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If you had to define the essence of BMW, the essential ingredients that formed the cocktail of success that has beguiled enthusiasts for more than 50 years, you could do worse than take along and lingering look at what makes the 2002 and 3.0 CSL tick.
These cars, opposite ends of the firm’s early 1970s line up, epitomise the two extremes of most people’s idea of what a classic BMW is.
One is an affordable sports saloon with cult appeal, the other a grand-touring glamour car, homologation special and now rich-man’s plaything that is finally achieving the star status it was tipped for 40-plus years ago.
Both have their origins in the 1960s, but achieved their full potential in the ’70s, confirming the modern BMW image in our imaginations.
With the 2002 and CSL the Bavarians were selling us the dream of a driver’s car that was rational, practical and safe, with high margins built in to the chassis design.
These were sophisticated machines with an optimal balance of size and power that showed how refinement, build quality and driver appeal didn’t have to be mutually exclusive ideals.
Perceived as expensive but, generally, seen to be worth the price of admission, the BMW of the 1970s was not an exotic animal in any ultimate sense.
In these models the marque merely reasserted its formula of highly groomed, state-of-the-art chassis designs combined with best-in-class four-and six-cylinder engines; a policy that would serve the firm well for decades to come.
Certainly the 1962 1500 Neue Klasse four-door saloon was the original breakthrough BMW of the post-bubble-car generation, but it was only with the 2002 of 1968 that the Bavarians truly cracked North America.
Sales of 339,084 through to 1977 put the brand on the map, taking it from an expensive oddity to perhaps the hottest property on the imported-car scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The enthusiast press loved them, and the 2002’s praises were sung perhaps most memorably by David E Davis in his test in April 1968’s Car and Driver, where he describes the joys of ‘sucking the headlights’ out of Big Healeys and GTOs in what he considered to be: ‘One of civilisation’s all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down.’
If the 2002 spread the word with previously unheard of volume, the 1971-’75 3.0 CSL added lustre and legend.
Only 1208 of these lightweight homologation specials were ever built, topping the BMW range at a price more than three times that of the not notably cheap 2002.
Yet the CSL had a reach and an influence that was (and still is) out of all proportion to the number built.
Its thrilling domination of the European Touring Car Championship (by the works, Alpina and Schnitzer teams against determined Ford Capri opposition) bestowed legendary status on a big coupé that was the public face of ’70s tin-top racing at its most exciting.
Has any subsequent single BMW model achieved the hero status of the 3.0 CSL?
These days it tops most lists of greatest-ever Bimmers, increasingly even the ones compiled by people who were not born when it was a current model.
It is certainly one of the most beautiful.
The story goes that fitting the 2-litre engine from the four-door saloons into the narrower and lighter two-door 1600 bodyshell was really just a means of giving US buyers a performance alternative to the twin-carb 1600 ti – a variant that was proving difficult to detox in readiness for the new Federal emissions laws.
North American importer Max Hoffman came up with the idea of putting the big-bore engine in the little body, although it seems likely that BMW would have thought of it for itself eventually.
For a moderate increase in weight and cost, 2002 buyers got a higher-geared 107mph four-seater that would top 90mph in third and still return 30mpg.
While the more potent post-1971 tii tends to take the headlines now, these mechanically injected 2002s are relatively rare: most buyers in period deemed the single-carburettor version, with nearly 100bhp per ton, more than adequate.
In short order the 2002 evolved into a five-car family and was soon BMW’s biggest seller, usurping the 1600 as the brand’s entry model in the UK.
The Hairpin Company’s tangerine-hued 1972 example must be the best 2002 in the country, restored to a level of perfection (by an ex-P&A Wood employee) that makes its £35,000 price-tag seem almost modest.
Seeing it close up, with all right details, reminds me how long it is since I have properly looked at a 2002.
In the ’80s they were ubiquitous enough to almost fade into the road-car landscape with a boxy, glassy shape that seemed conservative, even pedestrian, compared to Italian rivals.
The bright orange paint cheers up this round-rear-light example, it being a classic BMW colour of the period promoted on the basis of safety and visibility rather than its psychedelic overtones.
With its tall roof and unbroken beltline it could be mistaken from the back for an NSU Prinz.
Compact and dignified, there is an aura of functional detail quality about the 2002 that is rarely found in mass-produced 1970s cars and is intrinsic to its appeal.
Step inside through the large, frameless doors and there is nothing lavish about the interior, yet nothing offends the eye or the touch, either.
Subliminally the silky action of the headlight switch, the smooth clutch, the sense of being surrounded by practical and unpretentious high-quality materials all have you buying-in to the 2002’s message almost at once.
The fine all-round vision, the firm seats and the clean, uncluttered dashboard put you at ease right away, rather than bombarding you with unnecessary information or features.
The handsome, thin-rimmed steering wheel seems on the large side (and high-set), but the pedals and gearchange are ideally sited. Therefore, driving the 2002 in a spirited but neat style seems to come naturally.
Under the forward-hinged bonnet, the tidily presented engine pulses visually on its soft mountings but is almost silent at tickover from the driver’s seat.
