Attention To Detail – E46 M3 CSL

One of the least commonly seen modern BMW’s is a special one in BMW’s line. Not only did it come in limited production numbers, but it came with a special badge on the boot, CSL. The E46 M3 CSL had some unique performance perks that truly made it one of the best performing BMW’s in the last decade. It was designed for the racetrack, being issued with a waiver that buyers must sign stating that they understand the car is not to be driven in the wet or cold. Anssi Ranki, a member of bimmerforums put together a great Bimmerforums thread available here highlighting the car with excellent photography and detailed information about the car. It is detail we definitely felt was worth sharing: 


My BMW M3 CSL – A Picture Spectacular

I finally have one. Buying it was probably one of the most irrational things I have ever done. At the same time, it was definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Ever since I have had it, my heart rate has not been the same. I sleep less. I live more. Good thing I am writing this at a car-enthusiast forum, otherwise you’d think I’m just crazy.

This car has inspired me to drive it, take care of it, study it, photograph it and write about it. My CSL story has been published in BMW CCA Roundel Magazine (Dec 2011) and in BMW Club Finnland Bemaristi Magazine (3/2011). 

When reading, please remember that I am not a car professional, far from one. I am just an average person now driving a much-more-than-average car. The text is about my opinions and findings, and you are welcome to participate in the discussion and offer your point of view.

Chapter 1: The Specs

In 2003, from June to December, BMW made 1385 CSL versions of the E46 M3. CSL stands for “Coupe, Sport, Leichtbau”, hinting that BMW had designed a car even faster than the standard E46 M3.

Obviously, it is not easy to improve on an E46 M3, as it already has all the major BMW M features. Therefore, the CSL has small improvements, but lots of them:

1) CSL is lighter
2) CSL has more power
3) CSL has suspension and steering upgrades that improve handling
4) CSL has improved aerodynamics
5) CSL has better grip

All those small improvements together amount to quite a significant performance increase. At the Nürburgring, the E46 M3 has clocked a very impressive lap time of 8:22. The CSL has a time of 7:50. That is a night-and-day difference.

As part of the extensive weight saving program, some equipment was simply left out. There is no navigation, sunroof, fog lights or leather seats. In fact, the car could even be ordered without air-conditioning and a radio, both being quite heavy items to drag around a race-track. And where it really counts, some parts were replaced by much more expensive lightweight items, such as the wheels, front apron, roof, bootlid, rear window and front seats.

To further improve the performance, engine power was increased to 360hp, which is 17hp more than in the standard E46 M3. Suspension, steering and brakes were upgraded. Front splitters and a redesigned bootlid were included to reduce aerodynamic lift. And to perfect the masterpiece, semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires were the choice.

BMW still wanted, however, to maintain the everyday usability of the car, so it continued to have some equipment that many sports cars don’t, such as rear seats (that even fold for extra storage capacity), power windows and mirrors, and reading lights for 4 people!

Choosing the exterior color was made easy. Customers could decide between only two colors: Black Sapphire Metallic and Silbergrau Metallic. All CSLs have a grey interior (Stoff Amaretta Reflex Pur Anthrazit) with the same lightweight seats and black roof lining.

Silbergrau was the more popular choice of color, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that it highlights the carbon fiber roof better than the Black Sapphire alternative.

There were few choices of optional equipment. Air-conditioning, radio/CD, park distance control, xenon-lights and car alarm were the most important ones. Although they do add weight, most cars still have them.

Instead of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, a more conservative wheel and tire set-up was also available for those customers uncomfortable with the idea of semi-slicks.

The CSL bootlid does not have a button that would open it. I guess this saves some grams of weight. Still I have wished a thousand times the button was there. If you don’t have the remote control key with you, there is no way to conveniently open the boot. You’ll have to walk all the way to the cockpit to push a button there. How often do you need to open the boot while sitting in the car? The button would be much more useful at the bootlid itself. The bootlid does have the (heavy!) lock to manually open it with a key, but again you have to have the key in your hand. Have you seen Top Gear’s review of the car? Jeremy Clarkson holds the remote behind his back and secretly presses the button as he opens the boot, making it look very easy. He is quite a magician!

The car in the pictures was manufactured in December of 2003, which was the last month of production. The exterior color is Silbergrau Metallic (A08) and the car has the following extras:

Code Description

This picture (like all my pictures) is 100% real, there is no digital manipulation. The midnight sky is illuminated by noctilucent clouds, a treat that my home country of Finland can offer to a CSL driver in search of beauty. (Later in this thread I will tell more about the unbelievable amount of time and effort invested in taking of these photographs.)

Even non-BMW-enthusiasts can tell that the fast car that just overtook them was a CSL, thanks to a badge on the back.

This car is equipped with the optional xenon light and headlight washer system.

A sticker on the windshield reminds the driver that the car is on semi-slicks. Driver should be careful when driving in very wet conditions or when the temperature is below 7°C (45°F).

Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires look very different compared to normal street tires. Tire sizes are 235/35 ZR19 (front) and 265/30 ZR19 (rear).

Wheels are – of course – manufactured by BBS and their measurements are 8.5Jx19 (front) and 9.5Jx19 (rear). The brake discs have a diameter of 345 mm (front) and 328mm (rear).

This car is running on the original “660” rear wheels that are very sought-after today.

It is a bit funny that while the super-expensive carbon fiber roof is saving some 7 kilograms of weight, the vehicle still has many luxury items that add weight to the roof, such as coat hooks.

Coat hooks even have a cool mechanism that folds them out-of-sight when not needed. And how often are they needed in a CSL?

Illuminated make-up mirrors are a must, so that the driver can immediately fix his/her hair after removing the helmet.

There are reading lights for 4 people. I can understand the ones in the front, for example the co-driver may need to view a map, but I have a feeling that the ones in the back are very rarely used.

CSL also has four power windows as standard. My thinking is that their weight is very close to a manual system. And if the car has been ordered without the air-conditioning, being able to open the rear windows on a hot day can save the race.

Melissa is demonstrating that the correct oil to be used is Castrol TWS Motorsport. Some people may also notice that there is no sound insulation on the inside of the engine hood.


Chapter 2: The Experience

So what is it like to drive one?

Pulling on the door handle, the driver’s window lowers itself a bit to allow opening the door. Door sill has CSL-lettering reminding me that this is not going to be just a drive, but an experience. The door itself is a long coupe door, making the entry a bit difficult, especially as I need to angle myself correctly to land in the deep bucket seat. The seatbelt is very far to the back and difficult to reach. It is, however, a normal 3-point belt so once I’ve managed to get hold of it, the rest of the process is easy. Closing the door, the window rises back and seals itself against the roof, locking me inside.

The seat is mounted on rails so the distance to pedals can quickly be adjusted. But since I am already sitting in the car, no other seat adjustments are possible anymore. There are three alternative heights for the front of the seat and three more for the back of the seat, but to change those settings, the entire seat has to be removed from the car and then re-installed. I am lucky to have dimensions that comply with BMW standards so the seat feels perfect. There is some truth to the phrase that a car selects its driver.

The next thing to remember is that the SMG gearbox has to be in neutral. There is no clutch pedal and the car simply won’t start unless the box is in neutral. It is a bit surprising that BMW selected SMG as the only choice of gearbox for the CSL; SMG weighs clearly more than the manual box. Starting is done by turning the key, in good old-fashion way.

Engine sounds much louder than in any other standard BMW. The idle is not stable, but I learned a trick at an internet discussion board: if the wobbly idle is bothering you, all you have to do is turn off the air-conditioning and the problem goes away. Seems to me, BMW software supports the non-air version better.

Setting out in first gear, the computer-controlled clutch is not very smooth. A limousine driver might not keep his job for long if he constantly made such uncomfortable starts. But comfort is not the key here, and fast starts work much better.

Now that the car is moving, everything about it immediately becomes clear. There are no more secrets; the car tells you everything. This car is all about communication. The driver just better be ready to handle it all. I wasn’t. The amount of information is simply overwhelming. I also have an E39 M5 and it is a car that will take me somewhere and make me wonder, “How can I be here already?” The CSL is nothing like that. I would never choose to drive to a business meeting in a CSL. By the time I’d arrive, I would have used up all my energy and attention for the day. This car is not for the salesman or a consultant, with a laptop full of Powerpoints and potential customers to impress. I don’t think customers would appreciate a salesman whose hands would still be shaking after the driving experience he’s just had. I know: when I first drove a CSL, my hands were shaking for two days.

The CSL overloads all the senses. The steering wheel tells you exactly where the wheels are and what kind of surface they are rolling on. The suspension transmits data to the bucket seat which in turn violently lets you feel every bump and stripe of paint on the road. The engine is very loud – by BMW standards – and without even looking at the gauges, you know precisely the rpm you currently have. The exhaust is actually very quiet – most of the wonderful noise comes from the front. The induction sound is very recognizable. It is a good thing there aren’t that many CSLs around; I would have a heart-attack if I ever heard that sound, thinking somebody’s stolen my car.

It is amazing how different the car feels compared to the standard M3. On the production line, the CSL must have looked pretty much the same as all the other M3s, sharing most of the same parts. The BMW engineers really have focused the small changes to where they make a big difference. Driving an M3 CSL is nothing like driving an M3. Even the engine sounds and feels totally different. In an M3 and a Z3 M, the S54 is smooth and sophisticated. In a CSL, it is loud and rude.

One of the reasons why the standard E46 M3 is such an icon is the state-of-the-art way it processes its feedback. It filters the available information and only presents the essential parts to the driver. It does not overload or bother the senses with insignificant details, but offers an elegant and fast way through any demanding driving situation. In most cases, the driver won’t even realize there was a problem in the first place. It truly is a masterpiece of car engineering.

