Curbside Classic: 1974 BMW 3.0 CS – The Ultimate Driving Legacy

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Many descriptions come to mind when one thinks of typical cars of the 1970s – ponderous, poorly built, slow, uncomfortable… the list goes on. But as always, there are exceptions. And the BMW 3.0 CS certainly qualifies as an exception; it was everything that most 1970s cars were not. Even four decades later, this car still looks great and has modern performance capabilities – quite a feat for a car built at the dawn of the Malaise Era.


This particular car appears to be a daily driver – or, at the very least, a frequent driver, which is remarkable, given the car’s age and its desirability as a collector’s item. But the patina of real-world use only adds to the allure of this car, which was one of the most admired grand touring cars of its day, and is now regarded as representing the pinnacle of what was possible during the 1970s.

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The history of the 3.0 CS attests to BMW’s corporate focus and perseverance during this tumultuous decade. BMW clawed its way back from a near-bankruptcy in the 1960s, and spent the 1970s (a tough time from both economic and engineering perspectives) developing and improving its higher-end product lines. It was a risky strategy in an era when most manufacturers instead prioritized smaller and cheaper cars. BMW’s upscale push, though, was largely successful, and the 3.0 CS was a critical component that success.

While well-known in enthusiasts’ circles nowadays, the 3.0 CS and its smaller-engine sibling, the 2800 CS (collectively known as the E9 coupes) had two direct ancestors that go less noticed, but are important parts of the E9’s history.

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In the early 1960s, BMW contracted with the Italian firm Bertone to design a four-passenger coupe, and that car ultimately became the 3200 CS (“CS” standing for Coupe Sport). Bertone’s lead designer on the project was none other than the illustrious Giorgetto Giugiaro, then just 23 years old, and the CS was one of his first designs. This original CS’s Italian influence can be clearly seen, but the design worked well for German BMW. About 600 of the very high-end coupes were produced between 1962 and 1965. The Bertone design set the stage for two decades of BMW coupes – particularly in the greenhouse design, one can see continuity right through the 1980s.

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Starting in 1965, BMW offered another coupe, the 2000 C/CS, based on the “Neue Klasse” sedans. Though not nearly as upscale as the 3200, the influence of Bertone’s design can clearly be seen in this car, particularly beyond the A-pillar. The front end of the car, though, was completely new (although clearly inspired by the 1960 Corvair)… and not graceful like the rear. Featuring a short hood and a rather tall, painted frontal area, the 2000 Coupe had an awkward, slightly incongruous appearance. Performance for the 2000 was only adequate, with either 100 hp (C) or 120 hp (CS) coming from the  2-liter 4-cylinder engine. Given its unusual appearance and unremarkable performance, the 2000 Coupe was not a particularly high-profile car for BMW; even so, about 13,000 of the coupes were produced between 1965 and 1969.

Ad 1970 10 2800CS

For 1969 BMW introduced a new coupe, the 2800 CS, which eventually transformed into larger-engine 3.0 CS, our featured car. This new “E9” model was light-years ahead of the 2000 CS it replaced. Most noticeably, BMW kept the 2000’s design from the windshield back, but replaced the ungainly front end. The new front mated to the existing rear perfectly – amazing, considering that the design basis for the rear was already a decade old by that point.

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The new front end was longer (necessary to accommodate a 6-cylinder engine), with a mildly sloping hood leading to a backward-raked grille and slightly protruding round headlights.

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The grille itself accentuates the horizontal – rather than the vertical, as on the 2000 Coupe – which blends seamlessly to the rest of the body. This very effective reworking of the front clip transformed a somewhat odd looking car into a beauty; it’s undoubtedly the most successful nose job in automotive history. As with the earlier 2000 Coupes, the E9 coupes were built at Karmann’s Osnabrück factory.

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Upon introduction, the 2800 CS debuted to rave reviews in the automotive press. The CS shared its drivetrain and front suspension with the larger 2800 sedans, and the overall effect was a harmonious one.

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BMW intended for its new coupe to make a statement. In the early 1970s, BMW had no problem selling its small 4-cylinder 2002 coupe; however the company wasn’t having quite the same success with its larger 6-cylinder models. As such, BMW placed a priority in the early 1970s on making its larger cars more appealing. During this period, in 1971, BMW upgraded the engines in both its sedan and the CS coupe from 2.8 to 3.0 liters, at which point the 2800 CS became the 3.0 CS.

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This engine developed a healthy 170-hp in U.S. trim, enough to power the 3,000-lb. coupe to 60 mph in a respectable 9.5 seconds. But power wasn’t the only positive attribute of this engine; its smoothness was legendary. Combined with an equally smooth 4-speed transmission (an automatic was optional), this powertrain was virtually idyllic by 1970s standards. Add a sophisticated suspension into the mix, and the result was one of the best all-around performers of its decade.

10 Best RT AUG 71

That well-roundedness is what made the 3.0 CS exceptional. The CS excelled not due to any one specific quality, but because the sum of its parts. The above excerpt, from when Road & Track listed the 3.0 CS as one of its Ten Best Cars of 1971, eloquently summarizes that sentiment, lauding the car’s “all-around balance.”

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On the inside, the 3.0 CS displayed a characteristically high-quality but no-nonsense design that German manufacturers favored in the 1970s. Instrumentation is straightforward and legible, and the controls are large and well-made, and placed so that they can be operated without the driver taking his eyes off of the road. This featured car has an original and well-used interior. The large-diameter wooden steering wheel is likely original as well.

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This particular car is a 1974 model, identified by the large federally-mandated 5 mph bumpers and extra front side marker lights (which appeared at some point in the ’73 model run). Both of these features are typically considered unattractive, and it is not unusual for today’s owners to retrofit older bumpers and to eliminate the extra lights. This car, though, retains the original characteristics. Not all the changes for 1974 were bad, however: tire size was increased and the alloy wheels were redesigned, changes that resulted in better handling and aesthetics.

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The CS may seem diminutive here next to a modern full-size pickup, so a present-day size comparison is helpful. In length, the CS measures between BMW’s current 428i and 640i coupes. However, in height and (especially) width, the 3.0 is smaller. Even BMW’s small 228i is 5 inches wider than the 3.0 CS.

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These cars were not cheap. The 1974 model featured here carried a base price of about $11,000 – however almost all U.S.-bound BMWs came equipped with “optional” equipment such as leather upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, etc., shifting the actual price for most cars to around $14,000 – or about $68,000 in 2015 dollars.

These cars were not cheap to operate, either. Build quality was good, but not quite bulletproof like a contemporary Mercedes-Benz. The CS required frequent maintenance (such as tune-ups every 8,000 miles), but if maintained properly the cars were generally reliable. However, one notorious problem area was rust. Even cars in dry climates rusted badly, often in unseen areas such as around the windshield frames, so that when finally discovered, the rust was at an advanced stage.

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In total, BMW produced about 30,000 E9 coupes between 1969 and 1975, including 11,063 examples of the 3.0 CS. About one-quarter of those cars were exported to the United States. U.S. exports stopped after the 1974 model year, due to difficulty (or possibly BMW’s unwillingness) with meeting new U.S. safety standards, though European sales continued through 1975.

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The 3.0 CS was never intended to be a sales success. Its reason for being was to bring prestige and respect to a BMW brand that had high aspirations. An example of this strategy is shown in the above ad, where the text references that 3.0 CS owners “include quite a number of the rich and famous… film stars and even a dash of royalty.” The strategy to move upmarket worked, and BMW surged to success with the models that followed the E9’s era, particularly in North America. When this car was sold in 1974, BMW sold 15,000 total cars in the U.S. Five years later, that figure more than doubled; five years after that it doubled again. While not all of that success can be attributed to the CS, this car certainly did more than its fair share to build a foundation for BMW to proclaim itself The Ultimate Driving Machine.

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BMW replaced the E9 coupes in 1976 with the E24 (6-series) coupes, which continued many of the traditions dating back to the 1960s CS models. The E24 was a full four-passenger coupe with an airy greenhouse, slim pillars, and the same distinctive elbow in the rear window as found on its predecessors. In fact, the E9-to-E24 transition was a rare example of a beautiful car being replaced by an equally beautiful car. And with the 6-series remaining in production until 1987, it built a legacy for itself that matched or even eclipsed that of the 3.0 CS.

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Despite the arguably downtrodden era in which it was built, the BMW 3.0 CS outshone nearly every other production car of its day in terms of overall performance, dynamics, and even appearance. This car proves that even in the worst of times, good ideas are possible… and when they’re put into practice, those ideas remain memorable even decades later.

 

More on the E9’s successor: CC 1985 BMW 635CSi – Love or Lust?