BMW E9 CSL – Spreading Our Wings in the Batmobile

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By Mark Smyth

Da na na na na na na na Batman. Quality lyrics there and now you’ve got the tune stuck in your head and put your underpants over your trousers and run around the house like the caped crusader, let’s get to the subject. It’s not the Batmobile of the movies, but rather the Bavarian Batmobile, the legendary BMW 3.0 CSL, although of course it’s actually a 3.2.

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There were three versions of the E9 Coupé Sport Leicht (CSL), only the last of which received the nickname of the Batmobile. The first was introduced in 1971 with a 2985 cc engine producing 177 hp. Developed with Alpina, such items as the bumpers and carpets were removed and aluminium was used for the bonnet, boot and doors. As with so many famous models, the aim was to go racing and in order to do so, BMW needed to build 1000 for homologation, but only 165 were sold so BMW decided to do things themselves the following year.

The 1972 version had a 3003 cc six-cylinder producing 197 hp. Not all of the over 900 built were proper lightweight though, with many having luxuries befitting its executive status courtesy of what was called the City Package. It was also available in both left and right-hand drive.

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However, it was the CSL of 1973, available only as a left-hooker that grabbed the attention, not only on the road but also on the race track. The engine was upgraded to a 3153 cc motor that made 206 hp at 5600 rpm and it had a top speed of 137 mph. It had a bigger chin than David Coulthard and it sprouted aerodynamic wedges along the top of the front wings. An air deflector was fitted across the top of the rear window and then BMW added that large and famous rear wing, except that they didn’t. The authorities in Germany said “nein” to it, deeming it illegal and so customers who wanted it had their car shipped with the wing in the boot and they had to fit it themselves. The Batmobile was born.

The CSL wasn’t about posing though and many of them had BMW Motorsport stickers for a reason, because this car was built to go racing and it did so very successfully. From 1973 to 1979, the CSL took six European Touring Car Titles, beaten only in 1974 by Hans Heyer in the Ford Escort RS1600. It was a class winner at Le Mans and was victorious in the US as overall winner of the 1975 Sebring 12h and the 1976 Daytona 24h.

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I had a go in one of the race cars in 2019, not behind the wheel but as a passenger at the Norisring in Germany on a DTM race weekend. It was a truly memorable experience, the car slithering around under braking, the driver constantly fighting with the steering wheel, the feeling of mortality as it slid wide out of the corners, running out to within inches of the concrete walls. It is quite a beast.

Only 167 3.2 litre CSLs were built between 1973 and 1975 so it’s a rare thing, which is why BMW UK only occasionally lets the pristine example it has owned since new out of its sight. But Car and Classic readers are an esteemed bunch and so on a very wet Monday morning a shiny truck arrived and a gentleman lowered the door to reveal, the Batmobile. He was impressed to be delivering it, wanting to know who I was and why I was getting the car, saying that generally it only gets transported to classic car events. The week before it had been present at a BMW UK media event where some of the UK’s top motoring hacks got to drive a wide range of BMW models. But not the CSL, they were told strictly hands off. See, you guys are special.

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I nursed it into the driveway like Ferris Bueller when he first climbs into the Ferrari 250 GT California, a job made harder by the complete lack of a right side wing mirror. And then I covered it and left it. It was raining hard and I was not going to be that guy, you know the one who stupidly goes out on cold tyres on a wet road and allows a very rare £250,000 car to become one with a nest of birds in a hedgerow. Nope, that was not going to be me. And so it sat, its rear wing looking ominous beneath the cover.

Now, this is not a site where we like to talk about rare classic cars under covers. The next day the sun was out and the cover came off. Time to take a proper look around and become acquainted. The first job was to de-mist the windscreen. That might seem simple, but all the ventilation controls are in German, so a quick scan with Google Translate was in order. German labelled controls just seem to add to the mystique.

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There are a few buttons under the dash either side of the steering column, the kind that have no labels as though they are secret Batmobile weapons controls. They’re not of course, being for things like the hazard lights and retrofit items for the stereo, as well as a knob for the speaker volume, which is odd considering the original Blaupunkt LW/UHF radio/cassette unit has a volume control.

There are other quirks too, like the windows. It has a rotating dial to open the front quarter windows and a traditional winder for the main ones. The rear passenger windows are electric, but push the switch and they move at a glacial pace. Interestingly the side windows also do not sit flush, something that will have shutline critics grimacing.

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The CSL has a four-speed Getrag manual gearbox and a rear limited slip diff. The clutch is surprisingly well weighted with the bite point perfectly set to make the CSL a remarkably easy thing to drive. So much so in fact that after a full day of driving, it felt like something you could actually daily, if you felt so inclined. The suspension is firm but at the same time comfortable, helped by gas-pressurised shocks from Bilstein. The combination gives it that BMW executive feel, like an E12 5 Series, but with less body roll.

In spite of the lack of a right side mirror, visibility is superb, with some of the narrowest A and C-pillars of anything I’ve ever driven and a vast area of glass, so there’s no problem assessing the traffic around you. And all the time that wing lurks in your rear mirror.

Heading out early it took a while to get some warmth into the 195/70 VR14 Vredestein Sprint Classics now fitted to it. Initial braking had the rear wiggling slightly on the cold rubber. Then things came up to temperature properly and there was enough grip to feel slightly braver and more confident in the 272 mm disc brakes front and rear although they were still a bit on the soft side. It felt light too, for a four-seat executive coupé, weighing in at 1270 kg, nearly 200 kg less than a regular CS.

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The fuel-injected six-cylinder provides plenty of torque, even in fourth at low revs. But push things beyond 3500 rpm and it rewards with a great sound and an ability to respond to your acceleration requests with vigour. On the occasion where things could be safely pushed a bit, it quickly showed the kind of character that would make the CSL a wonderful GT, something that you could do a continental road trip in, having plenty of fun along the way and without feeling like you’ve done the Joe Wicks 24h workout.

There’s no power steering though, which wasn’t a problem until I encountered a lorry laying tarmac on a country lane and had to turn around. The combination of caution and the lack of power steering meant it took a Herculean effort worthy of the stuck shuttle-cart scene in Austin Powers. I’m not one for extensively modernising rare classics, but I can understand why an owner would add some assistance here.

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It’s an attention grabber too. I’ve driven lots of nice stuff during my career, from concept cars to rare classics and exotics and everything in between. However, nothing received as much attention as the Batmobile. People took photos and videos on the motorway, others took pics at traffic lights and one guy even stopped in the middle of a pedestrian crossing to take a pic one evening while I was on my way to meet the editor to take some of the pics you see here. It really is a very special thing the CSL and people clearly have enormous respect for it.

Too soon, it was time for the CSL to be loaded back into the truck and returned to the Batcave, still only showing 36,593 km on the odo. Some say you should never meet your heroes, but in the case of the BMW 3.0 CSL, they are definitely wrong.

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