Cresting the hill while heading east on Carmel Valley Road, the landscape suddenly went from dense forest to golden hills. It was as if I had entered a yellowing 70′s photo tinged with the promise of a simpler, better life. And with the thin and lively CSL steering wheel in my hands, I had it. A glimpse inside yesterday’s golden, carefree youth. Turn after turn the CSL wound up and down the rev range and the sounds brought it all to life.
Like the adoring fan who would be well advised to avoid meeting their hero, some boyhood dream-cars should never be driven by those who lusted after them. It’s a common reaction for excitement to turn to disappointment behind the wheel of a classic car. But the BMW 3.0 CSL is a different breed.
Born from motorsport, the CSL was BMW’s attempt to win the European Touring Car Championship. To compete more effectively the CSL was born as a way to amalgamate a series of changes to the less than successful E9 3.0 CS race cars. The L stood for leight (light) and meant thinner steel, less trim using aluminum doors, bonnets, and boot lids, and even Perspex side windows.
The engine was also bumped slightly to 3,003 cc (183.3 cu in) by increasing the engine bore by one quarter of a millimeter (resulting in 200 hp). There were other changes but you get the idea; BMW was tired of losing touring car races and would not sit idly by as Mercedes continued out-pacing them.
Our test car being a 1972 means that there’s no aero package that the 1973 CSL received. Just as well since I wasn’t interested in attracting too much attention: I had a date with a road.
Carmel Valley Road is one of the most celebrated routes in central California and it’s one that has eluded me for years. Sweeping at one moment and tight and twisty at the next, Carmel Valley is an epic drive through valleys and over hills that challenges continuously. And in a 39-year old car that I had never driven, it commanded a hell of a lot of respect.
The CSL tested is a 1972 example (one of 252 that year) plucked straight from BMW’s Spartanburg museum. It has 22,200 kilometers (under 14,000 miles) on it and is worth an estimated $300,000. Luckily I didn’t know that last number until I stepped out of the car.
The CSL’s 3.0L is defined by sound, torque and it’s eagerness above 5000 rpm. Most of Carmel Valley was done in 3rd (with only four speeds this coupe has long legs) but dropping it down into 2nd in the tight stuff produced wonder music out of the engine.
The engine is also surprisingly eager as the revs climb. It’s in no way a screamer like a modern M engine or even BMW’s recent inline sixes but it’s no less impressive to feel the torque build as the tach needle climbs.
Steering feel isn’t as pure as the 2002 but it’s appropriate for the size of the CSL and the market that was intended. And it’s certainly more communicative than a modern non M BMW.
More impressive than the steer was the balance of the car as the road went from flowing sweepers to tight corners. I could get the tail to step-out in a controlled fashion with enough power and angle. But the CSL is no muscle car by today’s standards and its power is delivered too evenly and with too much build-up to being a point and shoot device.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly fulfilling on the famed Carmel Valley Rd. Even with broken and uneven pavement the CSL was composed and controlled while being hustled.
Yet its roots as an early 70′s GT car (back when playboy owners really did drive their cars across the continent) can’t be overcome with less weight. You can keep up with modern machinery in the corners (as I did with an impromptu lead follow with an E60 M5) but quickly powering out of straights is not its strong suit. But what does that matter when youhave the all the noise and feel you could ever want?
Driving the 3.0 CSL was nothing less than a boyhood dream come true. Here’s the car that I had as a toy 25 years ago – in my hands and under my foot. And truth by told I was ready to be disappointed. But the CSL was too good of a car now (as it was then) to not delight the driver. It’s primal BMW and pure driving pleasure that transcends time.