Car profiles

What, exactly, is a BMW 3.0 CSL?

by Rob Siegel
31 August 2022 11 min read
What, exactly, is a BMW 3.0 CSL?
Two years ago this car was bid to 180,000 on Bring a Trailer, but the reserve was not met. Photo: Bring a Trailer/silverarrowcarsltd

Like any good car nut, I have a framed iconic car poster in my garage. It shows Hans Stuck driving a BMW 3.0 CSL at the Nürburgring in 1974. All four wheels are airborne. It’s an awesome shot – a glorious blur of fat tires, flared fenders, air dams, BMW Motorsport-coloured livery, and side scoops. You can just feel the passion and the speed.

The 3.0 CSL was one of those 1970s “homologation specials.” That is, the model was a version of the regular E9 coupe (the 2800 CS and 3.0 CS/CSi) manufactured specifically so BMW could race it in the European Touring Car series. A thousand cars needed to be built and sold as street vehicles in order to pass muster with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and be raced.

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Wait, so BMW built a thousand of the flying cars?

No. Not even close.

And the flying car is what they call a “Batmobile?”

Well, sort of, but not really.

I’m going to straighten this out. It’s really pretty simple, and I’m astonished it’s not better-explained in the dozens of 3.0 CSL articles I’ve read.

BMW 3.0 CSL
I really do have the famous Ranier Schlegelmilch pic of the flying 3.0 CSL hanging in my garage. Photo: Rob Siegel

Here’s the deal. There were street CSL and racing CSLs. Most of the street CSLs look pretty much like the standard 3.0 CS. Only the last 167 were “Batmobiles” with the cool aerodynamic package. The racing CSLs built by the factory, like the flying car in the photo, are different beasts entirely. Yes, some of them have the Batmobile’s wings, but they also have much more. I mean, they’re race cars. And authentic ones are far rarer than either the regular CSLs or the Batmobiles and are now worth an ungodly amount of money, so if you see one driving around, or at a show that isn’t at the level of Amelia Island – I mean The Amelia – odds are that it’s a tribute car as opposed to the real thing.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Here are the details.

Let me start by saying that I’m not a motorsport guy. I’m really not terribly interested in the racing history of any car, even this one. You can read about it elsewhere. However, the 3.0 CSL was a seminal vehicle for BMW, as even though it wasn’t badged as an “M” car, it was the car that birthed BMW’s Motorsport division, which then went on to build – and race – some of the company’s most iconic vehicles, such as the E30 M3. The 3.0 CSL is also the first BMW to carry the famous red-blue-violet colours. We’ll get back to that when I talk about the race cars.

The Street Cars

BMW 3.0 CSL orange
What looks like a front bumper on a CSL is actually a stock protrusion in the nose, normally hidden by the real bumper or an air dam, that’s painted black. The black rear bumper is a bolted-on plastic resin part. Photo: Fast Classics

The “L” in CSL stands for “leichtbau” (light construction). To make a homologation car out of the E9, Alpina took a 3.0 CS and lightened it for BMW (yes, Alpina built the first prototype CSL). Then it incorporated lighter bolt-on items and eliminated others. An aluminium bonnet, boot lid, and door skins and a plastic rear bumper were fitted on a body shell built with thinner metal. Perspex (plastic) was substituted for the glass rear windscreen and rear side windows (it’s actually Lexan, but most folks refer to it as Perspex), and a thinner front windscreen, thinner carpets, and light Scheel racing seats were used.

Wind-up windows replaced the electric ones in the front, and the rear side windows became fixed. The front bumper, the bonnet torsion spring and release latch mechanism, the power steering, sound insulation, undercoating, and the boot-mounted tool kit were deleted. Even the boot lock was removed. Collectively, this saved about 200kg on CSLs that had all these “comfort” items removed.

In addition to the missing front bumper, the car’s obvious visual identifying cues were the distinctive stripes with the text “3.0 CSL” over the wing, the chrome arch lips to accommodate the wider 14×7 finned Alpina wheels, and the Cobra-style bonnet pins. Interior-wise, if the car lost some amenities, its elegant vibe was maintained by the striking combination of the E9’s standard wood dashboard, the Scheel seats, the distinctive CSL-specific Petri three-spoke steering wheel with its holes of decreasing radii on the spokes, and a black headliner.

And yes, since Karmann manufactured the CSL’s bodies as they did the regular E9, all this lightening means that they took an E9 coupe, which is a legendary rust bucket, and made it even more rust-prone.

BMW 3.0 CSL engine
The engine compartment of a Series 1 3.0CSL differs little from a standard 3.0CS other than the lack of the bonnet torsion bar and latch and the presence of a prop rod instead. Photo: Fast Classics

From there, it starts to get complicated, as you can slice the street-going CSL pie by engine size, by induction (carburetted or injected), by left or right-hand drive, by level of amenities, and by aerodynamics. It makes the most sense if you step through it sequentially.

BMW liked Alpina’s prototype and began producing them. The first batch of 169 CSLs began rolling out in late 1971. They were all left-hand drive, powered by the same 2985cc, 180-horsepower, carburetted, inline six-cylinder, 12-valve M30 engine that the standard 3.0 CS had, fed by the same pair of downdraught progressive Zeniths. These early CSLs are sometimes referred to as pre-production prototypes, though how much of that is marketing pablum from folks trying to sell them is unclear. I mean, 169 is a fair number of “prototypes.” I’ve also seen them referred to as “ultra-lightweights,” as very, very few of the later cars had the Perspex rear windows when new. I’m told that most CSL aficionados just call them “carb cars.”

The next batch comprising the bulk of the thousand cars required for homologation began in September 1972. A total of 429 left-hand-drive cars and 500 right-hand-drive cars were built. The engine size was increased slightly to 3003cc to allow the cars to race in the over-three-litre category. The induction system was changed from carburettors to Bosch D-Jetronic, the early electronic injection system that was being used in the non-lightweight 3.0 CSi. Horsepower was increased to 200. To distinguish them from the earlier carburetted CSL, the injected cars are sometimes referred to in the literature as the CSiL, though the badge on the back still says “3.0 CSL”.

BMW 3.0 CSL gold
The Series 2 cars look little different, but many of them wear a factory air dam that hides the nose protrusion that’s often mistaken for a bumper in the Series 1 cars. Photo: Bring A Trailer

Within the Series 2 cars, there’s the issue of the so-called “Stadtpacket” or “city package,” also sometimes referred to as the “town package.” This was a BMW option package specified for all of the RHD cars brought into Great Britain by the importer. The idea was that some customers might not be thrilled with spending all that money for something fragile and Spartan, so the package restored many of the things that were done to lighten the car.

Most but not all of the city package cars had the standard non-CSL steel boot lid and door skins. Metal front and rear bumpers were put back on, as was power steering, electric windows, thick carpets, sound insulation, undercoating, an interior release instead of the bonnet pins, the tool kit on the underside of the bootlid, and a boot lock. This cut the weight savings down from 200kg to closer to 110. Most articles talk about the city package as only applying to the 500 RHD cars, but one of the foremost CSL collectors in the country tells me that a majority of the 429 LHD cars were either city package cars or had some of the comfort items installed when new, and that as few as 20 of the Series 2 cars were full lightweights like the Series 1 cars.

A small number of LHD cars were ordered with the city package as well. The external tip-offs to the city package’s L-ness were reduced to the CSL stripes, the chrome arch trim, the Alpina wheels, and the Scheel seats. And, of course, the badge on the boot.