It sounds efficient rather than musical, but feels feisty with strong mid-range torque.
The last inch of throttle movement opens the second throat of the Solex carburettor to deliver the true punch as it sings around to 6000rpm in second.
Driven more sedately, progress is always smooth and civilised with the right gear readily available in a sweet-shifting gearbox of ideally progressive ratios.
The 2002 is equally happy to throttle down almost to rest in third and top, and pull away smoothly.
The firm, precise steering is not feather-light – or super-quick – but neither does it need assistance.
It’s shod with period-correct Michelin XAS rubber, and anti-roll bars at each end help to control the poise.
Chuckable and fun, the little ’02 just corners neutrally, with a supple, firmly controlled ride that makes light work of anything it encounters.
You are soon urging the 2002 along with ambition and satisfaction on any piece of road that allows it.
In some ways all the 3.0 CSL can add to this formula is elegance, a certain amount of embellishment and rarity.
All this at a price premium, in this instance, of more than £100,000 over its baby brother.
Hairpin’s low-mileage CSL, recently subjected to a £60,000 refreshment, is one of the 500 right-hookers that came exclusively in the UK with the ‘City Package’.
This effectively reinstated among other things the power steering, electric windows and bumpers of the steel-bodied E9 Karmann-built coupés in order to make the CSL a saleable showroom commodity.
However, like so many of the most lusted-after homologation specials, the CSL was not an easy car to find buyers for in period, what with its vulnerable aluminium bonnet, doors and bootlid, plus figure-hugging Scheel bucket seats.
There is a masculinity about the 3.0 CSL’s look that is fully realised on the road. But what’s surprising is how close it is in feel and temperament to the smaller car.
The same smooth, forgiving drivetrain, the same superb all-round views and balanced controls where nothing fights you, and nothing is too light or too heavy.
If anything the driving position in the CSL is even better, and, once you have levered yourself in, those bolstered Scheel buckets are superb.
There are four clearly presented instruments to the 2002’s three. Wood and chrome – on the dash, flowing into the door trims – feature prominently where the smaller car makes do with high-quality plastic, presumably to remind you that this was a hand-finished body.
Pedal positions and switchgear are much the same and, despite the CSL’s greater length, there is not a lot between them when it comes to rear legroom.
The CSL’s distinctive ignition key (a drilled blade) and noisy, lethargic electric windows were shared with all species of these big coupés.
After a brief whir from fuel pump, as the high-pressure injection comes to life, the straight-six fires almost instantly.
Beautifully smooth and flexible, it bestows suave yet athletic acceleration upon the CSL, squatting the big two-door down on its rear springs as it takes off.
The low, slightly noisy first takes you to 40mph, and you are well on the way to 70mph in second before it’s time to snatch the 100mph third.
The rev-counter needle surges around the dial and, while the power should tail off beyond 5500rpm, it feels as if it’s getting stronger, so sweetly is the urge delivered.
The expensive, sonorous howl that comes with all this has a thrilling urgency that encourages gear play in the four-speed ’box.
It feels nearly as slick as the one in the 2002, although you can just occasionally catch out the synchromesh if you try and grab a change.
On its doughnut-like Michelin XWX tyres the CSL covers the ground effortlessly, a relatively narrow and compact car by modern standards with a firm and confident command of the road that belies its near-50 years.
It is very stable and refined (as long as you don’t expect miracles of the wind-noise-generating seals on the frameless windows), with firm but not teeth-rattling damping.
It has an ability to change direction cleanly and crisply that does not come at the expense of twitchiness, either.
Set up for a long, fast corner it holds its line superbly. On slower ones you can feel the limited-slip differential working but soon forget the CSL has power steering, as the perfectly sized sports wheel castors smoothly back through your fingers.
You could view the CSL as the final flourish in BMW’s most creative period of early 1970s image-making; a powerful finale to a period of public seduction that the 2002 had instigated.
What is for sure is that these defining cars from Munich were perfect exemplars for the much-underestimated art of making a really good plan. And sticking to it.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to The Hairpin Company
BMW 3.0 CSL
- Sold/number built 1971-’74/1208
- Construction steel monocoque with aluminium doors, bonnet and bootlid
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 3003cc ‘six’,with Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection
- Max power 197bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 200lb ft @ 4300rpm
- Transmission Getrag four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coils, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted ZF-Gemmer worm and roller
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 3¼in (4655mm)
- Width 5ft 5¾in (1670mm)
- Height 4ft 6in (1372mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 7½in (2630mm)
- Weight 2800lb (1270kg)
- 0-60mph 7.3 secs
- Top speed 133mph
- Mpg 17
- Price new £7399
- Price now £100-180,000*
- Sold/number built 1968-’76/339,084 (all carburetted 2002s)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1990cc ‘four’,with Solex 40PDSI carburettor
- Max power 98bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 116lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering ZF worm and roller
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, twin servos
- Length 14ft 2in (4318mm)
- Width 5ft 2½in (1588mm)
- Height 4ft 7in (1410mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2½in (2500mm)
- Weight 2312lb (1054kg)
- 0-60mph 10.8 secs
- Top speed 107mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £2649
- Price now £15-35,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication