From beaten down to beautiful: Resurrecting a BMW 3.0CSi, Part 1

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Red BMW Coupe Rob Siegel

Like many readers of these pages, I have multiple cars—nine, to be exact. I’m often asked if I have a favorite. Unlike with children, it is OK to have a favorite car. In my case, it’s my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi, hands down.

First, a little history. The BMW 2800CS / 3.0CS / CSi (body code E9) evolved from the 2000C / CS, the two-door coupe built from 1965–69 and was never commercially imported to the United States. The 2000CS coupe itself was a variant of the “Neue Klasse” (new class) sedans built from 1962–77. The car is a true pillarless coupe—that is, there’s no “B” pillar holding up the roof. When you roll the door window and the rear quarter glass down, there’s the kind of dramatic wide-open expanse that you rarely see in modern passenger cars.

The back end of the 2000CS is quite pretty, but the nose is a bit unusual, lacking BMW’s standard right-center-left grille treatment, and instead having only center slits for the trademark center double kidneys. In addition, the wheel track is by modern standards oddly narrow, and the glass-covered Euro headlights make the car look a bit like an insect.

The 2000C coupe that I owned in the early 1980s. This one had a U.S.-spec headlight conversion. You can see the soon-to-be-classic E9 coupe lines marred by the unusual nose and the narrow wheel track.
The 2000C coupe that I owned in the early 1980s. This one had a U.S.-spec headlight conversion. You can see the soon-to-be-classic E9 coupe lines marred by the unusual nose and the narrow wheel track. Rob Siegel

In 1968, BMW debuted its new E3 sedan (2500 / 2800 / Bavaria / 3.0S / 3.0Si), which was powered by the new straight-six M30 engine. A year later, BMW followed that with the 2800CS, the first of the redesigned M30-powered E9 coupes. From the tail of the car to the front windshield, the body of the 2800CS was basically identical to the 2000CS, but the nose was restyled and lengthened to accommodate the new 170-horsepower dual-Zenith-fed M30 engine. Considering that the E9 was not drawn on a clean sheet of paper and instead evolved from the 2000CS, the degree to which it looks like a perfect-from-the-get-go design is astonishing.

The new nose design for the E9 looked like it was always meant to be there.
The new nose design for the E9 looked like it was always meant to be there. Rob Siegel

Ironically, the pretty 2800CS still had the rear drum brakes and narrow rear wheel track inherited from the 2000CS, whereas the more stalwart-looking 2800 sedan wore four-wheel discs. This disparity was corrected in 1971 when the 2800CS was replaced by the 3.0CS / CSi. The U.S. saw only the carbureted 3.0CS, nearly all of which were fully-loaded cars with leather seats, power windows, sunroof, and air conditioning. In Europe, however, the injected higher-performance 3.0CSi was available. The CSi cars utilized the first commercially-available electronic fuel injection, Bosch D-Jetronic, also used on certain Volkswagens, Mercedes, the Volvo 164e, among others. A fair number of gray market CSis found their way to the United States. Nearly all were configured for the European market with cloth seats and no air conditioning.

Lastly is the rarest and most desirable variant, the 3.0CSL. This is the lightweight homologation version of the E9 with aluminum hood, trunk, and door skins, and thinner steel elsewhere. There are road-going CSLs and race cars. On the road cars, in addition to carbureted versus injected versions and small changes to engine displacement, there are some confusing distinctions. CSLs saved additional weight with deletion of the front bumper, power steering, sound deadening, and use of a plastic rear bumper and fixed plastic rear windows. However, some cars had the “town package” or “city package” where most of these amenities were added back in for buyers who wanted the creature comforts (air conditioning was even an option). The road-going “Batmobiles” additionally featured trunk and roof spoilers and fender wind splits. Lastly, the actual Group 2 through 5 race cars that competed in the European Touring Car Championship had a different high-output engine with a 24-valve head, additional aerodynamics, and fender flares. The Group 5 cars were especially poster-worthy, as they featured deep side scoops.

