Even when compared to cars of today, 3.0 CS coupes are capable enough in both performance and handling, and drive like a BMW should, with good steering feel and solid roadhandling
In 1968, $8,178 would buy you a finely engineered German luxury coupe, the new six-cylinder BMW 2800 CS. Or, you could save yourself $300 and slide into the front seat of a Lincoln Continental Mark III.
Unsurprisingly, Americans did not choose the BMW in any large numbers, as this was long before the 3-series planted itself permanently on every car magazine's best cars list, and at least two decades before the M5 would become universally renowned as the world's ultimate performance sedan. But BMW had to start somewhere, and the 2800 CS was a reasonable attempt at creating some prestige for the marque.
Shortly after introducing its new large 2800 sedan in 1968, BMW put its 170-hp, 2.8-liter inline six in the unloved 2000 CS coupe, giving the car a longer, sleeker nose in the process, and the 2800 CS was born. It was just what the coupe needed, giving the car proper long-hood/short-deck proportions and a smoothly flowing greenhouse.
But that was the extent of it, as BMW basically bolted the front sub frame of the sedan to the coupe and didn't touch the rest of the uninspiring package. So the rear still carried the 2000 CS suspension and drum brakes, leaving the front track of the 2800 CS considerably wider than the rear. It tipped the scales at 2,985 pounds.
After three years of middling sales, BMW finally figured out that the CS needed to be more thoroughly upgraded. The most notable change was the name: "3.0 CS" indicated a larger 3-liter engine, which made 180 hp. Disc brakes were added to the rear, along with vented front rotors (in lieu of the 2800 CS's solid ones).
The interior retained the stark opulence of most Teutonic cars of the era, with leather seating only available in North America, along with a tasteful application of wood trim on the dashboard, doors and console. The 3.0 CS remained the top of BMW's product line until it was discontinued in 1975 in preparation for the first 6-series.
Most 3.0 CS's were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission, though a ZF three-speed automatic was available. It was an adequate transmission, but BMWs have never been purchased to be adequate, and many automatic-equipped cars have since been converted to manual transmissions.
Even when compared to today's much more powerful-and much heavier-BMWs, 3.0 CS coupes are capable enough in both performance and handling, and they drive like a BMW should, with good steering feel and solid roadhandling. Judged against its contemporaries, the 3.0 CS is on par with any touring car of the era. While creature comforts are austere (ventilation basically means rolling down a window), these cars have a sense of style that is timeless.
During the gray market boom of the early 1980s, quite a few cars came to North America due in no small part to their being just cast-off used cars in their native homeland. As with all gray-market cars, buying one of these can be a crapshoot, depending entirely on the quality of the work done to make them compliant. But even with all the horror stories of broom handles being used as door support beams, good gray markets cars can be found. I own a 1970 2800 CS that was privately imported via Los Angeles in 1974 by its second owner, with a well-documented paper trail since new.
If you're looking for a CS coupe-or any pre-1981 BMW six-cylinder-be forewarned that their aluminum heads are known to fail. The design just wasn't stout enough and it will eventually develop stress cracks inside and warp. From 1981 on, the casting was redesigned to be more robust, and many CS coupes will already have a replacement cylinder head. If not, make sure you assess whether the engine is starting to burn anti-freeze or developing a coolant-and-oil milkshake, and factor in the cost of a replacement head.
While an NOS casting can be obtained (generally starting at $1,500 without valvetrain or labor), for several years a Spanish aftermarket parts concern has been casting replacements to various levels of quality. Several aftermarket shops have successfully turned it into a quality performance part, but once again, at a price.
Since these were low-volume production cars, sheetmetal is what separates any restoration candidate from a parts car. Any body panel that's not right is a $2,500 repair bill, and they're all welded to the unibody. More than anything else, rust is your likely problem.
Look up into the front wheel wells towards the dashboard for a triangular opening, and reach in and feel if the metal has any integrity. Inside the car, look under the dashboard towards the wheel wells, opening the glovebox door and the hood release latch cover. These are generally the first places that will rust out, as that box section has nowhere to drain. Another hot spot is in the rocker panels; trim panels need to be removed to truly assess the situation. Visible rust is bad, and if you can see it on the outside of the car, best to just start stripping it for parts.
Values for CS coupes are all over the place. In my nearly two decades around these cars, including seven years of ownership, I've seen rust-free #1 condition cars sell privately though club circles for over $35k, but in the real world, $10,000-$12,000 will get you a well-sorted 3.0 CS. Conversely, running rust bombs are almost worthless.
Four years ago, I put together a deal on a '72 3.0 CS that was "restored" in 1982. However, it had unwound severely, and had rust in the rockers, front and rear shock towers, and floors. The doors sagged so badly that the hinges had stress cracks. It ran well enough at full throttle with a set of aftermarket triple Weber sidedrafts, but at idle it sounded like a Harley with a fouled spark plug. The seller had been trying to get rid of it for two years, starting at $4,500 then cutting the price to $3,500 when I encountered the car and offered him a grand. My sister, seeking an "entry-level" (read: cheap) sports car, kicked in an extra $1,500.
So for our $2,500, we have a drive-it-'til-it-dies summer toy. I changed out the problematic sidedraft setup and installed a stock dual-two-barrel carb setup I had laying around. Now the car runs well, and the Webers were sold at a hefty profit. Eventually I'll get even more parts to put on eBay when the body caves in, which is about as much as you can ask for in a disposable "Affordable Classic.