A BMW 3.0 CSL, A Sweltering Sunset In Sicily, And A Nearly 50-Year Love Affair
Photography by Andrea Casano
Love changes the course of your life, but you must be careful when you think you’ve found it. Sometimes that initial spark festers away into a dirge of cynical disdain and divorce lawyers, but when you find the real thing you’ll wonder how you ever managed to enjoy your past life. And if there’s any genuine pining involved beforehand, the eventual bond is only going to be that much stronger.
In the case of my friend Mario and this CSL, their relationship sits on a sturdy foundation born from decades of his desire. It’s a story of boy meets car that takes us back to Italy in 1973, when our then-young protagonist was stopped in his tracks by a certain yellow BMW.
It was springtime in Palermo, and Mario was walking his usual route home (that just happened to pass by the habitual parking spot of a silver Fiat Dino Coupe), when he first saw it. The 12-year-old was impressed enough with the shape and presence of the Fiat, but that car could hardly compare to the impression left by the CSL that had showed up one day in the adjacent parking space.
“Although I was very passionate about cars already at that time, I did not understand just how rare this carbureted CSL was, so I fell in love with the car itself, not its rarity or value. I remember being immediately struck by the color, but then also by the clearly motorsport-inspired details, like the hood pins and non-metallic body trim,” Mario recalls.
The contrast of the chrome fender flares with the unpainted weight-saving components, the crisply spoked Alpina footwear, and the inherent, unassailable grace of the E9 body presented in Golf yellow is enough to make any initial encounter seem like love at first sight, and it certainly was for Mario. Unlike perhaps more fickle-minded car enthusiasts however (and hey, there’s nothing wrong with flavors of the week), Mario’s infatuation with the CSL had legs for the long term.
The car was built in 1972 and registered to its first owner—an industrialist with good taste to accompany and make use of his means—in early 1973, and Mario found himself spending a good deal of time that year making detours from his daily routines to visit the car with the singular desire to just stare at it. When we really love something, we’ll settle for simply being in the same presence, but soon enough Mario struck up a friendship—which time has since proven to be a very genuine one—with the son of the car’s owner. It was a friendship which, to the collective joy of the young enthusiasts, manifested in a few clandestine drives in the CSL together when the two had their driver’s licenses, if not explicit permission.
Mario remained friends with the family as he grew up and began his career proper, and he floated the idea of buying the CSL more than once, but to no avail. The car was passed down through the family of the original owner, and each of them were well aware that if they decided to sell it, Mario would be happy to take the other side of the deal. The “not yet” answer became familiar to him, the latter part of a call and response routine initiated by Mario picking up the phone and dialing a number he’d come to know quite well. Though the BMW 3.0 CSL would always be in his mind, his hopes of owning this particular example had begun to fade as the decades ticked slowly by, until the youngest son of the family proposed the idea of finally selling the car in 2010, at which time Mario’s story of 37 years of unrequited love found its happy ending. After all, there’s virtue in patience and lightweight homologation specials.
And this car is special even amongst CSLs, seeing as it is part of the early run of the model (169 examples of the carbureted CSL made up the first “batch”). This was the first production version of the car that BMW Motorsport and Alpina had developed for the European Touring Car Championship—which the CSL would define and dominate for most of the 1970s—and as such it is arguably the truest expression of the driving idea behind the CSL: make it light.
“The doors, bonnet, and rear trunk panels are made of aluminum, the front bumper was removed by BMW, the rear bumper is made from plastic resin instead of metal, the Scheel bucket seats are without headrests, the headliner is lightweight black textile, the interior carpeting is thinner than standard E9 carpeting, the windshield is a thinner piece of glass than standard, the rest of the glass has been replaced with lighter Perspex, the rear quarter windows eschew their open-and-close mechanism in the name of weight, and there are many more variations in the CSL’s engineering and styling, like the 14” Alpina wheels and the specific Momo-supplied Alpina steering wheel, which predates the Petri and Italvolanti pieces most are familiar with.”
Another famous featherweight, the Porsche Carrera 2.7 RS that was revealed soon after the BMW, used many of the same principles of the CSL, and even had the same company, Glaverbel, supply the thinner windshield glass. This is not to compare and claim who did what first, just an interesting connection that illustrates the smallness of certain worlds.
It’s fun to spend hours trawling around the internet learning the details about these cars and their significance in BMW’s racing history, but it’s even better to go out for a drive in one in Sicily under a setting sun. Mario has been in the classic car business long enough to understand the current monetary worth of his childhood dream car, but the sentimental value of this specific CSL will always eclipse the quantifiable one. It means he’s likely to hold onto this one for the rest of his life, but also that he can drive it without worrying too much about the odometer. You won’t see Mario commuting in city traffic in this car on a daily basis of course, but he’s happy to take me out for a drive in the countryside where the car can be enjoyed instead of fretted over.
There’s a beautiful and light patina to some of the surfaces and high-traffic areas of the interior, which to me is the sign of a real owner. The speed of today’s buying and selling have resulted in plenty of “puff-up” jobs in the used enthusiast car market, but this car retains its honesty, and it’s honestly in great shape all the same.
As we wind through the roads that Mario has unofficially designated as the CSL’s “exercise” circuit, the light couldn’t be anymore complementary to the gorgeous pale yellow—that BMW decided to name it Golf instead of the more accurate descriptor, Tennis, is a mystery to me. The E9 shape in any model guise is a pulchritudinous expression of automotive grand touring, but the CSL bits add a meanness to that mix. It’s a meanness unlike that of modern cars outfitted with angry-looking headlights and knife-like aero. The CSL gives me nostalgia for a time I never lived in; for the heady days of the pre-Oil Crisis motorsport; for touring cars with real identity built and conceived by people who did so with sheer intelligence and gumption and no computer aided fluid dynamic simulations.
I imagine it’s a similar reverence to the one that Mario’s held onto since 1973, and his has only been gaining momentum since then. As any owner or shopper of E9s can attest to, the bodywork of these cars invites rust in and then succumbs to it easier than most, but to that point Mario simply says, “In Sicily we put the salt on the food, not he roads.” Whenever he’s talking about this car, or even the period correct Bee Gees tape in the center console, he’s smiling like a 12-year-old. When you’ve been in an unending honeymoon phase of a relationship for nearly half a century, what choice is there?