BMW 3.0 CSL
Yes, I have a thing for patina, but I also have a thing for passion. Photo: Rob Siegel

When I saw car in the photo above at the Vintage last spring in Asheville, North Carolina, it had me fooled. The black CSL stripes and chrome front arch lips had been removed for an inexpensive repaint. It wasn’t until I stuck my head inside, saw the right-hand drive configuration, the Scheel seats, and the black headliner, that I blurted out “OMG, this is a city-package CSL!” Turns out the tandem bike on the roof wasn’t just for show. The owner runs a bicycle business. He said he loves driving the car – he drove it down from Indiana – but felt bad that he didn’t have the money to restore it. “Don’t you dare,” I said, “make any apologies about this car because someone else thinks you need to spend $150K that you don’t have to turn it into what they think it should be. It’s massively cool just the way it is. It’s the coolest E9 here. It’s probably the coolest BMW here, period.” I think I made his day.

Next and smallest in number were the famous “Batmobiles,” the cars that many people think of when you say “3.0 CSL.” These are the ones with the iconic massive rear wing, the “hoop” spoiler at the top of the rear window, and the front wing “windsplits”. The oft-told story is that the rear wing was so big that it contravened German road laws, so if the car was being sold in Germany or shipped to another country where it was illegal, the wing was shipped in the boot, and the dealer or owner had to install it. Further, the wing was large enough that the downforce generated proved to be problematic for the lightweight aluminium bootlid, so Batmobiles have steel items.

BMW 3.0 CSL
Seeing a Batmobile in the flesh, aluminium, and fibreglass is always an event. This one was the centrepiece at Southeast Sharkfest in 2016. Photo: Jeff Peek

All Batmobiles were left-hand drive and had an injected engine whose displacement was increased to 3.2 litres (3153cc, 206bhp). Two small batches were built. They’re sometimes referred to as Series 1 and Series 2 Batmobiles, which of course is instantly confusing with the Series 1 and 2 nomenclature that’s applied to all CSLs. The first batch – 110 cars – was produced 7/73 through 10/73, with the cars available only in Polaris (silver) and Chamonix (white). The second batch of 57 cars, produced from 1/74 to 10/75, were available in all of the BMW factory colours, and reportedly could be ordered with à la carte options such as electric rear windows and air conditioning. In addition, most of the final-batch Batmobiles had a third supporting fin in the centre of the rear wing. So, if you see a winged CSL in a zingy colour like Golf (yellow) or Taiga (metallic green), you can act smart and say, “If that’s original, it must be a Series 2 Batmobile.”

I’m uncertain when the thin, red-blue-violet Motorsport-coloured side stripes crept in. I don’t believe I’ve seen them on non-Batmobile CSLs. Since I’ve seen both Batmobile batches with both black and Motorsport stripes; I assume they were an option.

These three sets of cars – the 169 carburetted LHD, 2985cc first series, the 929 injected LHD and RHD 3003cc second series (most of the RHD cars having the city package), and the 167 3.2-litre injected Batmobiles (first and second batch) – comprise the CSL road cars. They’re all real CSLs.

Now, having laid out the CSL road car taxonomy, don’t take any of what I say as canon. Bring a Trailer auctions are full of comments from folks with enough knowledge to be dangerous, saying things like, “Your city package car shouldn’t have aluminium panels” or “Your second-batch Batmobile should have a third vertical fin on the wing,” only to have the real experts point out that the cars were all low-production and hand-built, and not every parts change fell along published boundaries.

For all the CSL’s hype, the cars are mechanically very similar to the stock 3.0 CS and CSi. Other than being equipped with shorter springs and gas-pressure Bilsteins when new, and having increased front and rear negative camber specifications, there’s not much difference.

As with many classic cars, there’s a certain degree of trim augmentation that’s gone on. It’s not unusual to see standard non-lightweight E9s (2800 CS, 3.0 CS/CSi) wearing CSL chrome arches. And reproductions of the Batmobile aerodynamic package have made it easy for both heavyweight and lightweight E9s to sport the spoilers and run around as Batmobiles. Personally, I see nothing wrong with “tribute cars” so long as, when asked, you say “it’s a regular 3.0 CS but I bolted on the chrome arch lips and the Batmobile stuff.” Of course, with rising CSL values, it’s now swinging the other way – the importance of originality catches up with the desire for bling, and Bring a Trailer listings sometimes detail the removal of a non-original Batmobile package on a correctly-restored first or second-series CSL.

