The CSL that got away

After finding an original, low-mileage CSL, an enthusiast ponders the thrill of the chase and the agony of loss.

Photo: The CSL that got away 1
January 13, 2012

THE EMAIL FROM MARK MCCONNEL WAS SHORT AND CRYPTIC, stating simply that he was looking for a buyer for a ’73 CSL. I dismissed it as pure spam, the sort of thing I get all the time as co-founder of Southern California Vintage BMW. Nonetheless, I told McConnell I’d put the word out if he’d send me the details along with photos and a price range.

A week later, I received a bullet-pointed reply:

—Approximately 37,600 miles on the car. The instrument gauges are European and show 61,660 kilometers.

—Mechanically the car is in great shape. The body looks good except for a few small bubbles under the paint.

—The car was brought over from Germany over 30 years ago and has been in S. California since then.

—Please give me an idea of the value of the car.

He’d attached photos of the BMW in his driveway along with details of the engine and the Karmann Karosserie plate on the door jamb. The VIN indicated a 1973 3.0 CSL built in late 1972, early in CSL production and thus even more unlikely.

I set up a time to check it out, convinced the car was a more commonplace CS or CSi rather than a real CSL with aluminum doors, hood and trunk lid, lighweight windows, Bilstein suspension and a bunch of other high-performance parts meant to homologate the car for racing. In the vintage car world, when something sounds too good to be true it’s because it is completely untrue.

Photo: The CSL that got away 2

When I arrived at McConnell’s house in Temecula, sure enough there was a Verona Red E9 coupe sitting in the driveway. It had the black CSL stripes, but a lot of E9s have those just for the look. It also had Alpina-style wheels that a closer inspection revealed as real Alpina wheels, just like the ones on a CSL.

McConnell told me that the car had belonged to his father-in-law, Don Corbin. A co-founder of Corbin Yamafuji Architects, Corbin had imported the CSL from Germany in the 1980s along with another Verona Red CSL and an M1. After driving it for some years, Corbin had parked it for a few more before giving it to his granddaughter, McConnell’s daughter, who was then 16 and had little interest in it.

By this time, I was barely listening, my concentration absorbed by the car’s striped corduroy Scheel bucket seats, CSL-correct and with no visible wear.

This was a real CSL, I suddely realized, feeling a bit like Hiram Bingham stumbling upon Machu Picchu back in 1911.

I had entered the Barn Find Zone.

All correct, and all there

I kept looking for things to debunk it or dramatically diminish the car’s value, but it was all there. The VIN plates were correct, indicating an early fuel-injected CSL in Series I livery, with none of the “Batmobile” aerodynamic appendages that came with the later cars. The trunk had no toolkit or standard trunk hinges, just the CSL-only prop bar. Checking for rust, the bane of E9 coupes and all BMWs of that era, I pulled up the front rug—still snapped in—and found none at the floorboards. The other E9 trouble spots were also rust-free, including the fender seams, strut towers, unit boxes, etc. Only a few bubbles were present on the paint, but they were high up on the car, where they’d be less problematic to repair.

The car looked like it had been sitting for a while, but it started right up. I let it run for a few minutes, but no smoke came out of the tailpipe. Plenty could still be wrong, though—loose steering, bad fuel delivery from a D-Jetronic left untouched for who knows how long, brakes that might not work. I also listened closely for any foreign noises: screaming cats, rodents or other critters that could have taken up residence in the airbox or HVAC ducts.

Photo: The CSL that got away 3

The coupe shifted effortlessly into gear and eased out of the driveway without incident. A slow and deliberate push on the gas pedal delivered perfect throttle response, making the E9 jump when commanded. The steering and suspension were tight and responsive, and the car tracked straight and stopped quickly with no pulling.

“Mind if I lean into it for a moment?” I asked. The seller insisted I do just that.

With a loud roar, I pressed the throttle down hard, determined to get as much as possible out of the CSL within the confines of the neighborhood streets. Despite having sat around for a few years, this CSL drove perfectly.

