BMW of North America’s Vintage Collection: The BMW E9 CSL

It’s difficult to find the bridge between enthusiasts and corporations. Car companies are in the business of selling cars, not catering to the wants of the small population of people that see something more in such machines. To many, a car serves a single purpose: transportation from point A to point B, and that’s all that matters to the wallets of the decision makers at the likes of Honda, GM, and even our friends in Germany. “Will it sell?” is the only question that truly matters at the end of the day, and the era of production race cars continues to dwindle. The brutal truth is that, as enthusiasts, it’s rare we’ll ever garner much attention from the people at the top of the food chain.

That’s not to say, however, that we’re entirely overlooked. There are many companies that take pride in their cult-like enthusiast followings. There are some that continue to campaign their factory race cars from 37 years ago and celebrate the following they’ve managed to earn through the trials and tribulations of racing. And then there are some who manage to take it one step further and remind you that they truly get what it’s all about.

Just over one year ago, in October of 2011, BMW of North America welcomed a new CEO on board. His name is Ludwig Willisch, and he’s the kind of guy who, like you and I, knows where BMW’s roots truly are. Previously head of BMW’s “M” division, Willisch is a true car enthusiast. While the past decade and a half have led BMW to becoming a premier brand in the field of luxury automobiles, Willisch knows that the performance oriented roots of the BMW namesake are as important as they were ages ago. I can hear it now: “Okay, so there’s a new CEO who says he gets the BMW enthusiast market… but who cares? Any big name can say that.”

Rewind with us to July 30 of this year. Andrew and I found ourselves at an empty Mid Ohio. In the pits sat the car you see before you: the legendary BMW CSL. In tow was a small team of mechanics and engineers from Bobby Rahal’s shop where the car is stored, Rahal himself, and of course, our friends Bill and Kathy from BMW NA. The day was planned as a private test session; a chance for the #25 E9 to stretch its legs in preparation for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca, just a month away. The pits sat empty and the track was quiet except for the faint growl of a Le Mans Prototype making test runs throughout the day as well.

The #25 car, part of BMW of North America’s Vintage Collection, was enough to get Andrew and me excited. As such an important part of racing history, and such a relevant piece of machinery to BMW fans like ourselves, there are few things that could make an afternoon with this car much better. I found myself in awe at the simple fact that BMW still preps and tracks this car just as they did in 1975. Old, but certainly not forgotten. However, there’s more to this story than a vintage racer that is still put to work. This is more than a story of just a car.

Just as important as the car is its driver. The two go hand in hand, and one is nothing without the other. This test session was also for the driver to familiarize himself with the car. While he’s no stranger to the track and race cars, it would be our driver’s first time piloting the iconic BMW; a short but sweet rundown and practice session before the upcoming race. The driver, if you hadn’t guessed already, would be Willisch himself, BMW NA’s CEO.

There’s something inexpressibly refreshing about “The Man” leaving his wooden desk for a mechanical one. It brings new meaning to being “at the office.” While many companies simply focus on the future, here is Willisch, remembering what brought BMW to where it is today. Philosopher George Santayana’s adage of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has an important counterpoint – that those who fail to remember their past are doomed to forget their origins.


Andrew and I sat just before the “Esses” at Mid Ohio as the CSL ripped around the track. Exponentially louder than any of the current ALMS cars, the CSL would be heard from the opposite side of the circuit. The vicious, high-pitched inline six roared and screamed past us, pushing the Goodyear tires to a squealing beg for mercy. Willisch was slowly getting comfortable in the E9. He’s no Stuck, but he kept the pedal down until he managed to snap it loose from the floor – a valiant way to end the afternoon.

For such an interesting and unique occasion, it was rather special to be included. There was no press, no hoopla, no commotion. Andrew and I were the only cameras present. Willisch and BMW were here to race the #25 purebred for pride – not for publicity. Our inclusion was only due to our enthusiasm for the brand and the team. As we said, sometimes these companies recognize their following.

The car was brought back to Rahal’s shop, the Vintage Collection HQ, where Andrew and I finally got to spend some one-on-one time with our hero. It’s one thing to witness such a machine in its natural environment — blasting around the track, but it’s another to interact with it; to examine its very intricacies and details. This particular car is rich with history, and it shows.