But when information is filtered, it is inevitable that every now and then some small piece of useful information may also disappear. And on a race track, those small things slowly accumulate, first to seconds and then to minutes – an opportunity lost. Therefore, the CSL is designed not to filter – filtering becomes the responsibility of the driver; to process the information and to decide which inputs call for actions and which inputs can be ignored. In a way, the CSL is not as smart as the standard M3. It is just a tool that keeps on bombarding the driver with data. I can imagine that a racing driver would embrace this feeling of control and shamelessly leverage it to make the car go faster and faster. Well, I am far from being a racing driver, but still I feel that the ample guidance that the car provides is helping me to constantly develop my driving skills. There is no better teacher than the CSL to show me how.

The fact that the car clearly outperforms me makes the CSL a bit intimidating. But I think this is exactly what makes it so irresistible. In the summer, I drive the car every day and it manages to scare me each time, but always a little less than the day before. Other BMWs simply don’t give me the same heart rate. For pure kicks, this is definitely the BMW to drive.

In street use, I have noticed something that may sound very surprising: CSL is not the car most likely to make you lose your license. This is because it offers driving thrill already at two-digit speeds. For example, the E92 335i has almost the same performance, but you hardly even notice the car is moving unless you are driving at insanely illegal speeds.

The CSL, however, does invite to try high speed cornering, and this is where the driver has to have some self-control. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to test the superior cornering performance in every turn. Google “King of Sweden CSL” and you’ll notice he crashed his CSL into a slow Volvo in a roundabout. With great power comes great responsibility.

To sum up, BMW’s slogan of “Sheer Driving Pleasure” does not describe a CSL well. Driving it is thrilling, but at the same time so uncomfortable that the word “pleasure” is not the best choice. In the case of a CSL, I’d say the slogan should be “Sheer Driving”. Dropping one word might also save some weight and thus improve performance!

CSL can be a bit scary, especially at night.

The CSL-version of the S54 engine has a beautiful carbon fiber air intake. At higher rpm’s, a large flap opens, letting out the wonderful and distinct CSL induction sound. Want numbers? 3246cm3, 360hp (7900rpm), 370Nm (4900rpm), 4.9seconds, 287g/km.

The steering wheel has only one button, the M-track Mode button.

This is the symbol that indicates that the M-track Mode is activated. The DSC system will now allow more fun before it intervenes, but it will still be there for rescue if things get out of hand.

CSL at a “virtual racetrack” I created using LED lights.

CSL is speeding through a sharp right turn, illuminated by LED lights. Even in action, the car still has time to look beautiful. (Again I remind you that everything you see is real, there is no digital manipulation in any of my pictures.)

Chapter 3: The SMG Gearbox

The Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG II) system has 5 automatic (“D”) and 5 manual (“S”) programs of varying shift speed, plus one “hidden” program – the fastest of them all – that is only available in manual mode with the DSC system deactivated. I call it the “are-you-crazy” program. BMW calls it S6.

Entering the S6 program, the CSL is showing its full potential. During maximum acceleration, shifts are very fast. There is, however, a noticeable shift process (which BMW claims to take 80 milliseconds). During moderate acceleration, even in S6, SMG seems to shift more slowly, probably assuming that the driver is not in such a hurry. There is a hydraulic clutch that works exactly the same way as in a manual transmission car, only this time there is no clutch pedal as the SMG system is controlling it.

In modern double-clutch transmission cars, shifts are so smooth that the driver hardly notices them at all. With SMG, you will notice when the system is changing gears, and so will everybody else: your passengers, pedestrians and even other cars around you. Especially downshifts are seen and heard from far away. Actually, downshifting is so much fun that in normal street use, I hardly use the brakes at all. When downshifting, the SMG system will calculate the optimum rpm and blip the throttle to match the revs. The driver does not need to adjust the throttle at all. SMG is never tired and never makes a mistake; each downshift is perfect and sounds absolutely divine. Quickly downshifting a couple of gears creates such a roar that it is impossible to keep a straight face. This car makes you smile!

To expect that SMG is both an automatic and a manual transmission in one car, is asking too much. SMG is a manual transmission without a clutch pedal. The driver has to know the rpm and current gear and decide what to do next. When the driver assumes this responsibility and drives in the manual “S” modes, SMG will serve very well. Sometimes it even offers a helping hand: if driver makes a mistake and rpm drops too low, SMG will automatically downshift so that the engine does not stall. However, if the driver is pushing against the redline, SMG does not automatically upshift. It respects the decision of the driver to hold on to the gear. It will only upshift when told to.

Shifts are made by pulling on paddles that rotate with the steering wheel (left paddle is downshift and right paddle is upshift) or by moving the SMG lever in the center console (forward is downshift, backward is upshift). The lever is especially useful when the steering wheel is turned over 180 degrees, as then it is sometimes difficult to figure out the new locations of the paddles, and therefore safer to use the lever. Reverse gear is located left and forward. Moving the lever to the right will toggle between automatic (see the first picture in this post) and manual mode.

