What it's like to drive an authentic BMW 3.0 CSL

Photography by Tom Suddard unless otherwise credited

They say you should never meet your heroes. But in this business, meeting heroes is sort of what we do, be it a rare car, a famous hotshoe or a hallowed ground. Our job tends to drag us right up to reality, hand outstretched and a friendly “hello” on our lips.

Over the years, we’ve had both positive and negative experiences with confronting our favorites. We wouldn’t say the aphorism is necessarily true, but our heroes have certainly disappointed us before. For example, it’s hard to idolize a car after it’s tried to kill you in three different ways.

So we were understandably nervous when we walked up to one of the most iconic cars in endurance racing: the BMW 3.0 CSL, better known as the Batmobile because of its giant, aerodynamic add-ons. Though we’d seen hundreds of pictures of the car, it still took our breath away in person.

Before we could even get the air back in our lungs, the owner tossed us the keys and left us at a difficult crossroads: Would we remember this as the moment we finally drove our favorite car, or the moment we passed up the chance to find out what racing a rare, factory-backed BMW is like?

Should we meet our hero? The answer was obvious: We’d come to the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to turn hot laps in the No. 51 BMW 3.0 CSL, one of 19 factory CSL race cars built. And we weren’t going to go home until we did.

Building a Capri-Beater

In the late 1960s, the European Touring Car Championship really wasn’t all that interesting–at least, not compared to the overhyped sports car races of today. BMW’s 2002 won more Division 3 championships than any other car, and by the end of the decade it seemed more or less inevitable that a BMW would win.

But then the ’70s rolled around with some new arrivals: a few rule changes and Ford’s Capri. Boasting a lighter weight than the BMWs, the Capri quickly dominated the series, and examples won the 1971 and 1972 championships.

BMW isn’t really the type of company to just give up, so they started a war with Ford. The objective? Win the European Touring Car Championship. And in true German form, they went all out. BMW embarked on the blitzkrieg of racing efforts, starting their now-iconic M division and pushing the envelope of what was possible in a production car-based racing series.

The result was the 3.0 CSL (the letters stood for Coupe Sport Leichtbau), and BMW produced 1096 road-going examples–just over the 1000-car homologation minimum required to race the Batmobile on track.

The starting point for the CSL? BMW’s 3.0CS, which itself was a minor update of the manufacturer’s first E9-chassis coupe, the 2800CS.

Introduced in 1968, it was the first to carry BMW’s new straight-six engine, the M30. Forms of this powerplant were used all the way until 1993, and it went on to be named one of the top engines of the 20th century. For the CSL, BMW bored the M30 slightly to 3003cc, placing the car in the over- 3-liter class and paving the way for another 500cc bump in displacement for the race cars.

In addition to the bigger, 206-horsepower engine, the 3.0 CSL boasted a host of tricks that lightened the car. Besides being built out of thinner steel, it came with an aluminum hood, deck lid and doors, no sound deadening, no trim, no front bumper, a fiberglass rear bumper, and Plexiglas roll-up windows.

Keep in mind that these are all features of a car that anyone could walk into a dealer’s showroom and buy, not some one-off creation built for a professional race team. Times have certainly changed, and it’s unlikely that a car like the CSL will ever make its way to dealer showrooms again.

But lots of power and little weight aren’t enough to dominate a series, so the 3.0 CSL had one more trick up its sleeve: giant aerodynamic elements. The 3.0 CSL gained a front air dam, wind splits on the front fenders, a roof spoiler, a deck lid spoiler, and a large rear wing.

In fact, the rear wing was so big, the car was deemed illegal to sell for use on German roads. But BMW was too stubborn to change it, so they just started delivering the 3.0 CSL with the wing in the trunk. The customer or dealer would install it once the car was sold.

But these modifications are just what came on the homologated street cars. The racing 3.0 CSLs were even more spectacular. Their 3.5-liter race engines had Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection and trick features like a dry sump oiling system and independent throttle bodies. The result was more than 350 horsepower, 100 per liter. Wide fender flares, necessitated by the 12-inch-wide front and 14.5-inch-wide rear wheels wrapped in Avon slicks, joined the rest of the aerodynamics package.

