► Concept reincarnates '70s 'Batmobile'
► We drive the amazing one-off show car
► What a shame it's not for production
Hommage Mille Miglia. Hommage M1. Hommage CSL. Three great show cars, three missed opportunities. For while BMW’s latest back catalogue reinvention has been met with nothing but breathless adoration and joy, for now the official response is almost painful in its predictability. ‘Don’t expect styling elements of the Hommage CSL to reappear on future BMW products – this is purely a concept, albeit a very exciting one,’ comments a company spokesman. Cue global mourning.
With understandable resignation, the men behind the Hommage toe the company line. ‘This model is not earmarked for production,’ says Adrian von Hooydonk, grandmaster of the group’s drawing board. For now at least, it’s only a design exercise,’ confirms chief brand designer Karim Habib, before adding with a broad smile: ‘But of course we would be delighted to take it to the next level.’
Will the suits ever learn? Here we are, on our knees, admiring yet another amazing design study, and once again the company behind it fails to recognise its potential, to draw up a business case and to run it through a couple of customer clinics. The only way to make the bureaucrats change their mind is by public opinion. So please allow us to whet your appetite by taking the two-seat Hommage concept around the block, literally – the only place we can drive the unregistered, handbuilt and very yellow coupe are the private grounds of Villa Erbe, next door to Villa d’Este, home of the annual BMW-sponsored Concorso d’Eleganza.
So the BMW 3.0 CSL Hommage concept car actually drives?
Yep – like almost all BMW concepts, Hommage MkIII is a runner. True, the turning circle is seriously curbed by the vast 21in tyres (265/35 and 325/30), and the speed is – eight hours prior to the car’s official unveiling – limited by chief minder Wolfgang Sauer and his very firm hand signals. Despite these restrictions, our first encounter with the stunning reinvented Batmobile is a memorable one, and a full ten out of ten in my personal show-car hit parade.
The doors open wide to reveal an unexpectedly spacious cabin (the car itself is 4997mm long, an intimidating 2018mm wide and 1302mm high, with a 3190mm wheelbase), though sliding down into the cockpit requires care because the solid-looking carbonfibre sills are actually wafer thin. Equally worrying, the seat frame is made of fragile small-diameter aluminium tubes. You sit low in a not too narrow tunnel clad with dark, man-made materials. Alloy-capped pedals and plenty of bright yellow stitching and piping pin-prick the gloom like stars in the night sky. Instinctively you grasp the steering wheel, an intriguingly cut-down creation that references both racing car helms and motorcycle-style handlebars. Dotted with numerous (currently non-functional) controls, the wheel sits so close to your chest that you’re forced to angle your arms like a DTM racer.
CSL Hommage: the interior design story
According to Karim Habib, the DTM resemblance is no coincidence. ‘There are a couple of details in the interior inspired by our DTM car. The steering wheel is one of them. It’s detachable, using the same cool release mechanism as the competition car.’ Habib admits that for much of the year it took to produce the CSL Hommage, the design team focused on the exterior. But now that it’s finished, he’s as pleased with the cockpit, one that he feels has much to offer future BMW production car interiors.
‘It’s a very race-orientated cockpit,’ says Habib. ‘A BMW interior needs to be ultra-high quality – in the materials, in the fit and finish, in the displays – but if the car’s about driving then the interior shouldn’t be a distraction. For me calm, uncluttered interiors are a part of our future. There’s a purity to this one, and I love the way the wooden dash echoes the original 3.0 CSL’s. We added the M colours on the ends of the wooden section, so it’s like you’ve milled through to the M soul inside. That’s something I’d really like to see on future M cars.’
Inside there are key retro touches – that dash, contrasting brightwork and wooden accents, minimalist nylon loops to open the doors, the central single-arm wiper resting in an upright position – but it’s not a slavish reconstruction of the original car’s interior. The fingertip controls are clearly inspired by avionics, and much of the detailing – that anodised fire-extinguishing system, the two helmets stowed behind the seats, the slim-fit carbonfibre fixed bucket seats – by cutting-edge competition cars. The main information cluster consists of a relatively small multi-functional monitor straddling the bottom end of the steering column. It shows speed, revs, gear and shift recommendation. Assisting are a rectangular e-boost readout in the centre of that wraparound wooden panel and a head-up display.
The cabin's one thing, but that exterior's quite another...
Just as the vast rear wing dominates the car’s exterior form, so it looms large in your awareness when you’re inside the thing. Up ahead, acres of blisteringly yellow bonnet. To each side, tiny cameras doing the job of wing mirrors. And behind you the glass of the rear window distorts like a bottle of fine Bordeaux, a blurred view that’s then sliced in half by what must be one of the most remarkable drag-cutting devices ever conceived by an automotive designer. The way in which the wing merges with the dramatic rear arches is the CSL Hommage’s defining element.
‘We call these the wrapover wings,’ says Karim Habib. ‘They make the car more slippery, reduce lift and look good. I’m particularly proud of the way the LED rear lights are integrated into the wing – it frames the rear of the car with a kind of calligraphic signature, like a bright red ribbon.’