The SMG system also features launch control and shift lights. Launch control applies full engine power, and to eliminate wheelspin, it controls the clutch. While this is probably the fastest way to accelerate, knowing how taxing it is on the clutch takes away the fun. Shift lights, on the other hand, are a fun feature, but I dare to say any driver would be able to time the upshifts even without the assistance of the lights.

The big question is, would I have selected a manual box, if that was available? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. SMG is so similar to a manual box, that the feeling you get from using it is almost exactly the same. Well, I know I could give a smoother ride if I was controlling the clutch, so if I was constantly driving with passengers I’d prefer the manual. But when driving alone, the hardcore roughness of the SMG is a plus.

Perhaps it is a good thing that BMW only manufactured the car with SMG. This removes the time-consuming speculation between the alternatives and lets CSL drivers enjoy what they’ve got.

This is the S4 setting that I normally choose for everyday street use. Notice how there seems to be one more “empty orange box” to fill, i.e. the faster program S5.

The SMG shift speed selector. Strangely, the symbols on the button hint to the existence of a mysterious sixth shift program…

When the SMG is set at S5 and it looks as if there are no faster programs available. Still, the SMG button was telling another story…

Oh yes, the DSC. Pressing the DSC button will disable the Dynamic Stability Control and allow selecting the super-fast S6 shift program. (You can see that I have also activated Sport mode, just because the illuminated LED looked better in the picture. It has no impact on shift speed.)

DSC is deactivated. You’d better know what you’re doing now.

DSC deactivated, finally the S6 reveals itself. There it is, available to be selected!

Are you crazy? You’ve just selected the S6 program! And no DSC is there to save you! Hold on, here we go!

The SMG lever is like a piece of modern art. It feels wonderful to give it a forward push and experience the high-precision downshift. The alcantara inserts not only look cool, but also communicate that the lever can be moved in four directions. The moment you touch it, your hand will know this – a fine example of BMW’s ergonomics understanding.

Chapter 4: The Looks

The CSL just immediately looks right. I am sure it is extremely difficult to design a car like that. The standard M3 is already a definition of the premium sports coupe shape, and somehow the CSL still manages to overtake. In the picture above, Natalie is experimenting just how much beauty one photo can have. (She is into figure-skating, as you may notice.)

The roof is pure magic. Back in 2003, visible carbon fiber weave was something that many people had never even seen before. And suddenly, this exotic Formula One material was used in a street car. Even today, the roof represents the state of the art. I have never understood the purpose of sun roofs, and finally there is a car that couldn’t even be ordered with one. Front splitters and rear diffuser are also visible carbon fiber.

When you search the internet for CSL pictures, you will find lots of photos of the early CSL Concept car. It had even more carbon fiber parts. I wish the production car could have had those carbon fiber side mirrors and the engine valve cover, for example. Concept car also had a bootlid with the release button. It is so cruel that they left that out.

At 19”, the wheels probably make the car slower than it could be on 18”s, but the way they look more than compensates for the loss. The bold choice of having the air intake opening on only one side makes the front of the car disturbing, in a way that calls for attention and admiration. Functionality and performance rule the game. Even the bootlid spoiler looks logical.

The front fender cannot be described in words. Not even photographs do it justice. And if you see it with your own eyes, that is still not enough. The exaggerated and muscular 3-dimensional shape is simply beyond anything I’ve ever seen bent of metal. You need to wax the car by hand. Yes, you need to wax the car by hand. Only then will you learn all the curves and turns of the fender. Yes, it is the same fender as in a standard E46 M3. Why mess with perfection? The only difference is the side vent that has the CSL-lettering.

The wheels are awesome. It is really difficult to improve on these, so only die-hard tuning enthusiasts go for 3rd party set-ups. BMW press release says that the four wheels and tires are together 11kg lighter than the 19” option of the standard M3.

Plain weave carbon fiber of the CSL roof. I am not an expert on carbon fiber, but still the weave looks very loose to me, and I get a feeling this is not the strongest carbon fiber structure ever made.

The weave of the airbox, however, looks much more dense. If you know about carbon fiber, please do add your comments to this thread and tell what you see here. I am surprised that the weave here is twill, because everywhere else the carbon fiber parts have plain weave. I guess the airbox came from another subcontractor. Anyway it looks like an item of extremely high quality and it is also insanely expensive to replace, so be careful not to scratch the surface.

The fuel lid is an M3-specific part.

My CSL is on a Shell V-Power diet. I am sure the BMW factory has some guy with really strong fingers, bending the lower front corners of the fuel lids to match the shape of the car!

Chapter 5: The Photography

I was very fortunate that Satch (editor-in-chief, Roundel Magazine) liked the CSL pictures and ran a feature in the December 2011 issue. Roundel Magazine is great!