The Race Cars

BMW 3.0 CSL
Photo: BMW

The race cars are a whole different subject. They’re, well, race cars. The interiors are gutted. The wood dash is gone. There’s a roll cage, a fire extinguisher, and a ton of buttons. And there’s livery (paint and graphics of the sponsor). Lots and lots of livery. This is important, because it dramatically affects what you’re seeing when you see the cars.

My understanding is that there were 21 factory race cars built to participate in FIA European Touring Car Group 2, Group 4, and Group 5 action. (There were also street CSLs that were turned into race cars by privateers, but that’s another story.) The Group 2 cars such as the one in the famous poster above originally had a massaged version of the standard 12-valve M30 engine, and flares to accommodate the wider race rubber. As you move from Group 2 to 4 to 5, the engine, flares, brake ducts, and front air dam all become more outrageous.

The “flying car” in the poster was black with Motorsport stripes, but most of BMW’s CSL race cars were white. The photo below shows a white Group 2 racing CSL. You can see what appear to be the stock Batmobile trunk and roof air dams, as well as moderate-sized arch flares. But the Motorsport-coloured stripes are much more than just the thin side strips on the street CSLs. Instead, they completely dominate the look of the white cars. To many, this, not the street Batmobile, is what comes to mind when they imagine a 3.0 CSL.

The Group 2 cars, however, look tame compared with the Group 4 and Group 5 cars with their massive, boxed arches and brake ducts. I’m rapidly wandering out of my depth here, but I believe that the Group 4 and 5 cars used the ultra-rare 24-valve 3.5-litre BMW M49 race engine outfitted with Kugelfischer mechanical injection and individual throttle bodies. At times, these 3.5 CSLs literally breathed (well, spat) fire out the side-mounted exhausts. Visually, the two groups can be differentiated by the rear wing and the front air dam. The Group 4 cars are wearing the Batmobile trunk wing, but the wings and dams on the Group 5 cars extend further in front and in back.

With the Group 2, 4, and 5 race cars shown, we now have the basis to look at the famed art cars, since, to many non-car people, those are what come to mind when you say “BMW 3.0 CSL.” By comparing the pics, you can see that the colourful Calder art car (which I also have a poster of in my garage) has Group 4 bodywork, as it has big arch flares with deep brake ducts, but the front air dam is modest, and the rear air dam looks like that on the Batmobile.

In contrast, you can see that the graph-paper-like Stella art car’s bodywork, with its snowplough-like front air dam and pushing-a-pram rear wing, is Group 5.

With that tutorial complete, I’ll leave you with this. What is it?

This photo shows the power of that Motorsport livery on white paint – it draws the eye away from the details. Your right brain says “race car,” but do you see arch flares? Do you see brake ducts? Do you see outrageous aerodynamics? No. This is a 3.0 CS turned into CSL race car tribute, with a CSL front air dam, Batmobile roof hoop, the rear bumper taken off, and a clever wrap with the Motorsport livery printed on it. Pretty cool.

So, which one is a CSL? All of them (well, more correctly, all of them with original lightweight bodies). Which one is the iconic CSL? That’s up to you. As far as teaching the larger automotive world, learning to say “3.0 CSL road car” and “CSL race car” is half the battle. It may be overly pedantic to insert “3.0 CSL street Batmobile” between them, but if everyone did it, it would clear up a lot of confusion.

I’ll leave you with one final tidbit: You know the flying car – Hans Stuck on the Nürburgring – and the Calder art car? Do you know what they have in common (in addition to my having posters of them in my garage)?

They’re the same car. VIN 2275992. Now that’s passion.

***

Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.

This article was originally published on Hagerty US.

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