Clack open the heavy door and breathe in the scent of an era bygone. Slide into the deep bucket seats and hear the jangle of the bare metal keys as you hunt for the ignition slot. The driving position is perfect, the view out is panoramic and the drilled, three-spoke steering wheel’s airbag-less, button-free face is refreshingly simple. Twist the key, and the 3,153cc six – in-line of course – despite being nearly 40 years old, starts readily and settles into a throaty idle. Clutch in, slot into first on the positive, light action gearshift, and ease off the clutch as you feed in some throttle. The Bosch D-Jetronic analogue fuel injection system is in a good mood, so the car moves off the line with satisfying pep. Today, I’m pointing this shark nose in the direction of some of Italy’s most sinuous roads.
Now, I’ve been lucky to drive some pretty exotic machinery, but this one here is extra special. It’s the road-going BMW 3.0 CSL, a car born out of homologation necessity to allow BMW’s E9 generation to take part in the European Touring Car Championship in the early 1970s. The CSL (L for lightweight) weighed about 200kg less than the road-going 3.0 CSi it was based on, which meant a kerb weight in the region of 1,200kg. The body of the CSL was made from thinner-gauge steel, the doors, bonnet and boot lid were aluminium and all sound proofing was ditched, and this helped its 203bhp, 29.1kgm engine power it to 100kph in 7.3sec and get it to a 230kph top speed.
Today, those figures may not seem special, but that engine certainly is. Throttle response is amazingly crisp and it is punchy and ever willing to rev. The urge starts at 2,000rpm, throaty induction noises join the party at around 3000rpm, it reaches peak torque at 4,200rpm and then makes a lunge for peak power at 5600rpm. Time to grab the next gear on the four-speed manual. The long-throw gearshift action is in complete contrast to today’s short-throw gearboxes, but that only means it is more involving to drive. The joy comes from matching the revs on downshifts, timing the upshifts and heel-and-toe-ing – and you know you’ve got it right by the noises that come from the exhaust.
The road to Lake Garda is quite twisty, and the CSL’s relatively slow steering leads me to believe it’s going to be a handful by modern car standards. Nothing of the sort. The steering rack’s accuracy allows apex-clipping precision that points directly to why modern BMWs are still so good to drive – it’s the lessons BMW learnt ages ago. There are no rattles or creaks from the body and you drive with the information available through your hands, bottom and feet. Push it into a corner hard and the skinny Michelin XWX tyres squirm, but there’s little body roll and the chassis hangs on gamely. It really is a revelation to drive something that’s almost 40 years old and see how contemporary it still is. No wonder then that race-prepped 3.0 CSLs won the European Touring Car Championship every year from 1975-79 and before that, the 1973 German Touring Car Championship. Chris Amon and Hans Stuck must have had the time of their lives winning from behind the wheel of this sublime racer.
Before the 6-series, there was this
The CSi is quieter on the move, and it has a plush leather interior, air-conditioning and power windows – things that made it the Grand Tourer of its day. It’s still quite the GT today, its power steering and cushy suspension creating a layer of comfort between the road and the occupants the way the sharper CSL doesn’t. Today, there are plenty of Ducatis, BMWs and Harleys sharing the road with us and I think they like the CSi’s elegant lines. It’s rare that bikers give a car a nod, or even stop to holler ‘bella’, but that’s what’s been happening all morning. Perhaps they’ve taken a liking to the delicate chrome detailing and pillarless doors on this coupé.
This car’s 2,986cc six feels even stronger than the CSL’s, but the gearbox and clutch have seen better days. Even the custodians of this car – the guys from BMW Classic – agree that MPU-8457-H has one of the healthiest engines in their fleet of CSis and CSLs. And so, I use what’s left of its original 200bhp and let it run towards Lake Garda. There’s more body roll – the softer settings on the all-independent suspension are all too obvious – and the steering feels like it needs more lock to make the tighter turns. I soon learn to sit back, drive at a more relaxed pace and take in the basso-hum of the in-line six bouncing off the mountain walls. Both the CSL and this car have all the traits that make today’s BMWs what they are – the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout, the perfect driving position with perfectly placed pedals, the crisp dials and the beautiful chassis balance. And, unlike today’s BMWs, this car’s slim A-, B- and C-pillars make for unrivalled visibility, it’s so much more relaxing to drive. Simple, blissful motoring.
The father of the 3-series
The key chain says ‘Inka’ and that’s the name of the bright shade of orange that coats its skin. I like to think that the gorgeously simple 2002tii is called Inka. I’m totally smitten by it. It’s compact, has beautifully clean lines and I just love its stance. Under the hood is a fuel-injected 1991cc engine that powers the rear wheels. Inka weighs just 1,010kg (about the same as a new Nissan Micra) and that helps its 130bhp and 17.9kgm of torque get it to 100kph (or rather it did when it was new) in just 8.2sec. Inka needs a bit of throttle for the Kugelfischer fuel-injection system (the second ‘i’ in the 2002tii) to fire up all four cylinders and settle into a steady idle. The gearlever bushes are also a bit worn, the air-conditioning isn’t working and there’s no power steering. Even on these thin 165-section Michelin XAS’, it’s quite a workout getting Inka into first gear and out of her parking slot under the blazing Italian sun. The thin-rimmed steering wheel is slow, the worm-and-roller system it’s attached to has plenty of turns lock-to-lock, and the engine cuts out if you don’t give it enough revs at parking speeds. But get moving and this 2002tii comes alive. The heavy steering melts into a reasonably feelsome one and the gearshifts, oh well, someone needs to replace those bushes.
They say a brand new 2002tii engine does its best work at 3000-5800rpm, but Inka’s is a bit tired and doesn’t like being stretched to its redline. And so, I spend the morning rowing through the gearbox, lining up for corners, finding that there’s plenty of lean but good chassis balance once tipped over, and that the unassisted brakes need quite a shove to work.
It’s easy to overdrive the narrow 13-inch tyres, and the rear end swings around if you lean on them too hard, because the chassis is still working while the rubber runs out of grip.
What’s impressive though is the ride – new 2002tiis were known for their exemplary ride quality, and it’s still supple by today’s standards – Inka’s suspension still soaks up bumps with aplomb. Despite its blemishes, Inka has charm.
Driving old cars can be disappointing. They were, after all, designed and built using technology and suspension knowhow from another time. Also, the example you are driving could be worn out and showing its age. That isn’t the case with the three cars here. Of course, being cared for by BMW Classic has kept them mostly fighting fit, but they still have enough patina on them to give you a sense of their age. What’s amazing is how BMW has kept the basic DNA intact all these years – the unique approach of making a car both fun to drive and practical – you don’t have to look too hard in a modern BMW to draw parallels with these old cars. That quality, in these ever-changing times, is the most impressive of all.