Batmobiles: BMW's Ultimate Racing Machines

Julia LaPalme

On a chilly, misting Friday morning in early March, two senior citizens aboard a golf cart scoot through the lush golf course at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island. They look like a pair of duffers hustling to finish a round before a torrential Florida downpour. In fact, their destination isn’t the eighteenth green but the four race cars parked just beyond it -- BMW 3.0 CSLs whose gaudy graphics, wild wings, and outrageous bodywork earned them the nickname the Batmobiles.

Thirty-nine years earlier to the month, on a dumpy, bumpy racetrack about 270 miles south of here, the two men sharing the golf cart -- Brian Redman and Sam Posey -- shared a Batmobile during the 12 Hours of Sebring. “It was a terrific car,” Redman says. “Fantastic,” Posey agrees as they gaze at their sharklike ride, which wears its Sebring livery. The BMW was so good that it left in its wake a pack of Porsche 911 RSRs whimpering like beaten dogs.

But with fifteen minutes left in the race, as Redman drove the final stint, the BMW team got a scare. “To my horror,” Redman recalls, “I saw that the rear-axle temperature was right off the clock. I almost cried.” Redman nursed the car to the finish, crawling home three laps ahead of the 911s. It was BMW’s first major win in North America.

On Sunday, seven Batmobiles will be honored with a class of their own at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. But this morning, Posey, Redman, and fellow factory BMW driver David Hobbs have gathered around the four most memorable CSLs -- the class-winning car at Le Mans in 1973, the 1975 Sebring winner, the 1976 Daytona winner, and, most famous of all, the first of BMW’s continuing-to-this- day series of art cars, which Posey raced at Le Mans in 1975 in bold primary colors.

These were the race cars that cemented BMW’s reputation in the United States as a manufacturer of high-performance cars endowed with European panache. Even though they didn’t carry the official designation, the CSLs were essentially BMW’s first M cars, because notwithstanding the brilliant marketing tagline coined by the Ammirati & Puris advertising agency, the Batmobiles were the ultimate driving machines of their day.

Cast your thoughts back (if you’re old enough) to the first oil embargo in 1973. To most Americans at the time, BMW was an obscure German brand that sold insignificant numbers of vehicles that lurked on the most distant fringes of the American mainstream. Yes, Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis, Jr., had famously ordered the readers of Car and Driver to “turn your hymnals to 2002” way back in 1968. But despite the BMW 2002’s undeniable spunk, it looked like a shoebox on wheels, and it didn’t confer much cachet on the marque.

Not that the CSL was developed to overhaul BMW’s brand image in the United States. On the contrary, it was created to win races in Europe. The car was based on the E9 platform, which dates back to 1968 and served as the foundation of the elegant 3.0 CS coupe. In 1971, BMW unveiled a lightweight version—L for leicht—serving as a limited-edition homologation special for European touring-car racing.

By using thinner steel and aluminum panels and deleting unnecessary trim, the CSL was 440 pounds lighter than a comparable CS. More obvious—and striking—changes were made to the bodywork, which featured a massive front air dam and, eventually, a small roof spoiler, a gigantic rear wing, and aerodynamic fins on the front fenders. The CSL retained the single-overhead-cam, carbureted M30 engine, which would prove to be one of BMW’s most enduring straight-six motors. Originally rated at 180 hp, it was later fuel-injected to make 200 hp and ultimately punched out to 3.2 liters and upgraded to 206 hp.

By winning the enduros at Sebring and Daytona, the BMW 3.0 CSL -- a.k.a. the Batmobile -- helped establish the company’s brand image.

To run the newly created BMW Motorsport department, the company poached Jochen Neerpasch from Ford, where he’d been running the touring-car championship–winning Capri program. Neerpasch was a hard-core racer who’d won Daytona as a Porsche factory driver, and he assembled a team of top-notch talent, including Formula 1 aces Ronnie Peterson, Chris Amon, and Hans Stuck.

The Batmobiles soared in their rookie season, with Toine Hezemans winning the European Touring Car Championship in 1973. Hezemans and Dieter Quester also drove a CSL to a class win at Le Mans that year. That car is now owned and vintage-raced enthusiastically by Scott Hughes. “It drives just like a big go-kart,” he says as he stands next to his potent baby.

In 1975, BMW made a big push to capture the hearts and minds of Americans accustomed to domestic iron. BMW of North America was established. (Until then, Max Hoffman had been the sole American importer.) Ads featuring the “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline popped up in enthusiast magazines. And to further raise the company’s profile, Neerpasch was ordered to bring over the factory team to compete in the IMSA GT series.

