The fortunes of BMW’s 3.0 CSL E9 coupes are on the up. Stealthily yet rapidly prices have been hardening, lifting the fortunes of these classic lightweight homologation specials into a whole new league. The car you see here is up for sale at £50,000.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. Here, after all, is a road going derivative of one of the all time great saloon racers, the very essence of performance image that defined BMW in the nineteen seventies.
With spoilers, fins, fat arches and lurid paint schemes these were the cars that dominated European Touring Car Racing driven by the likes of Hans Stuck, Chris Amon, Ronnie Peterson and Derek Bell and fielded by a youthful organisation that could not countenance failure. The CSL’s battled in epic style with the works Ford Capri’s and went on winning – fielded by the Alpina and others – long after the E9 Coupe had been superseded by the flabbier and much less pretty six series.
BMW made an impressive 30,000 E9 6 cylinder CS coupes but the CSL – L for leicht or light – accounts for just 1265 of those (built in three distinct series) between 1971 and 1975, so they have rarity on their side too.
But really: Fifty grand for a 3.0 CSL? Yes, it’s true. In fact they make more than that in Europe if they are nut-and-bolt restorations and the ‘batmobile’ 3.2 CSLs have been £100,000 plus for a while now. That’s Ferrari Dino money, but then these cars were pitched squarely in Ferrari Dino territory when new, with fully comparable performance.
Egged on by private tuners it was new recruit from Ford Jochen Neerpasch who persuaded BMW to homologate a lighter built CS Coupe shell from Karmann as the obvious route to victory against the more nimble Capri’s.
‘They were a very serious but a young up-and coming team, great fun to work with’ says Derek Bell who’s career with the Alpina CSL was foreshortened by the fuel crisis ‘and the cars were magnificent, so much power from a non-turbo straight- six…they were certainly the greatest BMWs I ever raced.’
The first road going CSL’s were stripped out 3.0CS coupes built of thinner steel and with aluminium doors, bonnet and boot lid. Manual side windows in thinner glass plus minimal sound deadening and rust protection further pared the weight. 169 were built, all left handed with the Scheel bucket seats, glass fibre bumpers (weighing in at just 5.5Ibs) and chrome arch extensions to keep the wider 7 in wheels legal.
August 1972 brought engine bored to 3003cc to get the CSL into the over 3 litre class. The canted over single overhead camshaft straight six was injected now and it was in this form that the 200bhp CSL came to Britain in October 1972, complete with standard CS/CSi bumpers and most of the luxury items reinstated. 500 of these UK market ‘City Pack’ cars were sold here, briefly ousting right hand drive versions of the CSi.
There’s an interesting story behind those 500 UK CSLs. When the factory showed their distributors the CSL most of the importers gave the car the thumbs down. The interior was seen as too basic, the bodywork too flimsy and vulnerable. Not even the charm of recently hired Bob Lutz could persuade them to take the CSL on.
It was Tony Hille of BMW Concessionaires in the UK who stepped into the breach. He agreed to take on the entire unsold CSL build schedule subject to some nifty pricing support. In the end the British BMW importers sold more than all of the rest of Europe including the German home market combined. A special sales team was instated just to market the CSL through special events which sometimes took the form of disorderly lunches and photo shoots. By hook or by crook they sold the cars.
Richard Hollis was working for BMW GB at the time. ‘Just about everyone and their granny had a CSL as their company car- aged 23 or 24, I had two on the trot! My best personal memory is of racing a V12 E type coupe along the M4 past Marlborough and down the long hill towards Swindon. The CSL had the V12 well beaten – simply because the performance was so much better balanced to the road handling of the car.’
Richard recalls Ronnie Peterson turning up in his company CSL. ‘He was on his way to Silverstone – whether for the British GP or an ETC race has been lost in the mists of time – and the car had a slight hesitation and had been passed to the technical training school to look at. Once they had sorted it – he took the instructors involved up the old A2 towards Canterbury past the Lydden Hill circuit. They came back speechless because his driving was so completely fluid and effortless at speeds which none of them could have contemplated on this twisting road – even in a car like the CSL.’
The final 206bhp CSLs with the bored out 3153cc engine were all left handed with a selection of remarkable spoilers and aerofoils, the rear one packed in the boot when the cars were delivered in Germany where local traffic laws deemed it illegal.
Derek Bell owned one as his road car ‘I remember being out with Jochen Neerspach in Munich in this CSL and saying to him ‘this is a fantastic car –Id love one’ and he said ‘You can buy this one off me!’ Obviously I got a good discount.I drove it all over Europe to race meetings; I remember taking it skiing and getting stuck in the snow…I had a run in with the law too: a copper thought I was going too fast on some sweeps and turns near my home. He caught me up, rather breathless…in the end it was just a chat and the usual “Well Derek please keep your speed for the track” I had it a couple of years but I can’t remember what happened to it. I wish I still had it…’
Lucas at Four Star Classics, 15 minutes south of Guildford, furnished us with this right-hooker CSL, one of the 500 ‘City Pack’ cars that sold in the UK for a notoriously hefty £7400 in 1973 – several hundred pounds more than an 911 RS Touring just to put things into perspective. Ten years later my mother was smoking around Manchester in a £1500 3.0CSL complete with classic inner wing corrosion – these Karmann built Coupes can out-rot almost anything Italian – so I’m well acquainted with these cars, although I’ve never really had a good drive in one. This was my chance to put that right; a trip to Crickhowell on a bright day at the beginning of winter.
