate strongly with BMW folk (Deon Joubert), the M2 will have to be achingly good.

Here’s to the next 100, BMW, and hopefully a good few more like the 1M!

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of Cars.co.za or its editorial content team.

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