Photography by A version of this story previously appeared in Magazine
The top touring car series today is the WTCC, which is a big draw for the manufacturers, but its also fair to say that it’s a long way from being the most enthralling racing. The cars, even with their aggressive wings and flares, aren’t exactly the most emotive machines. Go back a few decades to the World Championship for Makes though, and it was a golden era of fire-spitting beasts that only bore a silhouette resemblance to their road-going counterparts that were raced by past and future Formula 1 and Le Mans stars.
Porsche ruled the Group 5 era with its turbocharged 935, but BMW and the CSLs were formidable rivals to their German neighbors, and this stunning green example is the most original of BMW’s Group 5 works cars. Jan Luehn owns this matching-numbers, race-winning Batmobile, and he offered to have me out to see it in person and talk about its spectacular history and originality.
1976 saw big changes for the touring car-based series, as the new Group 5 regulations allowed manufacturers much freer reign to develop high-powered machines with a far fewer restrictions on additional aero parts, leaving the “silhouette” racers barely identifiable as the road cars they were based on. Only the bonnets, roofs, and doors had to be the same as the road cars, which is why the bodies look so boxy as the vents and flares abruptly begin and end around the unalterable areas… This is also how the CSL became known as the Batmobile.
The name came into being well before 1976 though, as BMW had already been a works team and had already developed the first Batmobile aero in 1973. The Group 5 cars saw the factory support return to the series, but BMW committed to doing so very late, only deciding in December 1975 to compete with the CSL for the upcoming season. The CSL at this point had already finished its production in the summer of 1975, and the platform was aging, but a few months later they had four cars ready to race. It was already February though, and that left precious little time for further testing and development.
One car was to be run by the Alpina-Faltz team, another by a British team called Hermetite, and the third, in green Gösser Bier livery, was run by Schnitzer. The last car was retained by the factory, being developed to run with twin turbos and was due to be released, or unleashed, later in the year.
As in the rallying of the same period, there was no championship for drivers (if World Championship for Makes didn’t hint at that), it was only the manufacturers that took any honors. Driver lineups were pretty fluid, but there was some consistency, and the main drivers of the Schnitzer car were BMW stalwarts Albrecht Krebs—who drove almost exclusively BMWs all throughout the 1970s—and Dieter Quester, who also spent pretty much all of his long racing career in a BMW, (and is also famed for finishing a DTM race in 1990 on the roof of his M3). However, the car was also piloted in certain races by two current F1 drivers: Gunnar Nilsson, who was driving for the JPS Lotus team, and Ronnie Peterson, one of the drivers of the six-wheeled Tyrrell.
The only other team to enter a works effort was Porsche. Ford, after dominating early in the decade with the Capri, had left the series, and Lancia entered with their Turbo Stratos. As stunning as that car was, it didn’t exactly shine, and in fact burnt to a crisp mid season and wasn’t rebuilt. But even with just the two top German manufacturers going head-to-head, it wasn’t exactly a level playing field. The new rules allowed engine capacity to be increased to 3.5 liters, but even though the CSL weighed just 970kg and the naturally-aspirated straight-six made a healthy 470bhp, Porsche’s turbocharged 935s put out 160 bhp more than the BMWs. But, with hastily constructed cars that pushed the limits of available technology and raced without a full testing program, reliability in the long distance events was more of a factor than it otherwise may have been.
The first race, a six-hour endurance event around Italy’s Mugello circuit saw the Schnitzer car suffer with handling and braking issues, but it still managed to get up to 2nd before retiring. Tellingly, the first seven finishing positions went to Porsche. At the head of the field was the all-star pairing of Jocen Mass and Jacky Ickx, both current F1 drivers and both men who would go onto many more major successes in the future.
At the next race at Vellelunga, again in Italy and again a six-hour race, the Schnitzer car was up to 2nd once again until a wheel nut got stuck during a pit stop. Perhaps one of the most bizarre ever reasons for a retirement, the suspension broke from a mechanic jumping up and down on the wheel nut breaker bar! Mass and Ickx took another win.
In the Silverstone 6 Hours a couple of weeks later, all eyes were on BMW’s new 750bhp turbo-charged CSL, nicknamed the “Munich Monster.” It still wasn’t as fast as the Porsche though, and only took the lead when the leading Martini sponsored P-car stopped with gearbox trouble. With so much power being forced through the transmission, no one expected the CSL Turbo to last too long either… and it didn’t. That left Quester and Krebs out in an easy lead, but it also wasn’t to last; a con-rod snapped, and that was the end of their race. Three races. Three DNFs for this car so far. It wasn’t looking too good for Schnitzer. With the Kremer-run Porsche having refueling issues, the Hermetite car managed to keep going at Silverstone, and British drivers Tom Walkinshaw and John Fitzpatrick took a narrow win, BMW’s first of the season.