“It would probably run a lot better if I drained the gas,” the seller said. “It’s probably bad. I think it’s been in there a while.”

“Yes, probably,” I mumbled. The coupe ran so well the thought never crossed my mind.

This was a real-deal CSL with what seemed to be no issues. I took a deep breath and asked what kind of price he was looking to get.

He said he’d researched the prices and that the money wasn’t going to him but to his daughter. He then gave me his opening figure. It was half what the car was worth.

“I think we’re in the neighborhood,” I said. “I know a guy or two that would like this car at around this price.”

Photo: The CSL that got away 4

The seller nodded and we agreed on the details, that he’d get the car registered and ready to go for the buyer who’d be coming to pick it up the following weekend.

That person, of course, would be me.

I kept the news to myself for nearly two days, and then I just couldn’t keep it in any longer. I had to tell someone, so I called E9 aficionado Ron Perry at Motorsport Legends to let him in on my discovery. Since every car that passes through his hands ends up looking like a show car, I wanted to get the CSL over to Ron’s garage as soon as I took possession. I envisioned myself pulling up to the next SoCal Vintage run and seeing everyone’s jaws drop at the sight of my pristine CSL.

Naturally, Ron was thrilled to hear about my discovery, so I sent him an e-mail with enough details and photos to satisfy even the most voracious fan of car porn. That night, I slept more peacefully than I had in years.

An odd tone signals defeat

The next day, I called Ron to confirm the time and date when I’d bring the car over, but an odd tone in Ron’s voice put me off balance right away.

“Jeff, I know this car,” he said quietly.

“How? How do you know it?” I croaked, trying to sound nonchalant.

Photo: The CSL that got away 5

Ron told me that his business neighbor Ron Inchausti of Coast Motor Werk had tried to buy this car six months earlier, having seen the CSL in a Newport Beach parking garage along with another Verona CSL and an M1. Inchausti had tried to buy all three, but the deal had fallen apart despite Inchausti’s persistence.

I could still buy the CSL myself, of course. The seller had contacted me out of the blue, finder’s keepers and all that. There was nothing illegal with just grabbing the Verona treasure, running to the DMV and making it mine. But if I did, I’d reek of hypocrisy, having tried to foster a community whose members take care rather than take advantage of each other.

My first spin in the Verona CSL would also be my last.

I called Inchausti and let him know I’d found one of his lost CSLs, lamely offering that I’d be happy to take the transaction off of his hands if he were no longer interested. He was grateful to reconnect with the car, and to purchase it at the agreed-upon price. He’d planned to trailer it home, but filled it with premium fuel and drove it back instead, naturally without any issues.

“The CSL drove perfectly,” he told me. “I couldn’t believe it!”

I could. I knew that car would make it to Cincinnati and back with only a quart of oil and a few tanks of fuel.

Not long after that, I saw the CSL at Coast Motor Werk, fully detailed and looking excellent on the pristine workshop floor. Verona never looked so good on an E9, and the interior was in fantastic original shape. I was running my hand slowly over the drip rail, pondering my near-miss when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“The CSL cleaned up really nicely,” an old friend remarked. “Nice of you, what you did.”

Photo: The CSL that got away 6

I nodded slowly and excused myself, taking my glass of Franziskaner Hefeweizen out back where no one could see the pained expression on my face.

The Verona CSL revisited

As it turns out, however, what I thought was my first and only drive in the Verona CSL was actually only my first. There’s still the photo shoot to be done for this article, as well as a follow-up on how the coupe has progressed since I “discovered” it in Temecula.

The CSL is now under the stewardship of Sean Steele of Autobahn Dismantling, but he acceded to Ron’s request and parted with it for an afternoon so Bimmer could take it for a test drive and shoot some photos.

Although my previous go-round with the CSL left me heartbroken, I’ve since found a CSi in Taiga (medium green) to take its place, leaving me with a freshly objective view on the one that got away. Even so, I can’t get over how good this car’s Verona red paint looks in the Newport Beach sunshine.