Taking the pictures you see in this thread took about 20 nights. I usually shoot after sunset, as the light is at its most beautiful then. Because I live in Finland, this means staying up late, as the sunset can be as late as 10:50pm. The good thing is that the “golden hour” lasts much longer than an hour so there is plenty of time to enjoy those wonderful reflections that it creates on the car.

Yes, you did read it right, it took 20 nights. And lots of help from friends. Altogether 19 people helped me shoot these pictures! Want to shoot cool car photos? It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I am lucky to have friends willing to invest their time and effort in my crazy photo projects. These pictures would not exist without them; big thanks to all of you involved!

I shoot cars for magazines, but shooting my own car was very different. There is definitely the advantage of being able to re-schedule the project at a very short notice. Whenever I saw a beautiful sky, I took photos that night. And if I made a mistake and the pictures did not turn out well, I was able to do countless re-takes, as there were no deadlines. For example, the engine picture did not look nice after the first session, so I did another session. Afterwards, I noticed some dirt on a plastic part that spoiled the picture. And because I do not manipulate the pictures, all I could do was shoot it the third time. So that one picture took 12 hours to take, and that is not counting the hours I put into cleaning the engine. Likewise, only after three failed sessions did I understand how to photograph the SMG display, so the fourth session was finally producing the pictures that you see in this thread.

Speaking of the SMG display, one of the most interesting experiences in this project was the macro photography. It is hard work. And because I was determined not to use any digital manipulation, it became quite a challenge. The problem, in a word, is dust. When shooting the roof picture, I had the camera trigger in one hand and a microfiber cloth in the other. Then I repeated the sequence of wipe – shoot – wipe – shoot. After wiping the roof clean, the picture had to be taken immediately. After three seconds, there was already so much dust on the roof that it spoiled the picture. When shooting the interior, especially the buttons, I had a small brush: brush – shoot – brush – shoot. The SMG display introduced a new issue: ultra-shallow depth-of-field. First I thought I should focus on the glass on top of the display, but then many hours later I realized that I got better pictures when I focused a bit deeper into the LED structure; there seem to be many layers in the display. The difference was probably less than 1mm, but in macro photography, a millimeter is huge. The macro shots are all 21Mpix pictures and looking at them in full-res is very interesting. For example, there is no such thing as a straight line; there are only lines that appear straight when you look at them from a distance.

Tech spec for SMG macro shots: Canon 5DmkII, 100 2.8L macro, f/11, 20sec, ISO 100. For the low-res pictures in this thread, the spec is overkill. But I wanted the quality to be so good that the picture would be perfect even in poster size, so I used all the tricks: tripod, mirror lock-up, remote shutter, manual focus with live view, medium aperture, low ISO. The price to pay was long exposure time, during which I had to hold my breath not to shake the car. Try repeating that a couple of hundred times. It was hours and hours of hard work. I now have great respect for photographers who specialize in macros.

Canon 5DmkII, 24-105 (@32mm), f/10, 42sec, ISO 100. Picture was taken at 01:13am, the night is about as dark as it gets in July. (The darkest moment is at 01:20am, this is due to DST and timezones.) The sky is beautifully illuminated by noctilucent clouds and the moon is rising. To me, this is Finland at its best. I am proud to present the CSL in these surroundings.

Canon 5DmkII, 24-105 (@40mm), f/10, 49sec, ISO 100. The flag is created with white LED lights, so the reflections on the car are very detailed.

Canon 5DmkII, 70-200 f/2.8L II (@115mm), f/8, 2sec, ISO 200 and Melissa. This was shot at 00:39am, the sky was already getting darker, but I still wanted those sunset colors in the picture, so Melissa had to stay absolutely still for 2 seconds. This is why she is leaning against the car with her right hand.

Whenever I post my pictures somewhere, there is always a lot of discussion about my policy of no manipulation. Before you comment, please remember that these pictures were not easy to take. It takes a lot of time and effort. Much more than many people would ever think was realistic or reasonable. 10 hours per picture is not uncommon at all. In my opinion, it makes photography more exciting: the moment you take the picture is the moment that counts. There is no “oh well I will fix that later at home”.

I want to stress that I have nothing against photographers who excel at post-processing and manipulation. I truly admire their skills and love to view their pictures – I have just chosen a different approach for my own production.

Also, keep in mind that I shoot in RAW, so I do make adjustments in the JPG conversion process, such as brightness, contrast, saturation and white balance. I use Canon DPP software to do the conversion. And then I re-crop and resize the pictures for internet use. But I never manipulate my pictures. If there is an ugly traffic sign in the background, it is there in the final picture. If there is an insect sitting on the car, it is there in the final picture. If there is a piece of chewing gum on the ground and it looks stupid when I look at the picture at home, I just cry and then I re-shoot the whole thing next night. (And I make sure to check for any chewing gum before I position the car!)

