The BMW E12 M535i Is Motorsport’s Provenance Embodied
Photography by Alex Sobran
There must be one of those heavily-syllabled German words out there whose definition gets at what it is to be a humble progenitor of a great empire, those under-the-radar seminal starts to sequences of greatness. Maybe in such a word’s absence we can use this code instead: BMW E12 M535i– after all, it is German.
This is a car closely woven into the origin story of BMW Motorsport GmbH, but despite the ensuing popularity and regard for that brand, it’s managed to remain in relative obscurity. Said Motorsport division began in earnest in the early 1970s when, poached from the highly-successful and BMW-bludgeoning Ford Capri racing program, Jochen Neerpasch’s deft direction transformed the comparatively sluggish E9 into the championship-winning dynamo that we know it as today. But that tale’s widely-documented and not worth another blanket rehashing here. Instead, the spotlight here is turned on a car which managed to largely avoid it.
Though developed during those same years of CSL dominance, the first 5-series was markedly distinct from its distant racing relatives. Given the 1973 Oil Crisis and ensuing demand for efficiency, a E12s came equipped with motors that one would not call especially, well, “quick,” let’s say. However, that’s not to suggest that it didn’t share any DNA with the BMWs that were. A Paul Bracq design (responsible for such icons as the dictatorial Mercedes 600 and the shark-nosed BMW E24 6-series) ensured that these slow but pretty sedans were adorned with similar crisply handsome lines as those seen in blurs around the world’s racetracks.
Not all E12s were lacking under the hood though, and by the twilight years of the model’s lifespan we come upon the birth of the M535i. Motorsport director Neerpasch did not allow the diminutive motors to distract from the excellent chassis characteristics and the potential therein, and so began to discreetly give a small selection of these cars the Motorsport treatment which were offered to select clients on some pretty hush-hush terms and in numbers far from large. These early skunkworks E12s provided the test-bed for the viability of Motorsport-modified street cars – the only M-badged predecessor, the M1, was a homologation special, not a strictly production-based creation – and so this demand was met with the M535i: the first M car specifically targeted to customer usage on the road.
So what exactly was happening to the E12s in the original Motorsport building in Munich at 45 Preusenstrasse? (Garching you say, not yet youngins!) Not to discredit the E28 M535i, but the E12 was a totally different animal, not in the same genus, phylum, none of that. On the exterior side, the E12 M535i received a deep and aggressive front air dam, a beefy black rubber deck lid spoiler, and on most, those wide, terrifically ‘80s stripes across the beltline. Inside the four doors, the standard front seats were swapped for Recaros, and the driver was treated to the same steering wheel as found in the M1 supercar. On the mechanical front, a 3.5 liter straight-six M90 was shoehorned under the hood and connected to a Getrag close-ratio dogleg transmission which sent power to the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential. Special suspension was also added to stiffen the car, and larger front brakes were fitted to slow it all down. Helpful in the presence of polizei no doubt.
So what better an origin story to the venerated M5s that would follow than a hot-rodded Q-car that most people know little to nothing about? Isn’t that part of the line’s raison d’etre: to channel the engineering of Motorsport through an inconspicuous package, to minimize its presence to anyone not privy to what it signifies? No, it doesn’t wear the same badge, but we don’t look exactly like our parents either. If the CSL and M1 represent the start of Motorsport as a whole, then the M535i is the first node in the lineage of M production cars. To drive it is not to experience the radical stats of modernity, nor is it supposed to– to put it simply, it’s to wield history.