Comfort Zone

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BMW is well known for its sporty, small sedans and sedan-based coupes (witness stuff like this and this). They start to fall down, however, when it comes to anything outside of that particular sliver of the market. BMW has never really had a sports car that could compete with Porsche, and their bigger cars have always been overshadowed by the likes of Mercedes and Audi. But as I learned from the movie She’s All That, just because something’s relatively unknown doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting to know. So let’s get to know a big BMW. This is a 1973 BMW 3.0 CS. 

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Let’s get the negative out of the way right at the start. 3.0 CS is not a good name. 3.0 CS could have just as easily been a type of printer ink or piece of small town legislation dealing with, I don’t know, community schools? Cyber security? Cat species? Anyway, the CS in 3.0 CS actually stands for Coupe Sport. That’s because at the time BMW was trying to make a “sporty coupe” (radical, I know) out of their “Neue Klasse” series of post-WWII sedans. Much like my cooking, their results were decidedly mixed. There was the impossibly pretty, Italian designed, and V8 powered 3200CS from the early sixties. But they only made six hundred of them, and only fifty survive today. Then there was the 2000CS which, while produced in much larger numbers than the 3200, looked like it’d been punched in the teeth. And it was only available with an unremarkable four cylinder engine. Enter the 3.0 CS.

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In an effort to better compete with its rivals from Mercedes, Jaguar, and Alfa Romeo, BMW management began pushing for a more powerful engine to go into their next generation coupe. And in 1968, they got their wish: a 2.8 liter inline six cylinder, plus a restyled (and vastly improved) front end as well. In 1971, the engine grew to 3.0 liters, thus explaining the “3.0” part of the 3.0 CS name. It was a killer engine, so much so that Road and Track once called it “delicious.” It made about 170 horsepower, and was capable of accelerating the big BM from 0 to 60 in nine and a half seconds, which is about on par with a present-day Toyota Prius. But stay with me on this: BMW has never been about outright acceleration (Audi’s grip on the performance all-wheel-drive market made sure of that). To see what really makes an Ultimate Driving Machine, you have to look deeper than the engine.

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Up until the mid-nineties, BMW used semi-trailing arm suspensions. Here’s a diagram for those who want to geek out about it a little more, but the Sparknotes is that semi-trailing arms allow a car to strike a balance between oversteer and understeer, which results in neutral steering. Which is a good thing. Goldilocks, I think, would prefer her suspension to be set up this way. The 3.0 CS had a bit of a tendency for what’s called “lift-off oversteer,” which, I hate to break it to you, did not involve the car blasting off. Rather, when the CS was going around a corner at speed and the driver let up off the accelerator suddenly, the back end would swing around, sending the car into a (hopefully) controlled drift. Sounds dangerous, I know, but BMW drivers of a certain age like that kind of thing, and tail-happy antics are at least part of the reason the company enjoys the sporty pedigree it has today. Two transmission choices were available for the CS: a three speed automatic and a four speed manual.

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It’s tough to find fault with the 3.0 CS, honestly. It received rave reviews in its day, and its styling kept it timeless, especially in light of its contemporaries’ more gaudy designs. The engine was everything an enthusiastic driver could want, and if this particular example on the Lower East Side is any indication, they’re relatively reliable as well. It’s a standout in an era when cars were anything but. The 3.0 CS went a long way to solidifying BMW’s renaissance after the end of the Second World War, and it came only after the company stepped out of their small, sporty comfort zone.

Additional Thoughts:

  • One of BMW’s most iconic racecars, the 3.0 CSL, or to use its nickname, the “Batmobile,” is based on a 3.0 CS.
  • It was also the first to be featured in BMW’s long running series of “Art Cars.” It was painted by Alexander Calder in 1975.
  • BMW showed off a modern interpretation of the 3.0 CS at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015, but in my opinion it didn’t quite capture the spirit of the original.
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