The front lights are X-themed lasers. ‘We have lasers already on the i8 but the 7-series will be the first core BMW to have them,’ continues Habib. ‘Light design is a great opportunity for differentiation but we need to be careful – we have the very recognisable double round lamp motif, and we need to have that in the future. You always need to be able to feel that rhythm.’
Batman returns: tracing the CSL Hommage's family tree
For all its laser lights and DTM detailing, the Hommage unashamedly references later versions of the CSL coupe, better known as the Batmobile. Developed from the E9 in conjunction with Alpina, the CSL attained almost instant cult status thanks to its outrageous aero kit and utter dominance of the European Touring Car championship through the 1970s.
There were three different iterations of the breed: the carb-fed 180bhp MkI (1971-1972, 169 units built), the fuel-injected 200bhp MkII (1972-1973, 929 built) and the 206bhp Batmobile (1973-1975, 167 built). At 1165kg, the lightweight cars undercut the gentlemanly coupes on which they were based, the CS/CSi, by 200kg. The 2015 Hommage concept is inspired by the last and most extreme of the CSLs, which combined increased performance with myriad lips and ducts and more wings than Richthofen’s Fokker.
The Hommage pulls off a convincing sense of deja vu, largely thanks to its fastidious detailing: the black longitudinal splitters that ride the front wings; the low-flying, gravel-ploughing air dam; the wildly flared wheelarches; and the pair of rear spoilers – one at the trailing edge of the roof and partly masking the window, the other bolted to the bootlid. It’s all there, lovingly re-created, as are the full-length black rallye stripes, circular air intakes in the front bumper, the wrapaound chrome strip and the two roundels just aft of the Hofmeister kink.
What's the Hommage actually like to drive?
Soon the temptation to start the straight-six grows unbearable. When it fires, the air on the passenger side blurs in anger as the unilateral side-exit exhaust – another cute reference to the race version of the original – blasts the pavement with the firing order of the 3.0-litre powerplant, which is tucked back tight to the front bulkhead. It’s a totally addictive noise: rough, impatient, vibrant and loud. Very loud. Idle speed sounds like a pitlane limiter. Part-throttle sounds like a race car on the Nordschleife around Adenau. This much is clear already: I’m already hopelessly hooked.
The engine is hooked up to 4-series coupe running gear, a stock eight-speed automatic transmission and the largest brakes Brembo could supply. There is no word on power and torque, but with two turbos and one e-boost device, 500bhp or more should be a realistic. The boost system’s twin energy reservoirs sit under eye-catching covers atop the rear axle, where lesser coupes would accommodate second-row seats.
Although our pace must be slow to protect the virginal paintwork and the delicate and vulnerable wheels, this very first outing is an emotional and unexpectedly involving experience. A stab at the throttle brings about two almost instantaneous responses – the CSL leaps forward and caretaker Herr Sauer is moved to the brink of a heart attack. First gear makes way for second and I play with the throttle. Response is pure, mechanical and promising.
The steering affects changes of direction with a stiff directness and the vast brakes bite promptly but the suspension barely yields and the dampers don’t. After all, the Hommage rides so low that any suspension travel would risk a painful bodywork/road surface interface.
After about an hour of non-stop action photography, the CSL slowly begins to dispense its own eau mechanique. A trained nose can decipher the various scents; fresh paint and polish, tyre blackener, rubber and glue, unspecific lubricants, the tangy pong of brake-pad dust.
Verdict: can BMW afford not to build it for real?
The CSL has made its point. It’s more than a rolling celebration of the wide-bodied menace that scared Capris and Carreras with Dieter Quester, Hans-Joachim Stuck and a certain Niki Lauda at the wheel. No, it wants to be an elegant and dynamic distillation of one of BMW’s finest hours. Has it succeeded? Personally I’m won over by this semi-retro work of art, conceived by Joji Nagashima (exterior) – a BMW veteran hired in 1988 – Doeke de Walle (interior) and Patrick McCormack (colour and trim), to name but three of the eight designers involved. Flaws? Too strong a word, but the must-have kidneys are a little too bright and tall for a sports car, and the multi-spoke wheels are 100% bling and 0% CSL.
Where to from here, messieurs Krüger, Fröhlich and van Hoydoonk? While you may argue that the i8 is BMW’s new halo car, perhaps one could also make a case for a more sporting and affordable back-to-the-roots effort. As it is, the Hommage CSL may prove too costly to be built at a profit. But when you want to invest in the brand, recurrent thumbs down aren’t the way to go. Having halted the proposed 9-series and the M8 supercar, to name just two recent victims, management should give the CSL a second chance. Related opportunities could include a contemporary four-cylinder 2002 positioned below the M235i, and perhaps a no-frills Bavarian Mustang powered by that landmark straight-six.
Karim Habib, who by now is wondering what I’m smoking, still sticks to his one-off credo. ‘There is so much else that needs addressing right now – autonomous driving, CO2, connectivity. We don’t yet know to what extent these new priorities may dent the demand for the proverbial ultimate driving machine. The Hommage cars make sure that old-fashioned excitement is alive and kicking. And don’t worry: we have more than enough ideas for the next three or four iterations…’