Was there ever a time when BMW didn’t make “The Ultimate Driving Machine?” For over 50 years, the blue and white roundel has perched atop the nose of some of the best drivers cars in the world. It may be hard to believe now, but had things gone a little differently, BMW as we know it might have never existed. The company’s history is full of iconic cars, but without the help from saviors called the New Class, the New Six, and the Batmobile, today’s automotive world would be very, very different.
By 1959, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s automotive division was in dire straits. After the failure of the outdated 501 luxury model and the stunning but prohibitively expensive 507 roadster, the company’s sole bright spot was the strong-selling Isetta bubblecar. BMW’s board of directors had resisted takeover bids from American Motors and the British Rootes Group, but considered merging its automotive division with Daimler-Benz. Fortunately, the move was blocked by company shareholders, because soon after, things started to change for BMW, and fast.
A modern air-cooled coupe called the 700 appeared in 1960, followed by the first of the New Class cars in 1961. With their slab-sided good looks and fantastic inline-four engine, the cars (specifically the 2002 coupe) became a world-wide success. Introduced in 1968, the New Six cars introduced BMW’s now legendary inline-six engines to the world, and included a number of handsome and upmarket models that could finally take on Mercedes-Benz in the luxury segment, including the gorgeous 2800CS coupe.
By 1971, BMW had become a player in the European Touring Car Championship series, having won its division with race-prepped 2002s in ’66, ’68, and ’69. With its smooth inline-six, aerodynamic lines, and fantastic handling characteristics, BMW wanted to raise its profile even higher, and take its Big Six coupe racing. The result was the wild 3.0 CSL, a car that was so outrageous looking that became known as the German Batmobile, and inspired the most famous tagline in automotive history.
BMW had a fantastic starting point in the 3.0 CS, but the car needed a little finessing to get it ready for the track. The company turned to its nascent in-house performance tuners, who set to work creating a completely different beast. The coupe’s inline-six was bored and fitted with a Bosch fuel injection system, which bumped horsepower from 190 to 205. The car was put on a diet, with the steel doors, hood, and trunk all replaced with aluminum versions. Soundproofing, electric windows, and heavy road bumpers were ditched, and the glass side windows were replaced with thin plastic.
To top it all off, an extreme aero kit was fitted, including front fins, a wide air dam, flared fenders, and a massive (for the time) rear wing, which transformed the car form an elegant coupe to a beast known in the racing world as “The Batmobile.” The 3.0 CSL (L for Licht, or light) was ready to race by 1972, and BMW’s tuners had then become known as the the M-Division, which has gone on to build some of the most iconic performance cars in automotive history.
The car was an instant success on the track. With its wild looks, incredible speed, and fantastic handling, 3.0CSLs scored back-to-back victories in their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1973 and ’74. More importantly, they became a global success for the BMW, which expanded its original run of 500 cars (the minimum amount needed to meet European racing homologation rules) to over 1,265 cars over its four-year production run. Despite its imposing looks on the track, BMW quickly realized that its now high-end clientele might not want the giant wing and flared fenders on their road-going GT cars, so the aerodynamic aids came delivered as kits packed in the trunk.
After four years, the end was in sight for the aging New Six models, but the 3.0CSLs continued to have a strong international racing presence. In its final year in production, a race-prepped car was painted by the artist Alexander Calder and raced at the 1975 Le Mans, kicking off BMW’s Art Car program. Eight years after the last 3.0 CSL rolled off the line, BMW introduced the 1983 M6 coupe, a 282 horsepower spiritual successor to the original. Two generations later, the current M6 faithfully carries on the performance spirit of its predecessor as one of the finest GTs in the world.
Before the 3.0 CSL, BMW was a struggling German automaker trying to get back on its feet. By the time production ended, the company had become internationally known as a distinct and sporty alternative to Mercedes-Benz. Working with the small advertising firm Ammirati & Puris, the company played up its successes with the CSL and M-Division, becoming the Ultimate Driving Machine, a tag that has stuck for 40 years. Bimmer fans will always debate over the greatest BMW of all-time, but without The Batmobile, we’d be lucky if we had BMW at all.