It dominated touring car racing in the ’70s and remains one of the most charismatic cars ever to come out of Germany. All hail the ‘Batmobile’. 

Words: Richard Heseltine, Photography: Ian Dawson

Merely uttering this famous moniker sounds like an act of aggression. Back-track to the early ’70s and CSL, when prefaced by 3.0 and BMW, it was precisely that: a single-digit rebuke to all corners in the European Touring Car Championship. Fortunately, for a legion of enamoured fans who weren’t there to witness its wheel-to-wheel battles with Group 2 Capris, or Hans Stuck soaring to victory at the Niirburgring, BMW kindly left behind a choice reminder: CSL the road car.

And we owe a small debt of appreciation to Ford for this bespoilered icon’s very existence. In 1972, the blue oval romped to victory in the ETCC, winning 13 out of 16 races and royally humiliating the Bavarian Motor Works in the process. Predictably, being beaten up on a fortnightly basis by such a proletarian marque didn’t sit well with the suits; hence the arrival of the `Batmobile’. Built in conjunction with Alpina, the original CSL of 1971 had displayed potential. Taking the 2985cc 3.0 CS with its 180bhp twin-carburettor engine as a basis, Burkhard Bovensiepen’s crew removed such unwanted addenda as bumpers, carpet, cabin furnishings — they even scraped away the rust proofing, while using thinner steel and aluminium for the doors, bonnet and bootlid. The result was a 200kg weight saving over the standard car. The only stumbling block was the small matter of shifting 1000 of them to appease homologation requirements. No chance: just 165 cars in this form found buyers. Then BMW took over entirely, having poached Ford’s Jochen Neerpasch and Martin Braungart to spearhead its newly formed Motorsport division. In 1972 the CSL gained the straight-six from the 3.0 CSi, with Bosch fuel injection and capacity upped to 3003cc. Enough, then, for a thoroughly healthy 200bhp.

Most of the 929 CSLs built in this configuration never ventured trackside. Nor were they especially leicht. Many road cars — certainly a large proportion of the 500 made in RHD — came equipped with power steering, electric windows and glass in place of Perspex. But, having served their purpose, it was time to get serious. For 1973, BMW caught Ford dozing. Displacement was further enlarged to 3153cc, meaning 206bhp in road trim. Of greater interest was the metamorphosis occurring on the outside. The delicious Wilhelm Hoffmeister-penned outline gained a large and deep front spoiler beneath the grilles, with air-guiding fences on top of the front wings. Moving further back, a full-width roof deflector was added to tidy up the flow of air over the rear screen, along with a boot-mounted aerofoil that sat on the existing spoiler. Just to make it absolutely plain that this wasn’t your ordinary CS, full-length multi-coloured ‘M’ stripes ran the length of the flanks. And go-faster stick-ons aside, these additions represented more than just macho posturing: the net result was a 15-second gain for Stuck around the ‘Ring with the added bonus of significantly reduced tyre wear.

Thing is, and this is the good bit, none of this was strictly (or at all) legal. Pre-empting Alfa Romeo’s ’94 BTTC homologation chicanery, when BMW sold the first batch of 110 cars (a further 57 were built later), punters received the rear wing in the boot for home assembly — it hadn’t been type-approved for road use. Genius. By exploiting this loophole, the CSL cleaned up.

And how. Between 1973 and ’79, the `Batmobile’ took six ETCC titles. All the more remarkable as production officially ended in 1975. Add in further success in IMSA, and gaining legendary status for the CSL was a mere formality.

But at £6899 back in ’73, the CSL wasn’t a cheap road car. In fact an Aston Martin DBS could have been yours for not much more, so you really had to want one. Evidently not that many did — it’s not as though you’re exactly tripping over them today. This example, BMW UK’s greatly treasured own, is one of the penny-number originals left in Blighty. And it’s really, truly fabulous.

The original CS always was one of the most graceful cars of its period, thanks in part to the low beltline and expansive glasshouse, but the plastic add-ons fundamentally change its character. It looks slightly comical, yet hard as nails with it. Inside, it’s not altogether stripped-out basic, for all the racer bravado: as with all true `Batmobiles’, it’s left-hand-drive.

Predictably, the Scheel buckets are figure-hugging, with thick side-bolstering: the main squabs clinch you like a bean bag. It’s comfy, too, even if the controls are fixed. The alloy-spoked wheel juts out at you at a 45-deg angle, the floor-hinged pedals a little skewed towards the centreline. Wood inlays tender a token nod to luxury, with the minimal four-pod instruments cluster offering only the information deemed relevant, and nothing more.

Though independent performance figures of the day quote a 0-60mph time of 7.2sec and on to 140mph overall, it feels much quicker. Compared to so many modern performance cars where their size, heft and get-out-of-jail-free driver aids numb the experience so that fast doesn’t always feel fast, the CSL proffers a sense of immediacy that’s utterly captivating.

With a fair amount of throttle travel, standing starts take some mastering. If anything, the weight of the additional rubberwear likely blunts initial acceleration, yet it gathers speed with an urgency that mere figures can’t fully illustrate. Despite the dieting regime, the CSL still abuses the scales at 1270kg: it’s a big four-seater coupe, remember, but with 211Ib ft of torque at 4200rpm, pick-up is as smooth as it is instantaneous. It sounds glorious, too, the 12-valve SOHC six firing out a strident and instantly recognisable bark.

Such is the torque spread, you don’t need to swap cogs too often. Which is a help as there are wide gaps between ratios with the ancient Getrag four-speed ‘box. Even so, it’s easy to guide between planes, with a well-defined gate. Without power assistance, the worm-and-roller ZF steering is understandably heavy when manoeuvring but utter bliss on the move. Feedback is instantaneous and alert which goes a long way to enriching the experience. And while the stiff semi-trailing arm rear may lack sophistication, it works: the chassis is beautifully balanced with a natural inclination to oversteer despite the grippy (and non-period) Yokohama boots. In fact it’s happiest with the rear end slightly out, and the corresponding body roll probably appears more explicit from outside. The brakes — dual circuit all-round with servos — are a mite spongy, lacking pedal feel at the top, but never threaten to lock up. This is a car you just want to drive hard. It’s so agile, so entertaining that even those blessed with modest driving talent can play at being Stuck, Ickx, Bell or Lauda. That so many aces had these cars new; that they actually bought them with — cue disbelief — their own money, tells you everything. And if nothing else, without this car there would possibly never have been an M-series BMW: no M1, no Procar, no blistered-arched M3 or loony-tunes V10 M5 psycho-saloon. The CSL matters. A lot. It never was The Ultimate Driving Machine, even back in the day, but it was a very close approximation. Which is why we love it.