PH Heroes: BMW 3.0 CSL 'Batmobile'

The Batmobile. Let's face it, with a nickname like that, there's a lot to live up to. And for dyed-in-the-wool PHers, there's even more hype: hands up who remembers that classic shot of Hans 'Striezel' Stuck flying his CSL at the Nürburgring?

The 'Bat' is a car that still makes people smile today - the sight of it rolling off the back of a transporter enough to make people stop and stare. The aerodynamic addenda are as cartoonish as the name suggests and appeal directly to the excitable child in all of us. And because it's a 'classic', there's none of the bitterness or jealousy that new sportscars seem to engender in some folk. (Not round here, obviously! Ed.)

The 3.0 CSL (Coupe Sport Leichtbau.) was created to win in top-level Touring car races. The rules at the time dictated that these cars must be able to carry four people and that at least 100 examples were built.

The 'L' was the key letter. It stands for 'Lightweight' and the BMW's engineers committed hard to that ethos. Thinner steel was used in the construction, with aluminium for the doors, bonnet and bootlid. Perspex was used on the side windows while inside the luxury trim was stripped out and soundproofing removed. The result, a car that weight just 1270kg - according to BMW's figures, that's some 200kg lighter than an equivalent steel-bodied 3.0 CS.

Motive power came from a classic BMW straight-six configuration. Originally a whisker under three litres, BMW increased this to allow the car to compete in the 'over three litre' racing category. By the time the Batmobile appeared in 1973, the engine had been stroked to 3153cc, producing 203bhp and 215lb ft of torque. Enough to give it a 0-60mph time of 7.3 seconds and a top speed of 137mph.

The basic shape is essence of BMW. Undercut 'shark' nose with quad lamps, a sleek waistline (and 'Hofmeister kink' on the C-pillar) ending in a pert posterior. The elegant and understated lines of the E9 coupé are transformed with the addition of the deep front air dam, fins that run the length of the front wings, roof spoiler and that enormous rear wing.

Interestingly, the wild aero was deemed to be illegal for road use in Germany and the CSLs came with the kit packaged in the boot. But on the track the transformation was not just aesthetic: the big rear wing helping to turn 30kg of rear axle lift into 60kg of downforce - and cutting a phenomenal 15 seconds per lap around the Nordschleife with Hans Stuck at the wheel.

I was fortunate enough to get behind the wheel of this car for the first time some years ago. The magazine I was working on had conducted a survey to find the greatest BMW of all time. The 3.0 CSL won by a streak and we persuaded Bracknell HQ to let us borrow the pride of its historic fleet for the photo shoot.

We headed along the M4 to the Brecon Beacons and the famous Black Mountain road. The sun shone all day, but nowhere near as brightly as the Batmobile. I remember it being sensational. Surely it can't pull of the same trick on an older, more cynical me?

The bucket seats are high-sided and snug for a man with a backside the size of mine. The big steering wheel makes it tight to squeeze into the chair, too. The clear instrumentation is not so very different to a modern BMW but sorting out the secondary controls takes a while. Rear screen demister? Under the steering wheel near your right knee. Speed control for the wipers? The unmarked organ stop near the rocker switches on the centre console. Those switches themselves drop the rear windows, but you'll need to wind the front ones down yourself. Electric windows? Ah, yes - the cars imported to the UK retained the more luxurious interior of the CS, as well as the soundproofing. Apparently, the importer at the time didn't think we would be interested in the fully-stripped example.

The cabin feels surprisingly capacious thanks to the big glass-house and spindly pillars. Trim is plain wood, switchgear minimal. The gearbox is a four speeder on a classic H-gate, the shift nice and positive, spacing perfect. The car fires cleanly and settles into a slightly lumpy idle while I wait for the windows to demist. It smells almost exactly the same as an old Vauxhall Viva that spent years rusting on my mum and dad's driveway... comfortingly musty.

What strikes you first, once under way, is the suppleness of the ride. The CSL floats over the road in a way that a modern family car, never mind a modern sports car, simply doesn't. The tall sidewalls (only 14-inch wheels here) and compliant suspension allow the Bat to soak up the very worst British roads can throw at it with barely a twitch or a shimmy.

The unassisted steering is hefty at low speeds but lightens appreciably as speeds rise and although the CSL doesn't dart in to turns the response is faithful, the feedback pure. There's surprising pace on tap, too. 200-odd bhp is merely hot hatch territory today, but at well under 1300kg, the Lightweight weighs less than most superminis. You have to work the engine but there's no need to chase the redline to find the sweet spot as you would in later 'M' cars.

It's a dawn raid, today - heading cross-country for a Breakfast Club meet at Goodwood. And at six on a Sunday morning, the roads are mine alone.

The first time you really commit to a corner is something of a leap of faith but the car will turn in. There's a lot of movement as the car rolls into the bend and when you feed in the power the nose rises and the car sits over the rear tyres giving extra traction. There's far more roll, dive and squat than any new car has but, because the CSL's responses are linear and consistent, you learn to work with them and that movement becomes a surprisingly satisfying part of the driving experience. The car slides quite readily on leaf-slick autumn tarmac but both grip and slip are lucidly telegraphed to the pilot's chair so it is more fun than frightening. Until later when I learn a Batmobile recently sold at auction for $218,400. Gulp.

The brakes are remarkably good, too, and highlight another advantage to the car's lithe build. There's plenty of stopping power and the pedal feel is pretty decent - remarkable even for a car approaching 40 years of age.

It lives up to the hype alright, the Batmobile. It relishes the drive across two counties, willing me to go faster all the time. And while it looks perfectly happy parked up among expensive classic sports cars and being photographed by eager Breakfast Clubbers, I suspect it'd be happier still tackling the old Goodwood circuit on a hot lap or two.

For me, the CSL is everything that's great about BMW's best. It is a road car honed and focussed for the racetrack. A car with unimpeachable motorsport pedigree, with a spirited normally aspirated straight six motor.

A car to thrill the soul and reward the committed. A car that transcends its origins and holds its head high among the very greatest road cars ever made.

(Words by Dom Holtam)

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (82) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Beefmeister 19 Nov 2010

    Great car, great article Chris. Made for a really nice read with a cuppa, even though i should be doing some work.

    Where did you get this CSL from? Is it one of BMW's classics?

  • mat205125 19 Nov 2010

    I prefer the fuller figure J-Lo version personally wink

  • Chris-R 19 Nov 2010

    Beefmeister said:
    Great car, great article Chris. Made for a really nice read with a cuppa, even though i should be doing some work.

    Where did you get this CSL from? Is it one of BMW's classics?
    It wasn't me - Dom Holtam's the man responsible. But thanks on his behalf! smile

  • pilchardthecat 19 Nov 2010

    Nice. Very nice.

  • ManOpener 19 Nov 2010

    mat205125 said:
    I prefer the fuller figure J-Lo version personally wink

    The E21 320 Turbos pulled off the Group 4/5 kits much better than the CSL did IMHO. That said, there was an orange 3.5 CSL road car in Performance BMW a while back that had the perfect balance between the race kit's aggression and the road-going cars sleek lines. 400bhp too...

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