A Group 5 3.0CSL tribute car showing off its aerodynamic aids and scoops.
A Group 5 3.0CSL tribute car showing off its aerodynamic aids and scoops. Rob Siegel

The other thing you need to know about E9 coupes is that their bodies were built by Karmann (yes, that Karmann), which means that they are legendary rust buckets. If you learn only two automotive jokes, they should be that Lucas electrical systems have three settings—dim, flicker, and off—and that Karmann invented rust, then licensed the process to the Italians. E9s have the double-whammy of not only rusting if you look at them with so much as a damp thought on your mind, but also hiding rust in places that are difficult for the novice to inspect. As such, buying an E9 without knowing what you’re looking at is a risky proposition.

I began as a BMW 2002 person, but when I first saw the lithe and lovely lines of an E9 coupe in the early 1980s, I was immediately smitten. The problem was, of course, cost. The cars weren’t as pricey as they are now—pretty, shiny examples languished at $10k for many years—but even still, they were triple the price of a nice 2002.

In 1986, I bought the only E9 I could afford. It was a basket-case 1973 3.0CSi, Polaris (silver) with navy blue velour interior. The car had been hit lightly in the front, but it was enough to crumple the nose, hood, and fenders. Several owners had circumvented buying new and expensive body panels and instead pounded on the metal to make the car drivable. The glass and interior were out of the car. It ran, but barely. The original D-Jetronic injection had been removed and replaced with dual Weber downdraft carbs. Despite its condition, incredibly, the car was nearly rust-free. I bought it for $1700, had it flat-bedded home, and began sorting it out mechanically.

Once I had it up and running, I ordered the needed sheet metal, which came to the then-seemingly exorbitant and now laughably inexpensive cost of $729. I then paid someone to install the new nose and fenders. This was pricey—around two grand—because, on an E9, the rear section of the fenders actually form the corners of the windshield frame, so the windshield has to come out to replace them. At that point, I was out of money, so I drove the car, half in its original Polaris silver and half in primer, for about two years while I saved up to get it painted.

My 3.0CSi in 1987, waiting for my bank account to be replenished.
My 3.0CSi in 1987, waiting for my bank account to be replenished. Rob Siegel

In 1988, I had the outer body restoration done. The glass and interior were removed, and the exterior was stripped to bare metal. A single rust hole about the size of a dime was repaired. I had the color changed from Polaris to Signal Red, a Mercedes color which was very popular on 300E sedans and 560SL roadsters in the 1980s, slightly darker than BMW’s Verona red. So I violated not one rule, but two—I not only color-changed the car, I selected a color that wasn’t in BMW’s color palette. In my defense: I was a kid at the time and I wanted a red E9; E9s weren’t worth what they are now; and the whole etiquette of color changes wasn’t established to the degree it is today. For cost reasons, the engine was left in, but the guy who painted the car did a good job of shooting around it. You have to look pretty hard to find any traces of the original Polaris paint.

bmw The E9 reduced to sheet metal.
The E9 reduced to sheet metal. Rob Siegel

The $4000 paint job had seven coats of base color and seven coats of clear, all wet-sanded between coats to get the finish good and flat and produce the shine and deep reflections you associate with a high-dollar paint job. Nowadays, a high-quality glass-out multi-coat wet-sanded paint job that includes the engine compartment and trunk can easily set you back 20 grand, but four grand was a lot of money back in 1988. My wife was supportive, but other family and friends thought I’d gone off the deep end. That is, until they saw the result.

After the car was sprayed, the original chrome looked dull and pitted against the new paint, so I replaced the trim and rubber with new (the slippery slope of outer body restoration). In addition, the navy velour interior was worn, and looked odd against the red paint, so I found another E9 with a tan leather interior, and swapped interiors.

The red and white E9s. You can see the tan leather interior in the white car that eventually went into the red one.
The red and white E9s. You can see the tan leather interior in the white car that eventually went into the red one. Rob Siegel

With the fresh Signal Red paint, new trim and rubber, and tan leather interior, the formerly basket-case E9 looked absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. Which brings us to one of my favorite stories about the car. It was 1988. I was 30 years old and driving the dream. A man in a then-new 911 pulled up next to me in traffic. You have to understand that for much of my life, I looked like a young skinny Jerry Garcia. The man rolled down the window and said “Nice car!” I thanked him. And then he said the thing that perhaps others thought but no one else said out loud:

“How does a guy like you own a car like that?”

“Drugs,” I said, and drove off.

Next week: Part 2.

***

Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can also order a personally inscribed copy here.

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