BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Subscribe to Top Gear magazine
Sign up to our Top Gear Magazine

Remember when BMW put a Le Mans engine in an X5?

BMW celebrated its 1999 Le Mans victory by shoving a V12 inside its then-new SUV

BMW X5 Le Mans experimental – front end
  • What’s this dull looking SUV?

    BMW X5 Le Mans concept front three quarters

    This BMW X5 from 2000 is anything but dull. But to explain why we’re going to have to take a step or two back and look at some fundamentals. It’s an expensive business, motorsport – executive boards demand results and brands have to find ways to justify spending vast amounts of money on driving round in circles. The dream is to try and demonstrate a sort of trickledown effect of your involvement in car racing, you want to be able to point at a car and prove an actual link between track and road. 

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Is there an actual point here?

    BMW V12 LMR at Le Mans, 1999

    Well, back in 1999 BMW was committed to a Le Mans programme in partnership with F1 team Williams, and it was due to provide the outfit with engines for its 2000 F1 title campaign. You know, the year Jenson Button made his debut with the team. The endurance effort was a bit more successful than the F1 bid, winning the Le Mans 24 Hours at the second time of asking in 1999 with the V12 LMR, running a 6.0-litre V12 engine codenamed S70/3 that was a development of what they stuck in the back of the McLaren F1 supercar. 

  • Wait, are you saying what I think you’re saying?

    BMW X5 Le Mans engine

    Yes. They stuck the Le Mans engine in an X5. 

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Wow. How did they manage that?

    BMW X5 Le Mans concept front three quarters

    Someone from the marketing department yelling at the engineers like a drill instructor, one presumes. Actually, the X5 had not long gone on sale and it was a bit of a dicy move for BMW. This was the company’s first SUV to go on sale, and while Mercedes and Lexus had beaten Munich to the punch, there was BMW’s reputation as the maker of ultimate driving machines at stake. Not to mention that they’d decided they were going to build this monster in a new factory in South Carolina. Yikes. So after the production X5 was revealed at the 1999 Frankfurt motor show in September, this BMW X5 Le Mans concept car turned up the next March at the 2000 Geneva show.

  • Were there many changes?

    BMW X5 Le Mans concept interior front seats

    There were some bodywork changes made, most notably a giant air scoop on the bonnet to get air to a thirsty engine. The engine is actually more powerful than in its racing applications – it produces 700bhp in X5 trim, while it had to have airbox restrictors during races that kept it pegged back to around 580bhp. See? SUVs aren’t all bad… BMW’s engineers also fitted new skirts all round, gigantic 20-inch racing wheels, they dropped the suspension by 30mm and fitted racing seats inside so that passengers wouldn’t be flailing around like a 2p coin in a washing machine. 

  • Tell me some numbers…

    BMW X5 Le Mans concept rear end

    As well as the 700bhp the V12 engine produces in the X5 Le Mans, it offers a useful 531lb ft of torque at 5,000rpm. That’s enough to accelerate the car from zero to 62mph in 4.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 173mph. Eye-watering figures for the time. By contrast, the current BMW X5 M50i with its turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 accelerates to 62mph in 4.3secs and has a limited top speed of 155mph. 

  • Why didn’t the X5 Le Mans go on sale?

    BMW X5 Le Mans interior rear seats

    While it might have been a useful outlet for any spare engines that BMW might have had after its endurance racing efforts, you’d have to imagine that a production version of the V12 X5 would have been… quite expensive. Besides, its main purpose was to grab a bit of attention and try to flog a few more of the standard issue X5s. 

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • What if I wanted to drive a Le Mans-inspired BMW X5?

    BMW X5 Le Mans concept at the Nürburgring

    Well, you’d have to be famous German racing driver Hans-Joachim Stuck, who wrestled the car round the Nürburgring in 7mins 49secs back in 2000. Or BMW’s works racing driver Martin Tomczyk, who took TopGear out for a spin (not literally) in the car a few years back. And brave. You’d have to be brave.

More from Top Gear

See more on BMW

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine