CC Outtake: 1973 BMW 3.0 CSL & 1981 BMW M1 – Legends In Aspic

Here are a couple of BMWs you are unlikely to meet curbside, classic though they may be. We’re at the same Tokyo showroom where Jim Klein and I saw a lovely pair of Isettas and a 2002 Tii. Not far from the latter, in a small fenced-off area, were four BMWs that were obviously deemed more equal than others. Two of those were recent (a Z8 and an M3 CSL), but the other two exhibits were definitely post-worthy.

BMW made three world-class sports cars in the ‘70s. The 2002 Turbo is one, and the other two are here. The 1972-75 3.0 CSL was made for BMW to compete in the European Touring Car Championship, which it won in 1973 and every year from 1975 to 1979. These initially came with a 200 PS 3-litre 6-cyl., upped to 3.2 litres and 206 PS in 1973. The “L” stands for leicht (light), as these were made from thinner steel and aluminium panels, and had perspex windows, among other weight-saving features. A lean, mean Bavarian machine.

But to really take it to the next level, BMW had to start from scratch and develop their first mid-engined sports car. The M1 was created with Lamborghini’s help, though the Italian carmaker was going through a troubled period and couldn’t come through with chassis production as planned. The project went ahead regardless, with the chassis and GRP body panels made in Italy, hand-assembled and finished by Baur in Stuttgart, with the M88/1 engines (3.5 litre DOHC, 265 hp) coming from Munich. The Giugiaro design was radical and awe-inspiring, and the performance matched the looks.

The Lambo connection is one of those random “Wait, what?” moments, like the Maserati-built Chrysler coupes or the prototype Porsche made for Studebaker. The M1 was a total vanity project – and I’m guessing it cost BMW a packet. Between 1978 and 1981, they sold 400 M1s and made another 50-odd for racing, and then closed the chapter on mid-engined cars for decades. By comparison, they sold three times as many 3.0 CSLs, which must have cost far less to develop. The automotive world would be a lot poorer without the M1, but BMW would have been a little richer. Good that they could afford it.