IMSA rules allowed the Batmobiles to be further lightened and fitted with even more outlandish bodywork, starting with cartoonishly widened fenders front and rear. The CSLs were also upgraded with twin-cam 3.5-liter M49 straight-six engines that produced 430 hp and a satisfying snarl at—and beyond—the 8800-rpm redline. “The engine pulled like a train,” Hobbs says. Redman recalls outrunning 911s even when his engine was down a cylinder.

At Daytona, the first race of the season, Posey and Stuck were leading when their CSL broke. The next month, Redman and Posey (and Stuck and Allan Moffat) humbled the Porsches at Sebring. The following year, at Daytona, Redman would again be the lead driver (joined by John Fitzpatrick and Peter Gregg) of another race-winning Batmobile. That car was later raced by privateer Kemper Miller, but it’s since been lovingly restored to Daytona spec by Miller’s longtime crew chief, Jack Deren.It’s now owned by Kevin Ladd.

Although he’s better known for his exploits in Porsches, Hurley Haywood raced a CSL three times during the 1976 season, and he has nothing but fond memories of his experiences in the BMW. “That was a crazy car,” he says with a broad smile. “It had a lot of power, and it was a big car compared to the Porsche. You could really hang it out big time. It moved around a lot, but you could control it with your foot.”

The last of the quartet of racing Batmobiles at Amelia Island was the least successful—it ran only one race, resulting in a DNF—yet it is the only one that never left BMW’s possession. This was the art car fashioned by Alexander Calder for Le Mans in 1975. Since then, BMW has commissioned seventeen more art cars, starting with Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol and continuing in more recent years with David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, and Jeff Koons. But the first of the art cars was the result of a hare-brained scheme hatched by French amateur racer (and auctioneer) Hervé Poulain.

According to Posey, Poulain figured he could barter a car painted by Calder—who’d already turned two Braniff airliners into “flying mobiles”—for a ride at Le Mans. As it happened, Neerpasch was a fan of Cal- der’s work. Better still, Neerpasch came up with an equally hare-brained scheme of his own—to insure the race car as a piece of art with a $1 million policy from Lloyd’s. Surprisingly, BMW’s corporate honchos signed off on the concept, and Calder was sent a three-foot-long model to play with.

Posey was the obvious choice to drive the car. As a boy, he’d visited Calder’s studio in Connecticut, and he is an accomplished painter in his own right. Plus, he had plenty of experience in Batmobiles, and he loved the way this particular one turned out. “It looked fun,” he says. “The primary colors just warmed you up.”

Posey had been told going into the race that the car wasn’t going to last for twenty-four hours, so he was determined to put in a flier during qualifying. He got his chance just before midnight, five minutes before the session was about to end. “As I came out of Tertre Rouge,” he recalls, “a prototype just edgedpast me, so I pulled in behind him, took the shift way past redline, and drafted him the whole way down the Mulsanne Straight.”

It was, he says, “the most perfect lap I ever drove.” It put him a remarkable tenth on the grid, a hulking production car in the midst of petite prototypes.

Calder was at Le Mans for the race, looking bewildered by the prerace festivities and hopelessly out of place in his L.L. Bean shirt and paint-splattered jeans. He sidled up to Posey. “You look like a nice young man,” he said. “What the fuck is going on?”

What was going on, although it wasn’t clear at the time, was a corporate reboot. Posey’s car expired after seventy-three laps, and production of the CSL was about to cease. But the 5-series was already established. The 3-series, which turned out to be BMW’s line of bread-and-butter vehicles, had just debuted. The new 6-series was on the way. Before long, BMW would be an aspirational brand coveted by upwardly mobile Americans, and the Batmobiles seemed like ancient history.

The concours at Amelia Island is an event that celebrates the forgotten racing cars of the past. So this weekend, at least, the 3.0 CSLs were back on center stage. Where they belonged.

“The engine pulled like a train,” Hobbs says. Redman recalls outrunning 911s even when his engine was down a cylinder.

Putting On The Ritz

Bill Warner is the man who brings the Amelia Island Concours to life.

When Mark Becker, the vice chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, hears that I plan to tag along with his boss for the rest of the morning, he raises his eyebrows and says doubtfully, “I hope you’re wearing sneakers.”