This very cockpit served as the throne to some of the greats in motorsports – Hans Stuck, Sam Posey, Brian Redman, Allan Moffat, Dieter Quester, Benny Parsons, Peter Gregg, and David Hobbs. As a chariot to these gladiators, this very car was one of three campaigned by BMW in North America for the 1975 and 1976 seasons, winning IMSA races at Sebring, Laguna Seca, Riverside, Daytona, Lime Rock, and Talledega.

These wins were only a part of what the E9 CSL can claim to its name. The 3.0 CSL won six European Touring Car Championships between 1973 and 1979 – all but one. It stands as one of the most successful production race cars of all time and represents, at least in our eyes, the epitome of 1970s racing history and style.

The details show what the car is truly capable of. The monster tach makes it hard to ignore the 8500RPM redline. Only the essentials are placed on the dash; no fancy gimmicks, no modern amenities — the CSL is all business. The unmissable side exit exhaust pipes allow the 3.5-liter dual overhead-cam 24-valve engine to wail to redline, popping and crackling as it compresses air and fuel to a compression ratio of 11.0:1. A staggering 430hp is pumped out through a 5-speed Getrag transmission to the back of the car.

To put the power to the tarmac, a set of centerlock BBS motorsport splits, measuring an astonishing 16 inches, wide are mounted up and wrapped in 350/1650 Goodyear slicks. Up front the wheels measure 16×13, wider than today’s average “supercar” rear wheel.

To house such monstrous front and rear tires are the quintessential E9 box flares. The flares are outlined in the historic “M” livery, the official Motorsport colors; the red, blue, and purple stripes that adorn the BMW race cars to this very day. In fact, the CSL was the very first car to wear the colors, starting an undying tradition that carries serious power in the world of motorsport even still.

Fast-forwarding about a month, Andrew, Cody and I were in Monterey, California for the Rolex Motorsports Reunion (my article here, Andrew’s here, Cody’s coming soon.) While we were there to enjoy cars from every brand and era, we were quite excited to see Willisch take to the world-renowned Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway with other unbelievable cars from the same era.

We arrived early; before any cars had been uncovered from the night before and before the sound of air ratchets filled the paddock with clicking and clattering. The deep morning fog of Laguna Seca was present and well, setting the mood for what was still one of the best weekends of the year. Willisch arrived a bit later, and while some knew of his attendance and participation, only a few would know he was behind the wheel as #25 took to the track.

Before the car went out, Willisch looked the part of CEO, but once the driving suit was donned, something seemed to change, if ever so slightly. Willisch sat in the pits waiting to head out for the first heat. He sat amongst giants such as the Porsche 935 and the BMW M1. Few men can say they’ve done the same, and fewer will return to work after the race to operate one of the greatest car companies in the world.

The crew took their final looks over the car, making their last judgement calls as to whether the car was ready to go out. The battery tender was unhooked and the CSL was fired up; the nostril-burning sensation of raw fuel filled the paddock as each of the cars roared to life.  A pack of Ford GT40s, some Porsche 917s, and some classic Can Am cars pulled off the track, and it was finally time for Willisch to push the old girl to her limits.

Willisch popped and crackled his way to the start, the hot cams under the hood giving the BMW a distinctive, stand-out sound even in the pits. While perhaps over-glorified by us as BMW fans, it was special to see the man who runs BMW of North America racing in and with the same cars he grew up watching.

Out on the track, the CSL flew down the Rahal Straight and bombed down the infamous Corkscrew. Its distinct howl could be heard over the the other cars long before it entered our field of view. Willisch was one of three BMWs in the field, otherwise full of BMW’s long-time competition: Porsche. Three or four turbocharged Porsche 935s lead the pack, and a dozen or more 911s followed shortly behind them, their flat engines wonderfully familiar in tone and grunt as they growled past on each lap.

Willisch was far from the fastest on the track; the powerhouse drivers this car once served were of a different caliber, but that’s not to say Willisch’s efforts were useless. While he didn’t land a podium finishing position, for once, it was a race that was less about winning and more about its essence in whole. Willisch’s participation, and BMW’s too, makes a powerful statement in many ways.

It’s difficult to find the bridge between enthusiasts and corporations. Car companies are in the business of selling cars, not catering to the wants of the small population of people that see something more in such machines. But then there’s BMW. With Ludwig Willisch at the helm, I don’t think our loyalty to the BMW namesake is going anywhere any time soon.


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