You can have fun spotting all the mistakes in the pictures – there are lots and lots of them! See that dent on the door in the rolling shot? No it is not a dent – it is a mosquito. And oh how I wish that mosquito would have had some other car to sit on that night!

More about my photography method:

Much more pictures of cars, bikes and girls:

In their portfolios, models more and more appreciate pictures that have not been manipulated at all. Those pictures show their true beauty, and not only the Photoshop skills of a digital retouch artist. Keep this in mind when you look at these pictures; it is just amazing how beautiful these people really are. The LED rear lights look great and so does Melissa.

My next goal in photography is to have my work featured in BMW’s own “BMW Magazine”. They are very photography-focused. In fact, I did send these pictures to them but I got rejected. I hope some day my dream will come true and they will publish my work.

There are a lot of new CSL picture ideas and concepts that I simply have not had the time to shoot yet. But there is always next summer. Again I plan to drive during daytime and photograph during night-time.

Chapter 6: The CSL Art Cars

Season 2012 is coming to an end here in Finland. Because of the climate, many sports cars are driven only in the summer. I don’t even have winter tires for my CSL, so driving the car in winter would not only be stupid but also illegal. 

To be able to appreciate the car even better, I wanted to get familiar with its heritage. So far, BMW has produced only two CSL models. The first one was the legendary BMW (E9) 3.0 CSL. These cars are very rare, so when I heard there was an opportunity to see two examples at the same time, I was thrilled. The BMW Art Cars were coming to town.

The world-famous Art Cars had been on display at the London Olympics, all 16 of them. (Yes I know there are actually 17 but the frozen one is so difficult to maintain that I am counting it out.) And from there, six of them were transported straight to the Port of Helsinki, here in Finland, and among the six were the two most interesting ones, the CSLs!

Those of you who have read this entire thread already know that I am a bit crazy. And the rest will soon learn it as well. Just visiting the museum where the cars were going to be on display was obviously not enough for me. I literally waited in the bushes like paparazzi, and when the fancy transportation truck arrived, I took the first pictures of the cars, as BMW staff – all wearing white gloves – were pushing the cars into the museum.

Well, to tell the whole truth, I did contact the museum days in advance and got press accreditation. So I had the right to be there. I immediately sold the pictures to a leading tabloid magazine, and it was the first to publish the scoop that the cars had arrived – with my pictures as proof.

I ended up visiting the museum four times – all before the exhibition was even opened for the general public. BMW Finland and the EMMA museum staff were very nice and cooperative and I got some great pictures of the cars, pictures that were then published in many magazines here. It was really nice to be surrounded by people who not only understand BMWs and art, but also appreciate what a photographer can do for their business. Thank you!

For me, this was an unforgettable experience, as I was able to get much more familiar with the cars than regular museum visitors. The cars on display here were (and are, until the end of this month)

BMW 3.0 CSL (E9), Alexander Calder (1975)
BMW 3.0 CSL (E9), Frank Stella (1976)
BMW M1 (E26), Andy Warhol (1979)
BMW M3 (E30), Michael Jagamara Nelson (1989)
BMW M3 (E30), Ken Done (1989)
BMW M3 (E36), Sandro Chia (1992)

Even if the cars didn’t have any art on them, the exhibition would still have been worth a visit. I mean, how many times have I seen an M1 before? And was it even the same year I saw an E9 CSL? Well, here they both are side-by-side. It is great that the whole concept started from racing. These cars are not everyday cars. These cars are hard-core race cars. And THEN they were painted to become something even more.

Have you tuned up your BMW to be very fast? I mean VERY fast? Compare it to this small piece of art from the year 1976, the Frank Stella CSL. It has 750hp and a top speed of 341km/h (212mph). Just looking at the insanely wide slick racing tires, I can easily imagine this car would destroy any modern street-legal BMW on the racetrack. This is art!

The guys in white gloves, i.e. the BMW staff responsible for the transportation of the vehicles, told that the company policy is that the cars are not started anymore. The engines are still in there, but BMW does not plan on running them ever again. I really hope I misunderstood what they were saying. Because to me, this really takes away from the experience. It reduces these fearsome racers into just metal canvases without purpose. Of course they are still legends, but the thought of these very capable cars still being able to do laps on the racetrack is what makes them special. Watching old video footage is somehow not the same.

Witnessing the brutal performance-oriented design of these classic CSL racers made me think about the E46 CSL. How much do these cars have in common? To be honest, my first feeling was that very little. In this thread I have been telling how fast, raw and uncomfortable the E46 CSL is. Well that is nothing compared to these race cars. Looks like my CSL has some very strong and healthy relatives!

BMW 3.0 CSL (E9), artist Frank Stella (1976)

The Frank Stella car sports some very intimidating wheels and tires. How much wheel lip is enough to make a car hot?