Bill Warner is the founder, chairman, heart, and soul of Amelia Island. He’s also a big, beefy guy, seventy-one years old and working on his second pacemaker battery. Plus, his right calf is swollen like an eggplant because of a snapped tendon. So how hard can it be, I wonder, to keep up with him?

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday, Warner stumps into the judges’ breakfast. The hundred or so judges, hand-picked by Warner, form a cross-section of the crème de la crème of the collector-car universe -- super-rich owners, champion race car drivers, celebrated car designers, high-level car-company executives, museum curators, classic-car restorers, and other assorted experts. Acting as a social director, Warner stands at a lectern and introduces each one personally with an astute mini bio or a pithy anecdote. Then, he briskly turns the meeting over to chief judge David Schultz and bolts out of the room almost before I realize he’s leaving.

“I’ve got to get my car out of the garage,” he tells me, moving fast. As I hustle to keep up, he explains that the ex -- Paul Newman/Group 44 Triumph TR-6 that he’s been vintage racing for the past twenty-three years will be showcased this afternoon at a seminar he’s put together featuring Bobby Rahal, Bob Tullius, Ray Evernham, John Mecom, David Piper, and Alwin Springer.

I notice racer-turned-broadcaster Justin Bell—who’s going to be the seminar’s moderator -- running to catch us. “That’s a pretty heavy crowd in there,” Bell says, nodding back at the judges’ breakfast.

“I’m living my dream,” Warner says without breaking stride. “It’s like having a dinner party with all your heroes.”

Although he makes his living in the industrial-filtration business, Warner was a talented motorsports photographer whose work appeared regularly in Road & Track. He has also done a bit of pro racing and a lot of amateur racing. Over the years, he’s amassed a Rolodex worth its weight in gold.

Ironically, considering how closely the show is associated with him and his family, the concours wasn’t Warner’s idea. Actually, the PR woman at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton thought a car show on the adjacent golf course might attract some business. “I was the local car weenie,” Warner says, “so she called me.”

Warner’s first show in 1996 (with Stirling Moss serving as honorary chairman) drew 125 cars and 2400 spectators. This year, the numbers are 330 cars and 29,000 spectators, and the weekend includes auctions, seminars, driving tours, and a cars-and-coffee event. Amelia Island is now universally regarded as one of the must-attend car events on the international circuit.

Geographically and philosophically, Amelia Island is the polar opposite of the Pebble Beach bacchanal. Warner’s show is more casual, more compact, more egalitarian. The line I hear over and over during the weekend is, “I go to Pebble Beach because I have to. I go to Amelia Island because I want to.” Or, almost as often, “I come here because of Bill.”

Amelia Island is very much Warner’s baby, and the cars that are invited reflect his personal passions. “What’s unique about Bill is that he has a foot in two worlds, the racing world and the vintage-car world,” Schultz says. Which is why this year’s event included classes for, among other cars, Offenhauser-powered racers, Duesenbergs, the race cars of Jochen Mass, two varieties of horseless carriages, Packard concept cars, and beach cars.

Every ten feet, Warner is waylaid by a stranger, or a well-wisher, or an employee, or a friend, or a friend of a friend. He stops briefly to chat with an old pal, sports car racer Charlie Kemp. “He’s going to be a millionaire after the auction,” Warner confides, referring to the Shelby GT350 being sold at RM Auctions’ sale held in conjunction with the concours. He then dials Mecom on his cell phone to make sure he knows where the seminar is being held.

Limping slightly but still maintaining an energetic pace, Warner stops in the show office to check his e-mail. “What do you need, chief?” someone calls out. Warner plops down in an office chair. “Nothing,” he says. “This thing is running so smoothly that I can’t stand it.”

Too smoothly, according to some concerned Amelia Island devotees. The crowds are so huge that it’s difficult to get around. The commercial presence of sponsors is larger than ever. The RM and Gooding auctions draw thousands of bidders and spectators, but they seem to care more about values than they do about cars. Most worrisome of all, to Amelia lovers, is how the event will survive after Warner retires.

“We’re choking on our success,” Warner acknowledges. “But there are only two ways to limit the crowd. One is controlling the number of tickets you print and the other is raising prices, and both of them are alien to me. So I’m in a quandary.”

But this is an issue for another day. The last I see of Warner, he’s breezing by in a golf cart with Becker on Sunday morning, studying the Porsche race car class on the lawn of the golf course. “They didn’t feng shui this row the way I wanted,” he complains mildly. “It should be 904, 908, 917. But it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

Next thing I know, he’s zipping down the fairway, an affable dynamo in perpetual motion.

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