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Classic Performance - BMW 3.0CSL

The story of the most legendary of all BMWs - the awesome 3.0CSL and the race inspired "Batmobile"...

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar

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BMW hasn't always had its current reputation for building the world's best high performance luxury vehicles. Prior to the Second World War, the German company's bread and butter was the production of small and economical commuter vehicles. They were humble beginnings. It was only after the war that the company could afford to look at producing a couple of larger high-performance vehicles. However, these early attempts turned out to be only moderately successful and BMW had to rely on its little Isetta bubble car to get it through a worldwide depression. The burning desire to expand was still there though.

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In the early 1960s, the struggling company was revived with a financial package delivered by the Bavarian Government. This gave rise to a solid line up of BMW vehicles that saw the light of day in 1962, and that's when things started to happen...

In 1965, BMW bravely released an all-new two door coupe that was styled, engineered and built by Karman. The identity given to this vehicle was 2000CS (for 2 litre Coupe Sport). This stylish 2+2 sportster was based on the rear wheel drive floorplan of the already established BMW 2000 saloon - a platform that made the sportscar venture much less of a financial risk. From a positive perspective, the 2000CS's pillarless "glasshouse" appearance was widely accepted, and the overall car was seen as a good one - however, its 2-litre four could not deliver the performance to satisfy the market.

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By 1968 BMW had the budget and resources to develop a six-cylinder engine from their existing four. The products of this engineering were the M-52 2.5 and 2.8 litre engines. So, with the availability of a suitable upgrade engine, BMW set to work adapting the 2000CS shell to suit. This was no easy task though, as the entire front subframe needed to be stretched to accommodate the additional length of the big six cylinder. While they were re-designing the front-end, they also devised a way to incorporate the backward sloping MacPherson struts that were being used in the company's larger saloons. Cosmetically, the nosecone was completely revised with twin round headlights, while air outlets were also installed behind the front wheels to allow for better engine cooling. Here was born the 1968 2800CS - probably the biggest single step in the direction of the famous CSL.

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During 1971, BMW's engineering department well and truly went to town on the base six-cylinder, enlarging it to 3 litres. Inevitably - that same year - the pretty coupe swallowed the new 2985cc six, which came with the choice of either twin carbs or Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection. This created the 3.0CS (with 180hp DIN) and 3.0CSi (with 200hp DIN). These models took over from the previous 2800CS and, not surprisingly, boasted noticeably increased torque and performance. Accordingly, sales of the coupe - despite their high price tag - were lifting steadily, and they were now starting to trickle onto racetracks throughout Europe.

Sprouting from the 3.0CS came the very first 3.0CSL model in late 1971. And this was the dawning of a motorsport legend.

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These early model CSLs had the same 180hp carburetted 2958cc six as in the 3.0CS - however, this car was much faster accelerating thanks to significant body lightening (hence the 'L' suffix). To slash a substantial 181kg from the average 3.0CS, BMW used aluminium-skinned opening panels, thinner gauge body parts, a spartan interior with lightweight bucket seats, plexiglass windows, as well as zero sound deadening and underbody corrosion protection. It was truly the bare-bones cousin. The CSL rode on wider than average 14-inch alloy Alpina wheels (and 195/70 tyres), that even made unique chrome wheel arch extensions necessary in order to comply with design laws.

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Only a short while later - in August 1972 - the lightweight CSL was updated with a bigger engine. BMW opened up the bore diameter slightly to bump the six up to 3003cc - a size that enabled the CSL to race in the popular Group 2 touring class. And, like the earlier 3.0CSi, this 3003cc engine was also released with Bosch D-Jetronic multi-point fuel injection. It had few peers in its day. Here was a 3-litre engine that could muster 200hp (DIN) at 5500 rpm and 200ft/lb of torque at 4300 - yet ran silky smooth. The 3003cc CSL (with its standard 4-speed manual gearbox) could launch to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.3 seconds and press on to 100 mph (160 km/h) in only 21 seconds - figures that made the car an absolute stunner. Its top speed was quoted at around 140 mph (225 km/h).

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Despite its performance, the 3.0CSL had had no major suspension changes since the introduction of the six cylinder 2800CS model. This means it retained MacPherson struts and a swaybar at the front, plus coil springs, semi trailing arms and a swaybar at the rear end. An LSD was offered as an option. Steering was by way of a ball and nut system (with optional power assistance) and power assisted ventilated discs were standard front and rear.

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In the motorsport arena - into which BMW had specifically plunged the car - the 200hp CSL was ultra competitive and quickly became the hottest thing to have. Contemporary racers found that 300hp was readily available, and the chassis balance was a sweet one - however, that innocent looking body shape did generate many aerodynamic problems. It is reported that the car experienced terrifying amounts of lift when it went to over 100 mph...

3.0CSL Batmobile - The Racing Machine

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The so-called Batmobile emerged from the conventional 3.0CSL in 1973. Those horrendous aerodynamic problems that marred the CSL in motorsport were swiftly solved by adding an airflow aligning wing on the trailing edge of the roof, front guard strakes, a deep front spoiler and a proper wing on the bootlid. This kit (while earning the car its Batmobile identity) gave vastly improved high speed stability - to the point where it picked up seconds every lap. Three different suspension settings were also available on the Batmobile CSL, which negated the need for factory swaybars.

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Undoubtedly, the Batmobile was a purebred racer through and through. And despite qualifying for homologation (with over 500 units built) the car was actually banned from having its aero kit installed in its homeland of Germany. The fear was that it would go too fast on the public autobahns... The Batmobile was also powered by a 3.2 litre six - not the 3003cc unit as found in the normal CSL. It produced 206hp at 5600 rpm (only 6hp up on the 3003cc CSL).

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On the racetrack, this was a car that was received with mixed emotions. Competitors hated it with a passion - while those wealthy enough to afford one were laughing! The Batmobile could match (or beat) any other manufacturer's vehicles - including the awesome Ford Capris and Porsche 911s of the time - and some other manufacturers even withdrew in disgust. The only downside of the Batmobile was its price - it was for only a very select group of people. In fact, it was so expensive, BMW were worried by the fact that their car hadn't been entering enough races. No one could afford one! Nevertheless, the Batmobile well and truly established the BMW marque in motor racing - winning an amazing five consecutive Group 2 racing seasons.

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The end of this golden era dawned in 1975, when BMW decided to pull the plug on production of the CSL. Over the course of its 5-year run, up to 1096 CSL examples were assembled (across the whole range) and the company had built itself a very strong following. Following this, a world oil crisis put a temporary hold on any more machines like the Batmobile, and BMW moved on to developing the much more modern and refined 6 series coupe. This vehicle was never as successful as the hard-edged 3.0CSL. And few cars have been...

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