Chapter 7: The Interior

So many people have been asking for more interior pictures so this post will have some.The summer driving season of 2012 is long gone. I have never categorized myself as a summer person, but this car has changed me. Now I realize that every day I am counting the days to when I can drive my CSL again. Legally, that day would be March 1st, since that is the day when summer tires are allowed again. However, there is so much snow here in Finland that I probably have to wait a lot longer. And the wait is killing me! So while I wait, I thought I’d make this post of my 2012 season. Most likely it won’t make the wait any less painful, but it brings back nice memories – and photographs.

Inside, the alcantara steering wheel with its only one button – the M-track Mode button – is as asymmetrical as the front apron. Carbon fiber is everywhere. The car looks incredibly inviting. Unlike other BMWs, there is no smell of leather, as leather is found in only three places and in very small quantities.

If I would have to choose a detail that does not immediately impress, it would be the side mirror controls that are now in the center console. But this little imperfection is again compensated by a rewardingly button-free door panel, beautiful in its carbon fiber surface.

Mirror controls sit in the middle of the center console. This looks like a hasty design decision. And it is definitely something that creates a head-ache for all those building CSL replicas: should replicas faithfully repeat also the mistakes of the original?

BMW has glued soft stickers on the seatbelt locks, to protect the beautiful surface of the center console.

Center console has a storage space and it also requires protection. BMW has a soft mat that does the job. Google the price of it, if you dare.

For some reason, the side mirrors still have factory stickers on them. In my opinion, BMW should have removed these. But maybe they, too, noticed how difficult it is! The mirrors do not have a folding function – at least mine don’t. This makes covering the car (for winter storage) a bit difficult. In the wintertime, my CSL is in a warm garage and wears a soft pajama.

This is the third place that has a bit of leather. The other two places are the gear lever bag and the hand brake bag. The Owner’s Manual is the E46 M3 manual, but in addition there is a separate CSL booklet that explains the points where the two cars differ.

Getting seated in the CSL is starting to be routine already. Open the long door, put one foot on the floor mat, be careful not to scratch the carbon fiber door panel, fall into the bucket seat, wonder how the seat belt can be so uncomfortably far to the back.

But there is one sensation that does not seem to fade away with time and that is the smell. Or actually, the lack of it. All other BMWs I have driven have had the smell of leather.

A related observation is the acoustics. Standing still, the car is very quiet, the soft cloth is much more sound damping than leather. However the carbon fiber door surfaces are hard, so there is a very unique reverberation in the car.

And then there is the incredible illusion of safety. The car feels rock solid and the seat allows very little freedom of movement. One gets the feeling that nothing bad can ever happen to the driver, there is a sense of being immortal.

And it ALL changes the second you start the engine. Suddenly, the car is full of sound and noise. And you just know that if you are going to exploit the capabilities of the car to the max, you – a mere mortal – will be putting your life on the line!

I still get a bit scared each time I roll the first meters in the car. And when I make the really sharp left to my driveway, the car jumps a bit. The turning radius and wheel angles don’t match 100% so some tension is created in the turn. In regular cars, the difference is absorbed by high profile tires and gentle tire slip. But with the CSL, there is so little flexibility and so much grip that the tension just keeps on accumulating until it is violently released, making the car jump into a slightly different position. Reminds me of how earthquakes quickly release the tension that has slowly built up over decades. The character of the car would be very different without the Cup tires.

An inviting picture of the interior of the car. There is something bright white in the part under the throttle pedal. I thought it looked a bit distracting in this picture and I actually did consider changing the shooting angle so that it would not be visible. But then I thought that if BMW put it there then it must serve some purpose so here it is. Does anyone know the function of this white part? Since everything else is grey and black, the iconic red needles in the instrument panel are also very prominent.

The carbon fiber door panels are beautiful. This picture illustrates the complex shape of the panel. I have no idea how bad the loudspeakers might be, because I have only used the sound system twice. To be honest, I should have bought a car that does not have it at all. But I wanted air-conditioning, and cars that come with air-conditioning typically also have the sound system. (For best racetrack performance, the CSL could be specified without any sound system or air-conditioning.)

There are lots of interior pictures of the M3 CSL in internet. But there are very few good ones. The reason for that became clear when I attempted to take one. The cloth simply does not photograph well. It took me one hour of work to comb the cloth so that it looks (relatively) neat in this picture.

Although they are not very comfortable, the CSL does have back seats for two people. I love it that BMW has also included beautiful carbon fiber side panels there. Those panels are at risk every time the front seat belts are unbuckled, because if the belt is let go, it will hit the panel when it retracts. Seat backs fold down for extra trunk storage capacity. This is a surprising feature, but very useful for a photographer like myself, since photography equipment needs lots of space.

Here is a picture that you will not see every day. I would love to understand the design parameters that have resulted in a shape like this. Most likely, this part of the car must meet very demanding structural rigidity requirements. To look at the solution is awe-inspiring. German engineering!

And here is the hook on the door. The hook fits into the pit in the previous picture, providing extra stability in the case of a side collision. I think. I hope I never get to see these parts in action.

