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Retro drive: BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

Retro drive: BMW 3.0 CSL
It may be forty years old, but the BMW 3.0 CSL shows us that it has still got what it takes.


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| Retro Drive | Nordschleife, Germany | BMW 3.0 CSL |

Overall rating: 5 5 5 5 5

When BMW wanted to go racing it set up a motorsport department, which we now know became BMW M, and its first car was this 3.0 CSL. Homologated for road use the be-winged coupé soon became known as the 'Batmobile', and after success on the circuit went on to become one of the most revered models in the whole of the firm's portfolio.

Key Facts

Model tested: BMW 3.0 CSL
Pricing: approx £75,000 (now)
Engine: 3.2-litre, six-cylinder petrol
Transmission: four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 138mph
0-62mph: 7.5 seconds
Power: 206hp at 5,600rpm
Torque: 286Nm at 4,200rpm

In the Metal: 5 5 5 5 5

There's a reason this car is affectionately known as the Batmobile - that hulking great wing sat atop the boot lid. It's actually not that tall, though its side supports seem impossibly long, and it is complemented by the deeper splitter and 'fencing' running along the front wings. It all combines to transform what started out as a rather pretty but slightly effeminate shape into something with a whole lot more swagger.

Unlike that slightly bonkers exterior, the cabin is a little subdued; the only items of note are the deep bucket seats (which do an excellent job of providing lateral support for your hips) finished in velour and the three-spoke steering wheel, which feels impossibly slender compared to the thick-rimmed wheels of today. The driving position is a little upright, and of course there's nowhere near as much adjustment as you'd find in today's cars, but visibility is great - the thin pillars, wrap around windscreen and tall glasshouse afford a great view out.

Driving it: 5 5 5 5 5

The car we're driving is approximately forty years old (nearly a decade older than the author), but thanks to its low mileage (about 25,000 miles) you'd never know it. It fires the instant the key is turned in the barrel, the straight-six barking briefly before settling into a smooth and even idle. Thanks to the lack of sound deadening you can hear its note clearly, and of course there's more vibration through the controls than in a current BMW.

But that adds to the feeling of involvement with this car. And make no mistake; it grabs you and places you right at the forefront of the experience. Where modern cars are often criticised for being too heavy, detaching the driver from what's going on underneath them, this lightweight special is full of feedback. Every control has a perfectly judged weight (the steering is unassisted for instance), and as you slot the four-speed manual gearbox into first and take up the slack on the clutch everything engages with precision.

As we move out of the pit lane and onto the punishing Nordschleife circuit I expect the CSL to finally show its age at the first corner, the oversized wheel gripped gently in my palms. Of course it doesn't; in fact it clips the apex with almost no body roll, no creaks or groans and with a steering wheel that instantly informs me where the front wheels are pointing and exactly what they're doing. Turn in is sharp, the car reacting instantly to my inputs, and the chassis feels completely unflustered. Compared to the 1979 M535i I drove only minutes before, it really does feel of another calibre. It's noticeably lighter and more nimble, and despite its ability and track-focused intentions demonstrates a ride quality that modern saloons would kill for.

And as we accelerate down one of the straights, the engine note just gets better and better, the noise reverberating throughout the cabin as the straight-six fizzes away beneath the lightweight bonnet. The 3.2-litre unit does need to be revved hard to get the best from it, and as we head for the 5,600rpm peak power point the note becomes harder and more urgent. Give it its head and allow the needle on the rev counter to swing all the way around and you're rewarded by acceleration that feels stronger than the on-paper figures would suggest.

The four-speed gearbox feels equally tight, with a delicate lever showcasing a short throw and smooth action. Thanks to the pedal placement and rev-happy nature of the engine it's easy to engage in the art of heel-and toe downshifts as well. Sure the brakes do feel a little soft, requiring a firmer press of the middle pedal than modern car drivers would expect, but as long as you have a strong right leg you can rely quite heavily on them. As an overall experience though, despite its age, the 3.0 CSL is surprisingly together and endearing.

What you get for your Money: 4 4 4 4 4

Built to homologate the racing cars that the M department was developing at the time, the CSL is a road car with some trick (for the time) race car developments included. You do get slightly less for your money by default though, as the L in the name stands for 'leicht' (or light in English). The sound deadening has been thinned out, trim removed, the steel in the body either pared down or replaced with aluminium and the side windows fashioned from Perspex.

You get a very special motor though, the initial cars using a block bored out by one quarter of a millimetre to 3,003cc to enable the team to homologate the car for the 3.0-litre and above racing class. Later cars moved to the 3,153cc block in this car, producing 206hp. In total around 1,265 CSLs were made (500 in right-hand drive, but they had more trim) so for your £75,000 price tag in today's market you're also buying exclusivity.

Worth Noting

It's because the CSL was built to homologate racing that it was given such a wild look, the aerodynamic aids all present to ensure it was more competitive on the track. The German authorities had no problems with the deep front air dam or wing 'fences' but took exception to the monstrous rear wing - citing that it impaired rear visibility. When they refused to approve it for road use, BMW found a loophole and the result was that all CSLs shipped from the factory with the rear spoiler in, rather than on, the boot ready to be fitted after the car was registered.


Even realising this was one of BMW's prized museum models, a car looked after by the people that built them and maintained without a moments thought for costs, I still expected it to feel a little off the pace. Especially when gathered amongst its great grandchildren. But in reality, that couldn't be further from the truth. It may not have the outright grip or speed of its modern counterparts, but this 3.0 CSL has balance, delicacy, character and an emotion that makes for an experience impossible to beat.

Graeme Lambert - 21 Nov 2012    - BMW road tests
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- CSL images

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.

BMW 3.0 CSL. Image by BMW.


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