Story and Photos by Zach Mayne
The first time BMW affixed the letters “CSL” to one of its creations was in 1973. That first CSL was an homologation special based on the beautiful E9 coupe, only instead of a heavy steel body, the car’s gorgeous styling was reproduced in lightweight aluminum. Less weight meant more speed, especially when paired with a potent 206-hp M30 straight-6. The original CSL (Coupe Sport Lightweight) was fast, stunning to look at and one of the most desirable cars on the road.
Thirty years later in 2003, BMW unveiled the M3 CSL concept car, based on the very popular E46-generation M3. And luckily for European enthusiasts, they elected to put the concept into production. But North American enthusiasts were not given the opportunity to own the latest CSL, as BMW opted to not bring it overseas. What the lucky European's got though was a hotter M3, thanks to a more powerful S54 inline-6 that pumped out an impressive 360-hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Like the original CSL, the E46 version was also lighter than the standard M3, with chassis tuning making it even sharper and more focused than the already impressive car it was based upon. In it's day, the CSL conquered the Nurburgring in an a scant 7 minutes and 50 seconds. Naturally, the CSL was an instant hit with track day enthusiasts.
Like a lot of enthusiasts, Adam Cook was a fan of the E46 M3 CSL, which is all but unobtainable on this part of the world. “The CSL was the ultimate version of the E46 M3,” explains Adam. In lieu of a real CSL, Adam took it upon himself to build the stunning creation pictured here. “As we did not get the CSL state side, I wanted to make as much of a real CSL as I could. I also did not want it to just be an all OE car. I wanted to improve on parts where it could be improved such as headers, brakes, exhaust, and suspension.”
Adam purchased the car new in 2002. He was about to take home a 330Ci, but was swayed by a Steel Gray M3 that a customer had special ordered and then backed out of purchasing, leaving it sitting on the BMW dealer's floor like a shiny lure. “I’m happy I bought the car but at the time it was not the color I wanted,” he admits. Silver was his original color or choice, but he's come around to love the moody Steel Gray color of the M3. Inside, the BMW was upholstered in premium black Nappa leather. An SMG II gearbox was also on the spec list. “Their tagline of the Ultimate Driving Machine also fit what I was looking for in my next car," says Adam. "This was my first new car and I wanted it to be special and exciting. The SMG system was also a main reason I went with BMW as it allows the driver to focus on driving versus having to shift and rev-match."
Adam began the process of converting the M3 to CSL spec with small, incremental steps. The first thing he did was swap the stock wheels with the more striking OEM CSL alloys. After that it was a slippery slope to replacing the stock front bumper with a CSL bumper, which is defined by a single large opening carved into the face of it as well as carbon fiber splitters jutting out at either side. Though the use of carbon fiber roofs is common with recent BMWs M cars, when it was used on the CSL it was considered ground breaking. The replacement of the steel roof with the lightweight material saved 13-lbs and lowered the center of gravity, both of which are good for handling.
In Adam's case, he ordered up a factory E46 M3 carbon fiber roof and then let a bodyman go to town and saw the old roof off to make way for the new one. Plus, it looks cool. Below the trunk is a CSL rear bumper. “If you really want a car made from OE parts it costs a lot more than you would think,” notes Cook. OEM E46 CSL parts are also exceedingly rare and getting more so with every passing day. “You have to literally hunt the parts down," he says. "There are so few parts and so many people want them it becomes a fight to get them."
While the M3's exterior adheres to the look of an CSL, Adam took some liberties with the interior. “I went with a custom style CSL interior,” he says. “I have the CSL center console and that's where it stops.” In truth, when you open the BMW's door you also find CSL door handles and door panels, the latter of which use BMW 1M-style stitching to set them apart. There is also a set of Recaro Profi race buckets and UUC alloy pedals that add a little brightness to an otherwise understated interior. Like the CSL concept, Adam deleted the rear seats with a custom setup to trim out the area vacated by the seats.
The project didn't stop with the visuals. It's pretty easy to extract more performance from the E46 M3, which has long been a favorite starting point for BMW tuners. In this case Adam installed a handful of factory CSL parts, starting with a better flowing CSL airbox. A set of higher revving CSL camshafts were also installed as well as undedrive pulleys from Rogue Engineering. The ignition system was sharpened up with plasma coils from Ignition Solutions. An upgraded radiator from Zionsville and blue Samco hoses were installed for better cooling.
With the upgrades, Adam figures the power of the S54 is up from its original 333-hp to around 360-hp, making it a match for a genuine CSL. BMW rated the original CSLs engine output at 360-hp, and Cook figures the changes to the S54 in his example result in about the same amount of horsepower. The added power is nicely matched with reprogrammed SMG II gearbox for more aggressive shifting. “I also have UUC red transmission bushings to help keep everything stable,” he notes.
For the suspension, Adam went one better then the stock CSL, adding TC Kline two-way adjustable coilovers with 500-lb front springs and 600-lbs rear springs. There are also larger diameter H&R swaybars to reduce bodyroll and lighter rear control arms from Ground Control. Stoptech brakes ensure that the M3 stops quickly when the need arises. All up, this is a more nimble and engaging M3. At the end of the day, this is one stunning creation, albeit one that doesn't shout it's intentions. It may not be a real CSL, but it's just about as cool as the real thing.