Best drives in 2020: BMW 3.0 CSL

Richard Lane explains why a weekend in the Bavarian Batmobile was his automotive highlight of the past 12 months.

Now, we’ve all experienced those moments when all you can do is laugh helplessly. But earlier this year I had an unusually good one.

We were staying at my partner’s parents’ house for the weekend, and a friend of her father’s dropped by. Let’s call him Malcy, because that’s his name. Finding ourselves alone for a moment, Malcy and I got talking and eventually the subject turned to what it is I’m lucky enough to do for a living.

Now Malcy, it turns out, quite likes cars. So we talked about fast cars, and then old cars, and finally – his preferred subset and, truth be told, mine also – fast, old cars, at which point my new friend became wistful.

“D’you know what the one car I really wanted was?”

“Go on…”

“Three-litre CSL. I cannot put into words how badly I wanted one of those,” he said in his faint Lancastrian accent, scrunching up his face to convey 49 years of lust.

“There’s one in the garage.”

Silence.

Reader, there really was a 1973 3.0-litre CSL in the garage, and we split our sides at the complete ridiculousness of it all.

As for how it came to be there… Not all manufacturers take their heritage seriously, but BMW isn’t one of them. At its base in Farnborough, the UK operation maintains a fleet of classics, including an E30-generation M3, E34-gen M5, an immaculate E39 M5, and an M3 CSL.

Each is glorious, but there are the two jewels in the crown. One is an off-white 507 from the 1950s that’s insured for more than $3,000,000 and is just pure Grace Kelly, and the other is the silver 3.0 CSL Batmobile I managed to borrow for a day or two. It’s the one you see here.

The back story of the 3.0 CSL is well known, but to very briefly recap, the car was developed from Alpina’s 3.0-litre CS racing car in 1971, to take on Ford in the ETCC.

Success didn’t come immediately, but improvements in power and aero eventually tipped the balance against the Capri. And, of course, the BMW looked just as extraterrestrial then as it does now. Some of the most evocative motorsport images ever produced feature the CSL – often airborne, perhaps banking slightly, and wearing premier cru livery. Heaven.

As for where this example comes in, the biggest racing-related upgrade for the CSL came midway through 1973, which was when the ‘Batmobile’ was born. At first, it was only an unsettling paddock rumour that BMW was testing wings on its cars, but then came the lightning-fast reality, and the capacity of the CSL’s straight six was enlarged to 3153cc for good measure. It was all, one imagines, quite wild.

Ford, I’ve read, couldn’t afford to homologate a wing, but then again neither could BMW. For the first 110 Batmobile road cars, the spoiler arrived in the boot. It hadn’t actually been type approved for use on the autobahn, and so owners had to screw it on themselves, although you probably already knew that.

In the end, not only did the CSLs hammer the Capris on track in 1973, but they were also, by all accounts, much nicer to drive. The steering was light and accurate and the chassis was super-progressive in its oversteer balance compared to long-snouted Fords, which understeered horribly, according to the works drivers. It won the ETCC again in 1974, then in ’75, ’76, ’77, ’78 and ’79. I think people forget how dominant the CSL became.

So how does the first proper M car feel in 2020?

Well, if the outside is necessarily a bit of a mess (Malcy certainly wouldn’t have full Bat spec), the interior is elegant, so the car is the opposite of, say, the Mk1 Ford Focus RS in this respect. And you might expect as much, given the original E9 was an unashamed tourer, being opulent and fairly heavy.

There’s wood, Bakelite, a trio of wonderfully simple dials, and the A- and C-pillars are so slim that you feel sat inside a bubble. The long-wave ride quality is also excellent – soft, possibly a little gloopy at times, but not at all nauseating – so despite being seriously hardcore by the standards of the time, the Bat would make a fabulous tourer, even today. If only that solitary wing mirror didn’t generate Antonov AN-225 levels of wind roar…

But despite the luxury, there’s real intent. The spokes on the steering wheel are holed out, and I was surprised to find that the rare Scheel bucket seats are every bit as supportive as the carbon shell seats you’ll get in the latest GT3 RS, at least from the base of the ribcage down.

It’s also a bit ropey in parts, albeit in a distinctly homologation-y manner. From the driver’s seat, you can see daylight between the metal of the wings and the ridiculous plastic canards, which don’t sit quite flush. On the move, the wing flexes horribly in your rear-view mirror. And, to borrow the words of Roger Bell, himself recycling Martin Brundle, racing cars are pigs to manoeuvre at low speeds and the CSL is no different. I took my Lancia Delta Integrale out the following weekend and the low-speed steering was so light by comparison that it could have been transplanted from an i3. The Bat is a barge about town.

The trade-off here is that, on the move, the original M car is as addictive to operate as any car I’ve driven. Not simply because of the endless crescendo of the engine, which fires almost immediately but, later on, spins out forever, and really is wickedly serrated at the top. Or because of the snickety gearshift of the four-speed Getrag ’box, for which the downshift from fourth to third needs real finesse but when you get it right feels sensational. Or the fingertip steering, which has remarkably little slack about centre and is incredibly vivid thereafter.

It’s the whole show. The look of the car, its status, and the fact that while the driving experience can seem a little ponderous at first, the thing still shows its road-racer colours when you get more confident and really start to drive it. The energy. The sheer sass. And, perhaps most of all, the reminder that while BMW M is now mucking about with rubbish like this, it is absolutely one of the most special names in the business.

Richard Lane

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