After all those interior shots, it is nice to end with an elegant exterior picture. I found the perfect place to park my M3.

Chapter 8: Night Cruising and Crazy Light-painting
Finnish summer nights are perfect for cruising. The beautiful “golden hour” light must have gotten its name somewhere else, because here in Finland it lasts all night. During June and July, it does not get dark at all. Between sunset and sunrise there is hours of inviting playtime. Somehow, sleeping is not a competitive alternative. We Finns sleep during winter. In the summer, we are too busy.This summer we did not get to see many noctilucent clouds. There was one night when there was potential for a spectacular display of NLC, but regular clouds came in front and spoiled the show. In fact, I only saw the clouds once and took this photo of them:
This year is going to be a very active year for aurora borealis (the northern lights) and I am hoping to see them (and photograph them) as south as Helsinki. I subscribe to an aurora borealis alert service, so I get an alert in my cell phone when there is substantial activity. A BMW M3 CSL illuminated by northern lights – that is the photograph I want to take!At midnight, the streets are empty. Many car enthusiasts hear them calling, and it is not unusual to see high-performance tuning cars. For example, I was well and truly out-accelerated by a four-door BMW E30 320i (1987). Later the owner told me his car has twice the horsepower that my CSL has!
The city streets are just so incredibly inviting during the light summer nights that I created this photograph as a tribute to the City of Helsinki:
The text is actually over 4 meters (13ft) high, and it is drawn with my latest creation: a computer-controlled LED light rig. Now I can draw whatever shapes I want. So the text is really there in the picture, drawn during a long exposure of 57 seconds, and there is no digital manipulation or Photoshop.With the LED rig, I can draw abstract art like this:
Or I can draw text and logos. I really wish BMW AG would get interested in this; I would love to draw them a commercial picture using this technology!
This picture is just to show how wonderful the powerdome shape of the M3 hood is, when it is illuminated with the LEDs:
Those warm summer nights are also an opportunity to explore the city. The Port of Helsinki was moved to a new location, so the old port is being completely transformed and it will have homes for 20,000 people. The entire area is now under construction and from the point of view of urban photography, it is a treasure! I shot probably 10 days there during the summer of 2012.
Some samples here: The Bridge, shot with a tilt & shift lens to create the “miniature effect” (I was standing on the roof of the building that you can see in the center of the “Come Drive My Streets Tonight” picture).
And one more LED art picture to finish. No digital picture manipulation or Photoshop! I took this on 26 October 2012, right after midnight, and four hours later it started to snow and the winter came.
A picture experiment with 600mm optics. I wanted to capture the unreal perspective that makes the rear of the car look much wider and stronger. Check out the rear tire, it looks HUGE:
Equipment used: Canon 5DmkII
Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport 
Sigma 2x extender, tripod, remote trigger

f/5.6 (largest aperture available with the 2x extender)
ISO 400 (faster shutter speed, in order to reduce camera shake)
mirror lock-up and remote triggering with 2 sec delay (to reduce camera shake)

Chapter 9: My summer at the gravel pit

Driving the CSL is addictive. And the addiction comes with a price: I cannot photograph it while I am driving it! Almost all my photos are of a car that is standing still. Quite boring, considering what the car was designed to do.That explains why I took very few photos this year. I chose to drive it.In the area of photography, I went for quality instead of quantity. As always, I wanted to learn something new. Experimenting takes a lot of space. This summer a friend found a perfect place for me: a huge gravel pit. And its owner was ok with me and my team taking photos so I spent a lot of time there.

Evening after evening, I studied the light, learning when it was just right for my photography. Having learned the right hours for shooting, I did a very elaborate shoot with the CSL. I spent a ridiculous amount of time placing the car just right and detailing it so that there would be no embarrassing little mistakes. Working with your own car, it does not matter how long a shoot takes, as long as you get the results you want. The opening picture of this post shows the final shooting position of the car.

Then it was time to up the stakes a bit and introduce a model in the picture. This is always a challenge since cars and people require different type of lighting to look good. I wanted to try very complex photo set-ups so I needed a pro model who would look great in every frame. Jessica is the answer! The final pictures here are a mix of ambient light and strobes.

Thanks to careful planning of the shooting hour, I was able to use my favorite settings: 1/160s and ISO 50. Aperture here was f/4 – I knew that a bit later there would be less light and that then I would switch to f/2.8.

Because Jessica will get every frame right, I could experiment with highly labor-intensive effects like smoke. Random factors like wind – or blind luck – make every smoke picture a bit different. I think this was the best frame we did with the “M Color Smoke” concept. It was done later in the evening, so I was at 1/160s, f/2.8, ISO 100.

We then started the assembly of the fire rig. This always takes time, so by the time we were ready it was already dark enough to end up the night with this:

As you already know, I never use digital photo manipulation. That is real fire.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to the same location to shoot one more frame, with lots of fire.
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