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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor


South Africa’s own: Story behind the BMW 333i and 325i S

South Africa's own "original M3", the 333i soon gave way to the "race on a Sunday, sell on a Monday" iconic 325i S.


Danie Human has been involved with BMW for more than 40 years and today is still involved part-time with BMW Driving Experience as a technical consultant and technician with their high-performance driver training programme.

But among the volume of stories and anecdotes he has from the days he began as a technician at the company plant in Rosslyn outside Pretoria, it is the one about how he and a small South African team not only became an indelible part of BMW’s global racing history…but how they created some collector car icons in the process.

“When we were working on those projects, back in the 1980s, we had no idea what the cars would become one day and how they would become so sought after,” he says.

How it started

The BMWs he is referring to are legends to true local petrolheads – and are now receiving global recognition for their place in the company’s history and their rarity.

They are the 333i, the 325is (Shadowline and its “Evolution” variants), as well as the 745i. Today, if you can find one in running condition, you’re looking at paying more than R1-million – and up to double that for showroom condition examples.

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These cars were unique-to-South Africa concepts and designed and engineered here, with some input from Alpina, the German tuning wizards.

The programmes all came out of the local saloon car racing competition and specifically the Group N division, which featured limited modifications on cars which were currently available on the market in the 1980s.

333i

The story of the made-in-South-Africa BMW 333i and 325i S
With the absence of the original E30 M3 in right-hand-drive, the 333i unofficially became its replacement in South Africa. Image: BMW

The first car produced by the team at Car Test and Development – of which Danie was a member – was the 333i, which debuted in 1985 and saw 204 produced to meet homologation requirements for the local racing championship.

The company’s 3.2 litre six-cylinder engine was fitted to a two-door 3 Series (E30) body, in the hope it would give more power (and therefore more racing success) to compete in the local racing series. In road form, the car was quick for its time, with an official 0 to 100 km/h acceleration time of 7.4 seconds.

The story of the made-in-South-Africa BMW 333i and 325i S
The 333i’s 3.2-litre straight-six presented a well-known problem as buyers had to choose between power steering or air-conditioning due to its size now allowing both at the same time. Image: BMW

Danie was one of the team members who put in long hours testing this and other cars the team was developing at the time.

“I would go out at dawn every day on a specially selected piece of perfectly flat road north of Pretoria to do top speed and acceleration runs – from standstill and in-gear – which were done identically and recorded meticulously every time…”

The story of the made-in-South-Africa BMW 333i and 325i S
Only 204 E30 3 Series’ rolled-out of the Rosslyn Plant with the 333i badge affixed to the bootlid. Image: BMW.

At the time, BMW also had special exemption permits from the authorities which allowed them to exceed the national posted speed limits – up to 180 km/h – in their testing.

“It was very, very thorough,” recalls Danie.

The 325i S legend

It quickly became apparent that the 333i was too heavy for the racetrack, though, especially as the “Boss” Opel Kadetts were lighter and using powerful four-cylinder motors.

With the introduction of the Opel 16-valve engines, BMW clearly needed something more competitive. The 325i engine produced 126 kW and was the first car to tackle the Kadetts. But that was still not enough, says Danie.

“Then we looked at the 2.7-litre capacity engine which was used in the 525e (a specially tuned ‘economy’ version of the Five Series). In the 525e, it was low-revving and had lots of torque, which is what they needed for economy. But that bottom end was so strong, we knew it would be perfect for racing.”

The story of the made-in-South-Africa BMW 333i and 325i S
Unlike the 333i’s dog-leg gearbox, the 325i S sported a conventional five-speed manual. Image: BMW

Initial development on the car looked promising, particularly when the 325i S body was lightened with special alloy doors, bonnet, front fenders and some M3 suspension parts, among a few other small special bits to make it competitive.

The 2.7-litre engine was making 145 kW once all the engineering and production releases on the changes were approved by BMW in Germany, which was a considerable improvement over its predecessor.

The local BMW engineers looked at multiple combinations of exhaust manifolds, including local ones developed for performance and racing but, says Danie, “we found that the original factory cast manifold was the best once we matched it with the correct downpipe and silencer system, which was all verified on the dyno runs for power output….”

Evo 1 and then Evo 2

This upgrade was officially named the 325i S Evo 1 when introduced and on the racetrack had a fair amount of success, but not exactly what was needed to consistently be at the sharp end of winning races.

This posed a problem for BMW as the Opels now had the Kadett “Superboss” with Cosworth-developed engine under their bonnets, increasing their performance marginally but enough to outperform the BMW’s occasionally.

Then one day, Danie was looking at some of the parts on the top shelf of the workshop and came upon an inlet manifold from a 3.5-litre engine.

Unknown to the project leader and other engineers they machined and fitted a bigger throttle butterfly to the test car, went testing on the dyno the next day and “Unglaublich! (unbelievable)” they found more power from the increased airflow.

Theoretically, this should not have worked, but Danie thought “what the hell, we have nothing to lose” figured out some modifications to the throttle body butterfly (even experts from the factory in Germany were amazed when they saw what the South Africans produced), which, when fitted and set-up with the correct camshaft and software), saw power output go up instantly by 10 kW.

Now producing 155 kW, the engine was put into a body called the Evo 2, which debuted in 1991 and, when put on to the track, won the 1993 Group N Class A title, winning 20 of the 24 races in the process in an overwhelming display of dominance. The Robbi Smith and Geoff Goddard Evolution 2 won the season-ending 9hr race that year.

Getting the attention it deserves

For many years, says Danie, nobody (other than some astute motor racing fanatics) realised the significance of the 325i S.

“Many of them were destroyed, as collector’s cars anyway, when they were butchered by people who wanted to go ‘spinning’ or ‘drifting’,” says Danie.

The amateur racers loved the rear-wheel-drive Beemers for the power, reliability and controllability in rear-wheel-drive form.

“These days, you can’t find one for love or money… unless you have a helluva lot of money,” says Danie, adding: “Who knew it would end up like this?”

He and his team at his business, among others, recently restored a 325i S motor from a car which was found abandoned in Mozambique and which is undergoing a full nut-and-bolt restoration.

“We did all the restoration and engineering work ourselves and I think it turned out as good as when it came off the production line,” says Danie, who notes that finding parts was a mission.

“They simply don’t exist any more…”

Shaun Singh, the well-known BMW tuner and restorer, helped out by providing the last set of the specific Kolbenschmidt pistons for the straight-six.

“It’s going to be a gorgeous car when it’s finished,” he adds.

Danie acknowledges that technology has come a long way since the days of the 325i S and that the current M-cars are awesome performers.

But, there’s a place in his heart for those uniquely South African cars which have gone on to become world icons.

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