The cars were then lightened even more by gutting the interior and liberally applying a drill to anything that could stand to have a few more holes in it. In 1973 race trim, the factorybacked 3.0 CSL weighed less than 2400 pounds, produced 376 horsepower, and had aerodynamics far ahead of its time. Finally, BMW had built a car that could beat the Ford Capris.

And beat them it did. Between 1973 and 1979, the 3.0 CSL lost the Group 2 championship only once–to a Ford Escort. BMW had a ringer with the CSL, and as the ’70s marched on, it kept making more power and going faster. By the end of the CSL’s development, it was winning more races than ever–the competition just didn’t have a chance.

It’s natural, then, that the CSL’s ultimate downfall was another of BMW’s creations, the 635 CSi. BMW could only race an obsolete model for so long, and at the end of the 1970s development shifted to the next generation, E24-chassis 6-series BMW that debuted in 1976.

The newer model won many races, but came nowhere near the 3.0 CSL’s level of domination. That’s why the Batmobile stands out to this day as a legend in endurance racing.

Photograph Courtesy Scott Hughes

Behind the Wheel

After taking one look at this car, we know it’s going to be a monster to drive: huge slicks, flares as big as a house, and a stance so mean it would make Godzilla bow down. Sure, there are hints that it may have a softer side. For example, getting into the CSL racer is relatively easy, even for a big guy. The cage is minimalist and even airy in its design, with only one door bar and little of the spiderweb of tubes that is a modern race cage.

The Recaro seat–a modern upgrade necessitated by modern safety requirements–is comfortable and wide enough for a plus-sized driver. The six-point Schroth harness has also been added, as car owner Scott Hughes still races it regularly.

The gauge panel is simple and flat, displaying the oil temp, transmission temp and fuel pressure. Oddly enough, the dash panel is red, not black or silver. There is no speedometer, and the tach telltale is set to a seemingly conservative 6500 rpm.

The pedals fall easily in place, but strangely they aren’t set up for heel-and-toe driving. Again, plenty of space is the modus operandi here, and you could drive this car with work boots on if you wanted to.

The rest of the cabin is spacious and ergonomically pleasing. This thing feels more like a BMW than a race car. Subsequent discussions with drivers of other BMW race cars lead us to believe that most of them are built this way: light, easy and comfortable–the kind of thing you could drive for 24 hours straight.

The CSL is mechanically injected and not carbureted, so it starts easily and doesn’t emit the typical snorting and sputtering sound of a Weber-equipped racer.

After dropping the notchy dog-leg gearbox down and way to the left to pick up first gear, we move away from a stop rather effortlessly. When we reach for second, there’s a gap. At this point we realize this car is geared to run at Le Mans, not just at the BMW Performance Center.

The car’s power is impressive, but not awe-inspiring. The new M4 Coupe, and even the M235i we drove that same day, are quicker in a straight line. But when we get to about 4000 rpm in the CSL, a glorious wail begins and lasts all the way to the 6500-rpm redline. This car may not be the fastest thing we’ve ever driven, but it is one of the best-sounding. The powerband is also smooth and linear. This car can be driven quickly with ease. It’s no monster at all. My mom could use it to pick up her dry cleaning.

Coming into the first corner at 90 mph, this car really shocks us. We expect a battle with the steering wheel, the brake pedal and the chassis to slow this nearly half-century-old icon and force it to take a corner. Like the thoroughbred piece of automotive history that it is, it never puts up a fight. We hit the excellent, progressive brakes and the car quickly slows. Sure, it takes a firm pedal, and braking technology has progressed over the years, but these brakes work wonderfully.

The gears are spaced perfectly, too. When we downshift, the initial notchiness is nearly gone, and the resulting howl is possibly even cooler than the aural trip up through the gears. We slide through the corner without drama–just precise, corner-carving perfection.