One of the most demanding tracks in the world was the scene for the ADAC 1000km, on the legendary and infamous Nordschleife circuit. The works Porsche ran away at the front of the field, the three pursuing BMWs unable to get anywhere near its pace. But the complexion of the race changed when the Porsche broke its driveshaft and left BMW looking at a solid 1-2-3, the Schnitzer car in 3rd. But first the Alpina car suffered a broken suspension, putting them out, and then the Hermetite car lost the engine just three laps from the end. The Schnitzer team had been close three times before, so they were nervous, but they held on and took a long-awaited win.
At the Osterreichring, the next race, the leading Porsche qualified a full four seconds faster than the nearest BMW on the flowing 5.9km track, but again it was reliability issues that cost them the race and let Quester—this time partnered with Nilsson—to lead a BMW 1-2 finish. BMW had some momentum.
Then Le Mans. The biggest race of the year didn’t offer any points for the World Championship for Makes, but all the top cars entered anyway. The Turbo CSL, in the famous Art Car livery of Frank Stella, performed remarkably well, keeping up with some much more high-classed machinery such as the Porsche 936 and Renualt-Alpine A442. But a fleet of cars that struggled with reliability issues in six-hour races didn’t have much prospect of doing too well in one four times as long. Still, the Turbo car retired while running in 3rd, and the Schnitzer backing out while in 8th was still regarded as a strong showing. BMW would have to wait until 1999 until their one, and so far only, overall win at Le Mans.
The only race outside Europe—Watkins Glen in the USA—proved to be a Porsche domination that even BMW’s Ronnie Peterson, at that time an eight-time Grand Prix winner, couldn’t do anything about. He took 5th. But the archaic scoring system only gave points to the highest finishing car from either manufacturer, so because of its mid-season wins BMW was still in with a shout at the championship at the season-ending race, the 6 Hours of Dijon in France.
BMW entered the turbocharged CSL again, now with a stronger transmission to better cope with the massive output. It led away, as expected, and settled down to set the same pace of the Porsches behind, but it didn’t last long, as even the reinforced differential was blown to pieces. With Porsche taking the top four places, the championship was over in a puddle of metal shard-filled differential oil. The Turbo was more exotic, but the Schnitzer car holds the accolade of being the highest scoring BMW of the year.
With the CSL now an obsolete model, hasty work had already begun on the new E21-based 320 Turbo cars, and all of the ’76 racers were sold on to private teams. The ex-Schnitzer car pictured here spent 1977 in the German Championship driven by Sepp Manhalter for the Memphis Racing Team in white with the red and two-tone blue stripes. The car won the Havirov International race in the Czech Republic, but at the end of the year a wealthy Indonesian businessman came and made an offer for the car that the team couldn’t refuse. It was then airfreighted to Asia where it was repainted again—this time with Bentol cigarette logos—and driven in the Indonesian Grand Prix, which it won. But in 1978, running over a high curb cracked the sump and the resultant oil loss was bad enough to seize the engine. Spare parts and local mechanics that could work on such a car were understandably hard to find in the Far East, so it was pushed into a barn… where it stayed dormant until the early 1990s.
This could easily have been a tragedy, as the hot, humid climate could have rotted the car beyond recovery. But while it was in a bad condition when it was accidentally rediscovered, the fact that it was parked up and abandoned when it was less than three years old meant that it was completely original. Only the paint had been changed.
Englishman Tony Walker found the car by accident while looking at another stored in the same shed. The locals knew it was there, but they didn’t have any idea what it was, just thinking it was something someone had made as a one-off—who would put such an insane body kit on a race car? But under the dust Tony knew what it was instantly. Unfortunately the barn find of a lifetime wasn’t a fairytale, as despite doing nothing apart from letting it slowly decay, its Indonesian owner didn’t want to sell the CSL, and it took almost another decade before he finally gave in and let Tony take it back to Europe where it could be brought back to life.
Understandably after so long in the tropical climate, all the rubber and magnesium parts had perished, although this would be the same on any car left untouched for so long. The rebuild was thorough, painstaking, detailed, and it took six years in all, but the end result is one absolutely stunning car. And a very original one at that. The engine was repairable, the only damage on any of the bodywork was at the front splitter, damaged in the same curb-bashing incident that cracked the sump. Back in the original Gösser Bier colors, Tony didn’t drive the car very much in its restored state, but when he did it was in events worthy of the of car’s status: the 2006 Goodwood Festival of Speed for instance, and two times at the Le Mans Classic. Tony is first and foremost a rally driver though, so now the CSL is looking for a new owner. Hopefully we will all be seeing more of this iconic BMW at classic shows and historic races in the future.