History/driving impressions originally published in AutoWeek June 22, 1987; republished by the author.
BMW “Batmobile” 3.0 CSL driven by Richard Conway, photo by John Matras
The public address system blares as Richard Conway finishes strapping me into his car. I am about to drive a few laps at the BMW Vintage Fall Festival at Lime Rock in a BMW 3.0CSL– the same BMW 3.0CSLthat had, in the hands of German sports car driving ace Hans Stuck, won its class at Le Mans in 1973. My turn behind the wheel will occur during an intermission in the vintage racing, says the announcer, my laps and then David Hobbs taking the winners of a drawing around the track in a 635CSi coming between the early sprint races and later “cup” events.
Ha! Star billing with David Hobbs! Conway cinches the shoulders straps and points out the relevant controls – first gear of the Getrag five-speed is back into the left, keep the rpm under 6200, he advises, rather than the 7100 he uses, the ignition switch toggle and the starter button are on a box behind the gears shift. And Conway gives one last bit of advice: Don’t try to outdrive Hobbs. With the grin he flips down the visor on my helmet.
This is it. Ignition on. Starter button. A little throttle pedal and…noise. The engine, 3.0liters of sohc in-line six with slide-port mechanical fuel injection, blips nervously in response to pokes at the throttle. Not much flywheel here, folks, an evaluation reinforced by my almost stalling it as I let out the clutch. But now I’m out under the flagger’s bridge at the start-finish line, under a smiling Eric Wensburg, the new motorsports manager at BMW of North America who helped make all this possible.
Why are all these people smiling? Here I am, in a car I’ve never driven before, a 2560lb car with 325bhp (at 7100rpm) which is capable of 125 mph on Lime Rock’s short front straight. It’s fitted with jumbo tires with more contact area than a beached whale, and I am to drive this thing in front of thousands of vintage racing fans? Somehow, in two laps, I’m supposed to get a feel for the car, go fast enough to honor BMW with not going so fast as to do something stupid, dishonoring myself, AutoWeek, and motor journalists every everywhere. Couldn’t we just do this in my backyard sometime?
It’s too late for that. I’m in mid-turn in turn one, Big Bend, tracking down the center of the pavement. Apex? What apex? That’s okay. No problem. I just came out on the track. Still, going into the asses, I set myself up for the Proper Line. This should at least look good.
The steering is ultra-quick, no surprise for a race car, the still something that requires a quick acclimatization, and the engine makes all its power up top, again like any racecar should. Down low it bogs and the induction system doesn’t like clumsy offerings of throttle. Through the esses it sets up nicely but down the No-Name Straight the CSL darts as the wide front tires follow surface irregularities.
I’m careful through the climbing turn. I know how cars get light through there and can spin faster than you can say Nureyev. Down the back straight and braking for the next turn the dartiness continues. In fact, I wonder if I can keep it on the track. I do.
Power through the turn, under the bridge, down the hill and through the turn and onto the front straight. Shift into fourth. The shifter is easy to use, sweet as any on a road car. I see Conway, my wife Mary Ann and others in the pits, Wensberg on the flagging bridge. Here goes another lap.
This time I apex Big Bend and steal a glance at the hillside ahead. Sheesh, it’s full of people and they all, as far as I can tell, are watching the only car on the track. I wonder if amoebae get self-conscious on a microscope slide. It still darts down No-Name, I tiptoe through the climbing turn, and skate all over the back straight as I apply the brakes. Under the bridge, down the hill and, mercifully, into the pits. Blip the throttle as I coast in – probably not necessary but it sounds good and with pedals in good heel-toe relationship, it’s easy to do. I stop and kill ignition. Whew.
Read about the BMW 3.0 CSiL, the homologator for the CSL here.
What’s this? Wensberg is waiting me out again! Can’t deny my public. I buzz back out of the pits. Through Big Bend, a little more aggressively into the esses and a too-early apex starts the front end pushing, but throttle brings it back in and the tail out. More power down No-Name Straight and then Bimmer darts less, if at all. Still, under brakes on the back straight it’s scary. Around and down and back to the pits, this time for good. I shut off the engine and noticed there is rubber dust on my driving suit. How did that get there? The door opens, my gloves and helmet come off. Conway, Wensberg and Marianne are all still smiling. And dammit, I am too.
Time for a quick debriefing. The wide tires aren’t original for this car, and Conway admits the tires and wheels aren’t matched very well. This CSL, brought to the US after being retired from competition by BMW Motorsports prior to the advent of the IMSA-style 3.5liter CSL, nevertheless has the big IMAS-style flares, fitted by a former owner probably because the smaller early European flares were not available. For the ‘87 vintage racing season, Conway’s fabricating a set of small flares and he’ll run treaded, original size Dunlop racing tires. Like the original set up, the BMW has a front air dam, rear wing and roof edge spoiler, aluminum doors, hood and decklid and plexiglass rear side windows and backlight.
The brakes never got warm. I didn’t use them hard enough, but I didn’t want to, at least not before I got to know the car better. The BMW 3.0CSL is relatively heavy for racecar, especially one with a peaky powerband, and it needs to be driven up on the step. There is no halfway with this car. Driven forcefully, it responds. But any less won’t do.
Only after it’s over do I become aware of the tingle of adrenaline. It rushes to my head and my hands and I’m glad my three laps are done…but, hey, guys, when can I do it again?
Addendum: This car went up for auction by Sotheby’s in Montery in August, 2023, where it was expected to sell for between $800,000 and $1,000,000. That’s a lot of zeros. It didn’t sell, however. Maybe I need to drive it again.