The 3.0 CSL was BMW’s first truly sporting coupé to match looks with performance, style with desirability.
The timeless shape of the big BMW coupé was first seen as far back as 1965, with the 2-litre coupé by Karmann. It developed into the E9 chassis in 1968 and production continued until the final model rolled of the production line in 1975. By introducing a coupé in 1968, BMW signalled the intention to return to the luxury car market sector, an area it had been forced to ignore for years while it struggled to turn around its fortunes during the 1960s. Early cars ran on carburettors, until the adoption of Bosch fuel injection in the 3.0 CSi.
A turning point in BMW’s motor sport history was the introduction of the homologation special CSL, which stands for Coupé Sport Leicht. The new model offered little in the way of luxury equipment, weight saving being the order of the day. This was achieved by using thinner gauge steel in the construction of the body, along with an aluminium bonnet, boot and doors.
To qualify the car for racing in the Over 3-Litre division, the engine was rebored to give a capacity of 3003cc, which in road trim resulted in almost 200bhp. The CSL label only required the production of 1000 cars to make it eligible to race. It was developed by a separate division in BMW AG, which would go on to become BMW Motorsport GmbH. While the CSL does not carry the M badge, many unofficially consider this to be the first-ever ‘M’ car.
The 3.0 CSL proved to be an astonishingly durable racer. Such was its longevity in international racing, it was on the grid every year from 1972 through to 1978. Even more impressively, after its success in 1973, 3.0 CSLs won the European Touring Car Championship every year between 1975-1979. By this time, the old warhorse was getting somewhat long in the tooth, meaning that it was finally put out to pasture.
Only 765 roadgoing LHD CSLs were built between 1972 and 1975, with just 500 RHDs produced in that time. Nearly all of the latter had additional equipment over the LHD, to help aid the driveability of the car on a daily basis. These optional extras were grouped and labelled the City Package, and included electric front and rear windows, power steering, interior bonnet release, chrome CSi front and rear bumpers, and a tool kit.
The rarity of both of these versions has ensured that they are much sought after today. Prices will rise in the future.
With Bosch D-Jetronic mechanical injection, you don’t need to worry about a choke when rousing the BMW 3.0 CSL. The engine starts keenly and pulls hard and sure, even from cold. Need a burst of acceleration? It’s accompanied by a metallic thrum that speaks of lusty refinement. There is a real tingle of competition in this car’s genes. And the way the CSL gets the job done can’t fail to impress.
Brawny yet sophisticated, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable steed in which to cross continents or rack up some heavy-duty mileage. A long-distance cruise down through Europe to the warmth of the Mediterranean would be right up the CSL’s street. Few cars you’ll drive have such a crisp and responsive engines – it seems to thrive on hard work, yet the airy cabin manages to be restful.
The suspension is equally inspiring. When driving over larger bumps or less than smooth roads, the CSL demonstrates an impressive ability to soak up undulations. The damping mostly makes an efficient job of preventing excessive pitch and float.
It’s game for some fun, too. When setting up for a long sweeping bend, the cornering characteristic of the CSL is predominantly one of stable, predictable understeer. Nothing too excessive but, at the same time, just enough to keep the nose from wandering off-line. Flicked through a tight turn in low gear, the big coupé will hang its tail out in a highly satisfying manner, like the true thoroughbred it is.
In between the two extremes, you can stimulate a nicely balanced, neutral style of handling. The slim steering wheel gives an impression of quicker steering reactions – you simply think it through a bend. The fitment of a limited slip differential is a worthy step, helping to improve traction significantly on slippery surfaces.
Naturally, in wet weather, it is much easier to get the rear wheels spinning, so a certain amount of sensitivity is required when moving off briskly or cornering under full power as both rear tyres spool up and launch the lightweight car forwards. Once it has warmed up, the ventilated disc brakes prove more than up to the task – you’ve got no bother hauling 1270kg of Beemer to a halt on demand and within a reasonable distance.
As a 3-litre coupé with elegant styling, refined running and decent acceleration, the CSL is difficult to match. It has delightful road presence which conspires to flatter any driver. Admiring glances come naturally and respect on the streets is guaranteed.