Man, this car is set up perfectly, with just the slightest hint of oversteer. By Turn 2, we feel invincible. We can do whatever we want with this amazing machine–until we quickly remember its million-dollar price tag. This car is so easy to drive, even in tight, autocrosstype corners. We can come into any corner nearly as hot as we want, quickly drop a gear, tap the brakes, and slide through with complete abandon.

Our takeaway? Wow, this is a great race car. No wonder it won almost every time they brought it out. Sure, the legends that drove it were an important part of the equation, but in our humble opinion a big part of this car’s ability to win was its driver comfort and incredibly precise handling ability.

So, this most fearsome of all CSLs is an absolute puppy dog to drive. It may look like a scary monster, but it’s no harder to drive fast than the average E36-chassis M3 track day car–except this track car won its class at Le Mans.--Tim Suddard

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Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/8/15 6:32 a.m.

The rest of the story is that car absolutely kicks all the ass! One of the best race cars I have ever driven.

ronbros9 New Reader
4/9/15 5:09 p.m.

maybe so, but i'm sure a factory prepared Porsche would be outstanding also!

and along came Audi quattro 5cylinder turbo, and ended that class of racing!

its all in the course of life.

maj75 Reader
4/9/15 5:28 p.m.

Saw 2 of them running at Sebring. That was one of my favorite cars and to see and hear it run was amazing. One was black and one was white with Martini graphics IIRC. Wish I had been in their group, just to have them blow past me!

wrenchklutz New Reader
11/9/15 2:46 p.m.

I saw Hans Stuck win at Talladega in one of these in '75. It was in the downpour to end all downpours. Cars were falling off the track left and right. Stuck was running up near the wall on the high banks, flat-out despite the heavy rain. Coming through Turn 4 one lap, the tail end walked out on him. He never lifted: just gave it a little opposite-lock and kept it in line. When they finally red-flagged the race, Stuck did three more laps because his windows were fogged and he couldn't see the flagman! Unbelievable.

greggearhead New Reader
11/22/15 1:55 p.m.

When, as a 23yo fresh-out-of-college car guy, working for a VW Mail order place in Colorado, I got to help the BMW department head on the weekends maintain his BMW vintage race car fleet, I was floored. He got free labor (kept me fed and watered) and I got to work on old cars.

One day, while working on the phones, he came and said, "Punch out, we need to go test the cars and you can help." The owner of the company, myself and the BMW guy all went down to his house, loaded up a couple cars and went to a local track (on a weekday, so had it all to ourselves!).

The cars? There was a 1975 E21 BMW 320I that was in an SCCA GT3 (I think) configuration that had box flares, super peaky engine, and everything else you would expect. The other car was a Group 2 CSL that made all those lovely 6cyl noises, had the alternator driven off the diff, etc.

I assumed I would be there only to wrench and help load and unload, but after getting the 320i started and idling, he threw me a driving suit and said to take it out! Was awesome. After many laps, I came in, made some notes on things I thought needing adjusting, and then he pulled in in the CSL and told me to take it out. I said no, I can't afford to buy that, let alone repair it, and he flipped me the bird and told me to drive it or walk home.

So I did. It was awesome. HUGE slicks and awesome power, very balanced, etc. I was doing 7 tenths until he came ROARING by, tires howling, in the 320i, again, flipping me the bird and waving me to come on. So I wicked it up. I don't think I ever pushed 10/tenths, but at 8 or 9 she was awesome. I remember coming in and talking about the alignment, front toe-out specifically, because it was darty under heavy breaking, and they found it had almost an inch toe out! Good memories.

Here's the CSL - the E21 I have photographs of in a box somewhere...


TR8owner HalfDork
11/22/15 3:23 p.m.

I was at the 24 hrs of Daytona in 1976. I remember Greenwood's batmobile Corvette being the fastest car but nobody expected it to go the distance. It crapped out after a few hours. The BMW's won ahead of the Porsches.

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