No evidence that seven lightweight BMW M535is ever existed

So, a ‘very special’ South African BMW M535i was found in a car shed in England. It is said to be one of only seven such cars ever built as ‘special lightweight versions’ to prepare the car for racing. Some even sat that this is ‘if not the most valuable BMW M car barn find ever’.

Pity, that’s all a lie!

BMW M535i

No ‘lightweight’ BMW M535is were ever built

See, no 1980s BMW E12/8 M535i Lightweights were ever built. Let alone a limited run of seven cars. Well not according to most of the people involved in building the BMW 535i at Plant Rosslyn, Pretoria back in the day. Nor any of the drivers who raced the cars. Or those who worked on them. Nobody is aware of any special lightweight M535is ever being built.

There was of course a run of 1970s BMW 530 Ms built at Pretoria to qualify the race cars to compete in the local Group 2-based Modified Saloon Car Championship of the time. Star driver and race car developer Basil van Rooyen flew to Munich on behalf of BMW South Africa Motorsport to plan the dramatic new racer before the launch of the all-new 5 series in 1975.

Van Rooyen met with then BMW Motorsport boss, Jochen Neerpasch and the 530 M was born. The recipe was simple. Shoehorn a factory-tweaked 147kW 277Nm, 3-litre straight six into a lightened 5 series body.

Restored BMW 530 M

530 M built with one intention in mind

Professional racer Basil had expected to be fully backed, so when it transpired that BMW wanted him to find the funds to run the project, he offered the deal to Eddie Keizan. Eddie took over. The locally developed and machine was built with one intention in mind, to win the South African Saloon Car Championship.

Even the BMW 530 M’s pedals were drilled by hand, and holes routed in underbody panels like the boot, to save weight. 530 M also had manual windows, no air conditioner and special Mahle lightweight wheels to add to the superleggera effect.

The result was spectacular. 530 M was road tested to an unheard of 9.3 second 0–100 km/h sprint time and a 208 km/h top speed. To qualify to race, 110 Type 1 units of the 530 MLE, as it more recently became dubbed, were built and sold in South Africa in 1976. A further 117 Type 2 versions followed in 1977 and they were soon all snapped up too.

Eddie Keizan’s 530 M

The BMW 530M proved unstoppable on track

On track the, 530M proved unstoppable. It debuted in 1976 and raced to fifteen wins from 15 starts in its maiden season. The most successful racing BMW 5 Series in history went on to win three championship titles in three years in Keizan’s hands. It was retired in 1978. All of that information is 100% verified and remembered well by any SA car fan of the ‘70s.

By the time the E12/8 BMW M353i arrived in the early 1980s, South African Modified Saloon Car racing no longer ran to Group 2 regulations. By that stage, the late Tony Viana was also running BMW Motorsport in South Africa.

BMW engaged Tony Viana to spearhead its new factory effort with Paolo Cavallieri and later Fanie Els as his wingmen, and Cliff Coetzee in support in a third privateer entry. The Group 1 racing BMW M535s were not purpose built for racing as the regular production M535i qualified for racing homologation anyway.

Team Gunston BMW SA M535is

The factory M535i Racers were based on road cars

As often happens with factory race cars, the two works BMW M535is may well have enjoyed some special attention on their trip down the production line. But they were based on the standard road going cars. Not a special edition as is claimed in the contentious barn find video. In fact, BMW went to great lengths at the time to advertise that its M535i was a regular car with a competition heart.

Roll the clock forward to 2021. We were contacted regarding a ‘rare and special South African BMW M535i’ that had popped up in England. It was claimed to be one of seven special lightweight cars built. Straight off, we told our correspondent that although we had a great love and understanding of SA homologation specials, this story was new to us.

We posted the claim to our highly influential SA motorsport Facebook Group Auto & Sport. That knowledgeable audience confirmed our initial thoughts were 100%. Now the same M335i has emerged as an epic barn find. Indeed, a 1980s BMW M535i barn find is epic in its own right. But the story behind this one clearly is a lie.

Tony Viana in his BMW M535i

Nobody has ever heard of a lightweight M355i

Once again posted to Auto & Sport this week, the barn find video elicited a similar response. Robbi Smith, a man entrenched in South African BMW racing, and who campaigned a modified M535i for Peter Kaye Eddie in the 1980s concurs. “There were two factory E 12s raced in the Group 1 series, but they were never lightweights.

“The only special homologated 5 series cars were the earlier 530 M models that raced in Group 2 spec in in the Star Modified Saloon Car series. “No special homologated M535i models were ever manufactured. “The M535is in Group 1 were both standard cars and were tweaked by Viana to Group 1 specification.”

Cliff Coetzee, who is referred to as a friend of the original owner in the video, raced a third, privateer M535i. That was a used road car that Cliff later acquired and modified to compete in Group 1. He then later detuned it to race in the standard Group N class. “My E12 phase II M535i Exec was originally light metallic blue,” Coetzee explains.


Coetzee’s racing M535i was a used road car

“We stripped out all the interior panelling and sound proofing, which made it about 105 kg lighter. “We used a Hartge 302° cam and special valves. “It had a special ignition system with the box under the steering column. “It did not have the dog-leg gearbox, but my car was a street M535i converted exactly how Viana’s cars were, to race.”

Besides Smith and Coetzee’s evidence, several other drivers, mechanics and fans involved in with the BMW M535i Group N project all concur in the Auto & Sport thread. They had no idea that such a lightweight version, or indeed seven of them ever existed.

“One has to wonder precisely why this car may ‘exist’?” South African BMW überfan Randal Sewpershad asks. “Is it to capitalise on the 530 MLE boom there and rake in the money with its unverified claim?

Number plate proves normal history

Update: auction car’s real history emerges

“The number plate they pull out of the boot, HNT 463 T verifies this is the car my bosses at the time, Andre and Edna van der Merwe bought,” prominent rally raid racer Henri Zermatten reported in response to this story appearing on Auto & Sport. “They bought it new and registered it to Hurricane Tooling.

“It was just a showroom floor bought M535. “I do not remember anything from the time about the car being one of seven lightweight cars. “All the lightweights were 530’s, but having said that, my boss tried to emulate that with his 535i. “This was it!

“I was a junior rep there from 1983 and I did what I was told. “There was a drag race coming up and I was asked to drill those holes in the back seat support. “They can measure them; I used a 32 mm hole saw! “The car had less than 40,000 km when the company went into liquidation and the bank took it back. “That ties in with the auction claim in the video.”

Regular BMW M535i

Remember, M535i Unicorns do not actually exist!

“This car does not conform to expected BMW lightweighting measures such having a lightened boot lid and drilled hinges. “To all intents and purposes, it merely seems like a poorly specced M535i to me. “I would love to see some actual proof surface here.”

Seems that every other South African BMW and racing fan has the same questions. While the car in question is no doubt a subtly tweaked genuine South African built BMW M535i, it seems nobody in the know at the time had ever heard of these seven ‘lightweights’ before.

All of which suggests that the story behind this car is nothing but a lie. So be very careful what you offer on it if you are ever offered ‘one of seven special lightweight BMW M535is’.

This ‘barn find’ video is hard to believe…

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