BMW 3200 CS Bertone: V8 beauty or a beast?

It's stunning, with a powerful V8 engine, but driving one takes some getting used to – as we learnt with a near-death experience in the Swiss Alps

BMW 3200 CS Bertone: V8 beauty or a beast?

The beginning of the 1960s was a dire period for BMW AG. The old V8-engined saloons were showing their age, while the Isetta – produced under licence – wasn’t paying all the bills. Even the 700 wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat.

In the end it was the Neue Klasse 1500 and the Quandt family coffers that saved the enterprise from extinction – but before that happened, a last-ditch attempt was made to reuse the heavy V8 in a car that could rake in some sales. There was an idea to put Lancia Flaminia Coupé bodies on the old BMW frame chassis, and assemble the cars at Pininfarina, but that was shot down by management.

Soon after that, the board told Fritz Fiedler, the man responsible for the pre-war 328, to commission Bertone (whose boss, Nuccio, was always a good salesman) to provide fresh coupé bodies for the aging mechanicals.

Bertone obliged, but even the magic touch of a young Giorgetto Giugiaro – fresh from his military service – could not persuade customers to part with their cash. The new 3200 CS, based on ten-year-old architecture, already looked dated when it was displayed at Frankfurt in 1961 next to the unibody BMW 1500 – later to be known as the Neue Klasse. It had the old, heavy, steel frame underneath, the lacklustre V8 fed by two Zenith carburettors with its power output raised to 160bhp, a four-speed manual gearbox, front disc brakes and electric windows.

In terms of price, the 3200 CS’s 30,000 DM tag was precariously close to that of a Mercedes 300SE Coupé with air suspension and an automatic gearbox – not an attractive deal at all. Customers thought likewise, and opted not to buy the car. The next BMW coupés, the 2000 C and 2000 CS, based on the Neue Klasse platform, were far more successful. They took some styling cues from the 3200, including the low-level beltline and tall glasshouse with thin pillars.

The 'Hofmeister kink' at the base of the C-pillar also appeared on the Neue Klasse, but by pure chance the 3200 CS went on sale a little sooner. The car was sold from February 1962 until September 1965, and around 600 were shifted; exact numbers differ according to source.

In period, BMW managers probably hated the model as much as they’d disliked the 507, as both caused the company to bleed money it didn’t have. It’s only now that these machines are appreciated and loved, and command high prices. The 3200 CS sits at the lower end of the auction value spectrum, with the best examples reaching just over 100,000 Euros – peanuts compared with the millions commanded by a good 507.

The 3200 CS by Bertone is a good-looking car. It’s a pleasant one to be in, too – as long as you don’t plan on driving it hard, at least in anything other than a straight line. Piloting it over twisty, sinuous mountain roads can get tricky, as I discovered…

While the engine is made of aluminium, it feels like a lump of lead pressing down on the front wheels. The steering is unassisted and very heavy at low speeds. If you never visit the gym, don’t count on threading the car easily through series of hairpins.

Neither does the gearbox like to be hurried. Any attempt to guide the handsome shifter with haste is met with graunches of protest. There’s a lot of body roll, and the brakes slow down the car as if they hate their job. The view out of the wood-adorned cockpit is magnificent, so most users in period surely slowed right down and enjoyed the vistas instead of trying to force the car to behave like a sports machine.

My encounter with this 1965 3200 CS took place on the roads of Switzerland, and I was initially a passenger. My driving colleague was constantly complaining about the car; the heavy steering, the baulky gearchange, the excessive body roll seguing into heavy understeer.

Fed up with listening to him, I began to side with the car – to sympathise with it, even. I have an inbuilt love of the underdog, and I felt I had to prove my counterpart wrong. I eventually got my chance. I spent the first few miles exploring the BMW’s performance envelope, which on paper shows a 12-second 0-60mph sprint and a 125mph top speed.

Gaining confidence, I set the BMW up cleanly for the bends, braked as little as possible, and used the throttle to rotate the car in the tighter corners. I used heel-and-toe rev matching on downshifts, relying as little as possible on the synchromesh, and the grateful gearbox started to lend itself to more hurried progress. My colleague looked suitably surprised.

Picking up the pace even further on the next section, I started seriously pushing over the more pronounced crests, steeper gradients and narrower tarmac. The old-timer still liked it fine, and let me play with it in a way nobody had for a very long time. I was grinning like a moron when, suddenly, we had a near-death experience.

It was a right-hander over a crest, and I was slightly past the limit, with all four tyres howling a Wagnerian chorus. At that instant, we came over the hill and missed hitting the rear wheel of a farm tractor, passing left to right across the road, by an inch. Or less. Had I gone that tiny bit faster a few seconds earlier, we would be spread over the peaceful Swiss countryside in little pieces, and the BMW would be wrecked. To be honest, I mostly thought about the car.

My colleague and I looked at each other, and I continued at an abated pace. I’d proven the BMW could dance – but once was quite enough. This personal connection helped me feel more positive towards the car, but I still understood that it was a disaster when it was being produced, albeit a truly elegant one. Today, as then, you should buy a 3200 CS only if you really, truly want one.

Images: Piotr R Frankowski