When I climb into the cockpit, I’m reminded again that the Scheel sport seats are much more comfortable than they look. The car now has its original-issue (and right-feeling) Petri sport steering wheel instead of the aftermarket wheel it had when I first saw it, and I’m convinced that it handles much better with the Petri wheel as I ease the E9 onto Pacific Coast Highway.

The brakes have received the servicing they required, eliminating the slight pulsing from the warped rotors I’d felt on my first drive. A quick brake test shows the car stopping straight, true and, most importantly, quickly.

The 360-degree view from the E9’s greenhouse—the visibility that is notably absent in newer cars—makes it easy to quickly change lanes and slot through gaps in traffic. The CSL is happy to oblige in my need to get to the next red light sooner than everyone else. The coupe gets up to speed quickly and effortlessly, seemingly unimpressed with my demands. My passenger Ron Perry is in agreement, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “C’mon!”

Photo: The CSL that got away 7

I step into the gas pedal with malicious zeal and the CSL flies down the street. The original higher horsepower and lighter weight configuration—222 hp at 5,500 rpm and 2,569 lbs. vs. the standard 3.0 CSi’s 200 hp and 2,625 lbs.—still has its own performance niche. Even though these CSLs will be turning 40 shortly, few cars compare when it comes to the driving experience. CSLs didn’t win all those races in the 1970s by accident; they were a force to be reckoned with for a number of years, and they still offer brisk performance even by comparison to much newer cars.

I glance down at the speedometer and see the needle touch 120 km—75 mph, quite quick on surface streets, and much faster than I’d expected. BMW had quoted a zero to 60 mph time of 6.7 seconds for this car back in 1972, and I’d say that’s about right. Not only does a CSL go fast, it goes fast quickly!

I appreciate speed, but a vehicle’s handling really makes the difference. (Years in a 2002 will do that to you!) A sharp right turn is fast approaching, and I’m determined to get maximum result from the coupe. With a short quick tap of the brakes going in, I hit the apex and floor it. The lighter weight of the aluminum-bodied coupe combines with perfect power delivery through the limited slip differential to let the CSL carve a perfect line through the turn. All the information I need is transmitted through the steering wheel, and the coupe corners as if on rails.

CSLs: They get in your blood

My test drive complete, I parked by the waterside, turned off the ignition and stepped out, completely satisfied. With the sun low in the sky, the orange tint in the Verona paint made the CSL look like it was basking in an automotive afterglow.

I’d had my time with this wonderful machine, and though it was brief it was full. I gave its CSL badge one long glance and bid a final farewell to the car I’d nearly owned.

In the not-too-distant future, I’ll be carving the canyons in another E9, the Taiga green CSi I’m transforming with a modern M30B35 engine, a five-speed transmission and various suspension and brake upgrades. The purists would have howled if I’d even considered dropping those components into a CSL, and rightly so. Owning one of these rare cars—BMW made fewer than 1,300 aluminum-bodied CSLs—requires a commitment to originality as well as deep pockets. It makes owning a regular E9 seem inexpensive, and that’s tough.

Yet even though I’ll appreciate all the advantages of the car I’m building, I’m sure that somewhere along the line I’ll brake for a turn, hit the apex and step on the gas, and for a moment the Taiga hood will appear to be Verona. Like Dengue fever, a CSL gets into your blood and stays there. You never know when it might pop up again, but you always know it’s with you, somewhere.

Also from Issue 105

  • First Drive: F30 3 Series
  • Interview: New BMW NA CEO Ludwig Willisch
  • Market Update: E90 3 Series
  • History of Munich up to F30 3 Series
  • Choosing and buying new tires
  • E82 1 M Coupe: Kelleners Sport KS1-S
  • E30 3 Series-based Alpina C2
  • 150th Climb to the Clouds: Mt. Washington
  • Paying homage to the E30 M3
  • Synergies between M and Motorsport
  • News about BMW Motorsports
  • Six cylinders: BMW K1600GTL motorcycle
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