Over the past few decades we have become used to BMW producing powerful ‘M’ cars based on their standard models. This was not always so and in 1972, BMW’s first foray into this sports car category started with the 3.0CSL - which was based on the much more humble 3.0CS coupe.
It was homologated to gain BMW entry into the European Touring Car Championship, and a number of weight saving measures were carried out to improve the overall performance. It was a successful move and the E9 CSL became the precursor to many lightweight versions of other standard BMW road cars, ultimately leading to the highly regarded E46 M3 CSL and more recently the E92 M3 GTS. Conceived in the BMW motorsport division, later to be renamed BMW M GmbH, the CSL is considered to be the first of a long line of M performance cars.
Developed to go racing, the CSL achieved some great results, with wins in the Le Mans 24 hour in the special tourism class in 1973 and 1974, the IMSA GT Championship in 1975 and winning the European Touring Car Championships every year from 1973 to 1979 (apart from a minor blip in 1974).
A CSL was also used as an automotive canvas by renowned artist Alexander Calder, becoming the first ever BMW art car. This was followed by another CSL, this time painted by Frank Stella. A Hommage CSL was revealed in 2015, showcasing some cutting edge design and hinting at the future of the BMW Coupe while paying tribute to the classic lines of the original.
Performance is still very respectable, but don’t expect modern day turbo like levels of torque. These cars deliver their power with a creamy and intoxicating straight-six howl, which used to be a hallmark of all performance BMWs. The chassis that is very well balanced, if a little tail happy at the limit.
Which one to buy?
A total of 1096 CSLs were built, with 500 of these being imported into the UK in the ‘70s, although it’s worth noting that these versions retained the standard interior trim – negating the total weight saving somewhat. The other benefits were retained however, including aero kit, thinner gauge (therefore lighter) steel, and aluminium parts. The UK-specification cars had what was referred to as the ‘city package’, which included most of the basic spec from the 3.0CS and CSi models to improve day-to-day usability. All cars had four-speed manual gearboxes, although many have since been converted to later five speed units. A lot of BMW parts are interchangeable on these cars, and searching for a totally standard car may take some time.
The original CSL came with a twin-carb 3.0-litre engine, which was shared with the 3.0CS. Later iterations received a small bump in capacity, to push swept capacity up to just over the 3.0-litre mark. Fuel injection was also added, enabling the CSL to be entered in the over three litre racing categories. These are the ones that UK imports were based on, so take a look under the bonnet to make sure that you are not being sold a standard 3,0 CSi with aftermarket parts bolted on.
Optional extras were not very numerous, and the most noteworthy are factory-fitted air conditioning and limited slip differential. In 1973 the engines were further increased to 3.2-litres, providing a modest power and torque increase. These are the rarest examples of the CSL, on which the iconic Batmobile is based on. With just 39 made they are very sought after and command eye-watering prices. With their outlandish aerodynamic appendages, the CSL still turns heads today. Unlike so many wings and spoilers though, the CSL's kit actually delivers huge amounts of added high speed stability.
To bypass the local laws governing the size of external aero devices, the iconic rear wing was left uninstalled in the boot of new cars. Both left- and right-hand drive cars can be found for sale in the UK, however searching for cars on the continent can increase the likelihood of you finding the right car.
There is also the option of an Alpina B2S, developed by the tuning company with even more modifications. Spec can vary from car to car, as they were all custom build, but expect aluminium doors, bonnet and bootlid with simple opening stays, fixed rear Perspex side windows, no front bumpers (the rear ones are glassfibre) and definitely no heavy City Pack…
The six-cylinder engine was then given the full Alpina treatment: forged high-compression pistons, big valves, high-lift cam, triple Weber 45DCOE carbs, a tuned tubular exhaust manifold and a road version of the racing ZF five-speed gearbox. Adjustable front and rear anti-roll bars were fitted along with progressive-rate springs, Bilstein dampers, a 45% locking differential with oil cooler, and larger ventilated disc brakes all round behind the intricate 8x14in, split-rim alloys.
The result? A lusty 250bhp in a tied-down chassis, and the promise of 0-60mph in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 151mph, faster than the Aston Martin V8 of the day. This was a road-going racing car in its purest form.
Performance and specs
1972 3.0 BMW CSL
Engine 3003cc, 24 valve SOHC in-line six-cylinder
Power 197bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 201lb ft @ 4300rpm
Top speed 133mph
0-60mph 7.3 seconds
Fuel consumption 25mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• Engines are extremely strong and apart from requiring valve adjustments every 9000 miles or so, they go on and on. Head gaskets can blow if the cooling system is not in tip-top condition.
• Mechanical components are generally easy to source, and can be found through various specialists if BMW doesn’t stock it. Many parts are also interchangeable with later BMW models, so a lot of E9 coupes have had upgrades and modifications carried out over the years.
• The main area of concern on the 3.0 CSL is the body. The non aluminium body panels can rust, while the aluminium components can also corrode over time. If you're considering a car that needs restoration, consider that getting the body right will most likely cost upwards of £30k alone.
• Parts are not easy to come by, leading to further expensive restoration costs. Salvage yards are a good place to start hunting, as well as car clubs, but as you might expect very few CSLs ever get broken up.
• Pay particular attention to the wheelarches as well as the sills, and getting the car up on a ramp to inspect the underside really is a must.
• Interior trim items are very scarce and will have to be sourced second hand, so it is worth looking for a car that has a complete interior, with perfect seats and dashboard trim to avoid a long and expensive search for spares.
1972: Launch spec engine, same as 177bhp 3.0 CS with twin carburettors. Only available in LHD and not sold in the UK
Late 1972: 197bhp 3.0-litre engine gains fuel injection. UK-spec BMW CSL goes into production, with 500 destined for UK market. These cars retain electric windows, sound deadening and standard bumpers. Small increase in capacity mid-year, to just over 3-litres.
1973: Engine displacement increases to 3.2-litres, with power now at 206bhp. Only available in LHD and not for UK market
1975: Final CSL rolls off production line totalling, 1096 cars.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
– website dedicated to all the early BMW Coupe models, including CSL
Summary and prices
These cars have long been sought after, and the prices today reflect this. A good example will set you back around £50,000, while mint condition examples can sell for £120,000-plus. Be wary of patchy histories and modifications that compromise the nature of the car though.
The 3.0 CSL has over time become a true collector’s car with prices increasing steadily. It combines everyday useability and practicality with sports car performance in the same way that M cars do today, although very few are used this way nowadays. A classic coupe silhouette, sonorous straight six engine and decent reliability all make the CSL a great classic to own and enjoy. With prices unlikely to dip anytime soon, it is an investment that satisfies both the head and the heart.
Words: John Tallodi