About three or four years ago, I was strolling along the lines of cars parked outside of Canepa’s lot during one of their Cars & Coffee events when I stumbled across a particular car that everyone else seemed to be walking right passed.
My buddy, Andrew, was with me, and I can clearly remember us both stopping almost immediately in our tracks, staring at one another in utter confusion, then slowly proceeding to walk towards the car.
With giggles and excitement, the first question we both almost simultaneously asked each other was: “Holy shit, is that real?!” Gazing in mesmerizing confusion, we inspected the car, searching for some sort of clue to justify our doubts in its authenticity, but for once, we were happy to be wrong in our skepticism.
The checkered flags were correct in size and placed in the exact factory positioning. The interior was immaculate, and shared all of the correct characteristics of the factory car, including the special weave carbon fiber accents. And of course, it was numbered by a plaque. The culprit in question? A real-deal factory E36 M3 LTW CSL.
To any novice, this was just another mid-1990s BMW M3 with some modest livery and a badly-fitting wing. But ask any true BMW enthusiast, and you just might spark a conversation of never ending praise and joy, myself included.
A few years had gone by since I had last seen this specific car, but being the firm believer in fate that I am, I knew we would surely cross paths again someday. And I did just that a few months ago.
Again, I was out driving in the mountains with a few friends from our local R32 owners group, when all of a sudden Bill Broader showed up in the parking lot. Mind you, this is the same famous parking lot in the west Bay Area mountains where you can stand around on any given Sunday and indulge in supercar heaven. And this day wasn’t any different, other than the fact that I literally gave absolutely zero attention to anything other than this car.
That’s how special the E36 M3 LTW CSL is for me. So let’s get to it.Give Us What We Want
Back in the early ‘90s, the Germans seemed to be going head to head against each other, both track-side and on the road. With Porsche soon sending off the 964 and releasing the 993, and Mercedes-Benz pumping out pure German muscle like the Porsche-AMG collaboration of the 500E, BMW enthusiasts in the US felt a little left out in the ranks. So they began pressuring the boys over in Munich to release a proper thoroughbred race version of their beloved E36 M3.
Reluctantly, BMW caved and decided to do a US-spec homologation version of their E36 DTM/WTCC race car, alongside the UK market’s M3 GT homologation car. Though the M3 GT was dedicated to the FIA GT series homologation (meaning it has roughly 50 more horsepower thanks to the upgraded Euro S50B30), the M3 LTW CSL was homologated for the US-specific IMSA Firehawk series. But there’s a quirky story behind this that I’ll get to in just a bit.CSL: Coupe Sport Light
BMW ended up only producing 126 units of the E36 M3 LTW CSL in 1995. Ten were pre-production models in January and February, one was made in April, and then the rest between August and October. If you couldn’t guess by the name, the main premise behind the car was based around shedding weight, so BMW only offered the car with the lightest trim possible.
Starting with the interior, the typically sought after Vader seats were actually removed in favor of the sport seats with an ‘M Fleck’ center pattern contrasting the black cloth, of course with manual adjustment since electric motors would defeat the purpose of the car.
Trim pieces around the interior were made of carbon fiber and had hints of the red and purple/blue motorsport colors found woven within its weaves. Typical M3 stamping on the trim pieces were also replaced with ‘BMW Motorsport International’ stamps, and a matching limited edition plaque was added to the passenger side of the dash.
Lastly, the carpet was replaced with the anthracite-colored lighter material found in the four-cylinder variant of the E36. And because the radio, A/C, and speakers were removed, the LTW CSL had quite a few plastic covers to help blend the blank areas on the dash and center console.
From the outside, the E36 M3 LTW CSL pretty much looked like the standard slick-top E36 M3, with the exception of the dealer installed LTW wing, LTW adjustable front splitter, and more ‘BMW Motorsport International’ badging. But a few of the more obvious differentiators were the factory forged 17-inch wheels and iconic checkered flags found on the front and rear end of the car, covering the single offered Alpine White III paint.
Earlier I noted the wing being ill-fitting, and quite ironically, it actually really is. This is one of the main characteristics of this wing to promise its authenticity, alongside the factory stamped part number and third brake light integration.
By this point, you might be wondering why this car is so special to me. Well, here’s where things get a little more detail oriented.
Because BMW wanted ensure that E36 M3 LTW CSL was a proper homologation to their factory race cars, they decided to go as far as hand-picking the engines that went into these cars. These engines were said to have gone through some seriously rigorous testing before being fitted to the cars, to ensure they were the best possible variants of the US-spec S50 available.
To continue on with their lightweight ethos, the doors on the E36 M3 LTW CSL are made of aluminum, the springs and struts are pulled from the same parts batch as the M3 GT, meaning they are stiffer and slightly lower than the standard M3, and BMW also decided to reinforce the car with a factory Motorsport x-brace under the car as well as adding a factory Motorsport strut tower brace.
The cars final weight ended up being 2,950lbs (1,338kg), a full 225lbs (102kg) less than the standard E36 M3.
I should also add that there was always a huge debate on whether the E36 M3 LTW was in fact a CSL car. Most of the rumors go that it wasn’t, but to clear things up for everyone, take a look at the spec-sheet above.
The middle line ends that controversy right here, right now.
Lastly, this bit of detail is more oriented to the quirky story I mentioned I’d explain earlier, and it’s about how far BMW went to ensure this car was offered to the true enthusiasts in the United States.
During the ’90s, the department of transportation in the US was hammering down on all sorts of safety regulations, and one might even argue that this was the emerging point of where lawmakers began silently protesting around performance oriented cars. Rumors have it that the M3 LTW CSL was almost scrapped due to these regulations at some point in the development process. But instead of giving up, BMW decided to take a more creative approach in selling the car to the public.
You see, each of the LTW CSLs were actually exported to PTG (Performance Technology Group) out in Virginia, which was part of BMW’s racing arm in the US. From there, PTG would then include all of the CSL go-fast bits, like the wing and dual pick-up oil pump, unfitted in the trunk of the car, and then sent the cars off to the dealership.
Once the cars were sold, the dealership would force the buyers to sign a waiver stating that if they installed these LTW CSL bits on the car, the entire warranty would be voided, clearing BMW’s name from any sort of lawsuit that would potentially arise after making the modifications. Speculation says BMW did this to cover their own butts, but I tend to take the more optimistic approach to these sorts of things, and like to believe that this was done in order to get the car to the people.From The Heart
The E36 M3 LTW CSL might not be the fastest of the bunch, or the rarest in the classic lineage, or even the most thoroughly developed when compared to its predecessors. But for someone like myself, or like Bill the owner of this example, the car serves as a true homologated road-going race car that has earned a special place in a large corner of our hearts.
It’s more so a short-lived gift given to the people of the US market, where we generally are stuck with the shit end of the stick when it comes to specialty cars. The car took efforts from not only the people demanding it, but the people behind the process of producing it. The E36 M3 LTW CSL has its own story, its own persona, and a hell of a lot of historical significance to offer to its owners for years to come.
So the next time you find yourself walking around a morning Cars & Coffee, don’t forget to stop by the cars that others seem to ignore.
You just might come across something very, very special.