Despite its aggressive image the CSL is a relaxed, gentlemanly car. Inside, with the long heavy frameless doors closed you can enjoy what is to me one of the great BMW cabins, so gloriously airy and light with its deep glass area and slim line roof pillars. The elegant swathe of facia wood flows into the door cant rails and extensive chrome details around the window frames hint at the hand finishing that Karmann gave all the E9 coupes; the hooded binnacle shrouding the four pleasingly calibrated instruments is a template for all subsequent Bavarian ergonomic rationalism. It has a lighter less Teutonic feel than equivalent Mercedes coupes. There’s no radio but I’m certain they usually came with one. The Scheel bucket seats, special to the CSL, have no rake adjustment but embrace the trunk of your body impressively with those deep side bolsters; they must be half the weight of the sumptuous CS and CSi chairs. You tend to feel as if you are sat rather low with the chunky spokes of the Momo wheel hiding important fuel and temperature information. The straight six has a rhythmic hunting idle and there’s a gentle chatter from the four speed gearbox in the lower ratios but generally the CSL earns high marks for docility and refinement as you guide it through traffic. It has a broad shouldered, square jawed presence yet it is far from being a large or intimidating and other traffic simply has nowhere to hide because there’s just so much glass.
The power windows are as majestically slow in action as I remember them, the ride rather better; the 195/70 tyres paw gently at bumps with surprising refinement. The long throttle travel and similarly lengthy clutch action make the first few pull-offs rather hesitant but you soon get the flavour for smooth progress in the CSL. Under the bonnet the straight six looks somewhat lost under the Bosch injection inlet manifolds that turn incoming gases through 90 degrees and answer to a ‘brain box’ that lives under the passenger seat. It’s as sweet as can be, pulling the CSL’s 22 mph per 1000rpm top effortlessly from 1500 rpm or punching out to 6000rpm with a howl of silky sophistication in first and second.
In town the CSL flows effortlessly with modern traffic, attracting admiring looks from all quarters; school kids point, women smile, men nod appreciatively as you hum past in that typically tail down/nose up stance flaunting your tiger stripes and glinting wheel arch extensions.
Out on the M4 your natural place is the outside lane. The CSL sits square and steady, the only irritants being wind noise around the quarter lights and the rubber sealing strip between the side glasses.
Tiring of the motorway I come off a junction early and take B-road as the light begins to go; it’s a nice mixture of sprinting straights and sweeping curves at the foot of the Berkshire Downs that show the muscular CSL in a pleasing light. The engine has a silky un-burstable feeling, stronger beyond 3000rpm and good for well over 6000rpm although somehow 5000 always seems enough. You don’t miss the fifth gear as the spacing is good with ample brawn to fill the gaps, with 100mph in third. In fact the light, precise action of the stubby gear lever is one of the delights of the CSL even if the clutch is a little on the meaty side. In the seventies it’s my impression that very few fast, large engined high-torque cars had pleasing manual gear boxes unless you had the money to buy a genuine exotic. Like good steering a great gearbox is an essential ingredient of a great driver’s car. In fact, not that many full blown Italian exotics had steering that was any better than the CSL. It is not a revelation in accuracy or 911 style feedback but more importantly is consistent with the cars wholesome, straightforward character, filtering out spurious messages somewhere within the hydraulics of the power assistance without feeling floaty or flabby or attempting to complete relieve of the effort of steering the CSL which incidentally has a remarkably good turning circle.
From Gloucester our destination is 50 miles of A40. Nothing special, but enough to show off the brawny sophistication of the CSL once again as we peel through half a dozen roundabouts, pushing through gentle understeer to pleasant neutrality, hoofing the long travel throttle down as a piece of twin track opens up. You hardly notice the Scheel seats pinching your torso, but you do register that the CSL leans just a bit, plunges a little on its strut front suspension and squats at the back as the torque splays the semi trailing arms and you squirt away. The sound, that metallic hum that speaks of the lusty refinement that somehow links the E9 with the classic BMWs of the thirties, takes me back to the early eighties and our Fjord Blue CSL (chassis number 2285158) accelerating away from our house with its rubber air splitters on the front wings, its chin and boot spoilers.
Even at the time I thought these were gilding the lily, for the E9 is easily one of the best looking post-war BMWs. It has a slender grace and athletic poise that no subsequent BMW has come anywhere near recapturing. That the E9 Karmann built coupes were inspired by the Bertone 3200CS is obvious but exactly who drew the 2000CS and then had the artistic genius to face lift it in the 2800CS is uncertain; BMW are unwilling to be clear on this point themselves but I doubt it was Wilhelm Hoftmeister, who seems to have been someone who signed-off shapes rather than working them up himself. ‘To my eye the E9 Coupe is the finest BMW of them all.’ Says Stephen Bailey ‘it has that magical mixture of feminine elegance and masculine presence which, I think, characterises all great cars. And here is every element of the long-running BMW design language: whether observed in the breach or the observation, every subsequent BMW has owed something to this car.’
Couldn’t agree more. In fact if Im honest I’m not that fussed about the whole CSL thing – I’m a sucker for a standard 3.0CSi – but it is the lightweight car that carries the weight of mythology and romance; here is a stripped down racer-for-the road, a homologation special that projected the BMW performance message around the world. With that pedigree the upward fortunes of this seventies BMW glamour car are probably yet to see their peak; the good news is that for the brave enthusiast there are still a surprising number of reasonably priced project CSL’s out there that previously would have been economic suicide to restore; today with even ‘ordinary’ non ‘Batmobile’ lightweight coupes being advertised for £50,000, they suddenly make a lot more sense.