While the automotive community is loud and present in South Africa, it’s hard to argue that shows like Players Classic and Raceism don’t have international appeal. With heaps of excitement, Wade and Nini boarded a plane and made the 6,000 mile journey from Cape Town to London, all in the name of seeing an eclectic mix of incredible machines. Neither expected, however, to leave with a mission. “Nini, my girlfriend, was completely drawn to the old school BMWs. Looking past all the newer cars on display, she always found herself looking back at the classics. So upon returning home she set out on a mission to find a mint classic here in Cape Town, South Africa,” Wade tells me.
Luck was undoubtedly on Nini’s side: it took less than 24 hours for her to find a prime example of the first five-series, an E12. An ad posted for a 1981 520i seemed massively promising, with an inline six under the hood and a 5 speed transmission backing it. The original paint shined as though it had never left the dealership floor, and the interior looked untouched. Without hesitation, Wade and Nini departed to meet with the owner to inspect the vehicle in person. Wade says “we were blown away as to how immaculate the cars condition was.” With just 118,000km on the clock (or 73,000 in Freedom Units), its clear the car has been well cared for and at worst, hardly used at all. Icing the cake of cool is the fact that the 520i itself was built in BMW’s Pretoria manufacturing plant, meaning the car is South African, through and through.
While the record book for the car shows that it was meticulously maintained, Nini and Wade gave the car a mechanical once-over, changing things like the timing belt out to ensure its roadworthiness. Parts availability and maintenance options are substantially less available in SA, so the duo double and triple-checked the car for safe keeping.
With the boring stuff sorted, Nini turned her sights towards making the car her own. The decision between air ride and coilovers was a quick one, in which Nini opted for the former for the sake of practicality and aesthetics. Enlisting the help of Capestance, an Air Lift Performance crafter system was built for the car, utilizing their universal MacPherson struts in the front and a sleeve-bagged air strut in the rear. Old school paddle valves were chosen for management: a simple, classic, and effective way to control the car’s airride, monitored on a single, dual-needle gauge. It frees the car from modern technical gizmos, despite their benefits, in favor of something a bit more stealth and true to form.
For wheels, it was an uphill battle. Wade tells me “real wheels are hard to come by here in South Africa.” Nevertheless, it was important to Nini that the wheels be authentic, and settling for knockoff alternatives simply wasn’t an option. It was a waiting game, but in time, a set of period-correct 16″ BBS RSs, measuring out to 8 inches wide, surfaced for sale.
Finished in silver with polished lips, they compliment the untouched nature of the E12 perfectly with a bit of OEM+ flavor. At ride height, it’s a near-factory car, and when parked, the Betty’s incredible style shines through. Which begs the question… Betty? Surprisingly, there’s a decent reason behind it. “Nini came up with the name Betty by using 5 letters because it’s a 5 series, and it starts with the letter B because its a BMW. The name was also inspired by the character Betty Draper from the TV show Mad Men, as Nini and I are both in advertising.”
While Betty isn’t wild by any measure, it’s an incredible piece of preservation with a touch of style. It represents tried and true combinations of parts, executed with class and flair. South Africans: keep an eye out for Wade, Nini, and Betty, for an opportunity to witness a truly gorgeous E12, undoubtedly one of the few gems of this caliber remaining.