Used and amused: £70k BMW M3 CSL vs McLaren 12C

What goes up must come down, except when we’re dealing with high-performance cars like the E46- generation BMW M3 CSL and the McLaren 12C, one of which has gone down then up in value while the other has dropped steadily. The result is that these two disparate machines can now be had for the same outlay.

The BMW cost £58,455 new in 2003 and dipped as low as £20k in the jaws of the financial crisis, but last April, a 10k-miler sold online for £73k plus fees. The McLaren 12C retailed at £168,500 on its debut a decade ago, but of 12 examples listed on a classifieds site, seven are £68k-£70k with 15k-40k miles. You can buy a 12C for more, a CSL for less, but there’s sizeable overlap where both are contenders for a £70k pot of cash.

You’ve already guessed a 12C costs more to run, but imagine if one business had years of experience with both, was more affordable than dealer networks, was willing to detail common faults and could provide directly comparable running costs. One place does: Thorney Motorsport, near Silverstone.

Owner John Thorne built his reputation with M3s, often on the race track, and branched out into VXR Vauxhalls via the Lotus Elise-based VX220. Vauxhall even appointed Thorney Motorsport an official troubleshooter for cars that dealers struggled to rectify. Thorne has personally raced in the BTCC and has built Yamaha factory chassis for the Dakar rally raid.

Six years ago, Thorney moved upmarket into McLarens, identifying it as a niche that didn’t have the independent aftersales support of, say, Porsches or Ferraris. Thorne has run his own 12C for six years, taking it apart to learn more. He was, he says, astonished by the comparison with the VX220: “An 11-man team designed the 12C and nine of them were involved with the VX220 at Lotus. You can definitely see that in how they’re put together, even if the materials are different.”

Currently, Thorney has 350 McLarens on its books, making it the biggest buyer of McLaren parts outside the UK dealer network, with a £300k annual spend.

Typically, Thorney deals with 12C geometry that’s easily knocked out of alignment, or wear items like upper arms, lower arms and Z-bar links. There are, of course, horror stories, including gearbox failure related to input shaft issues. McLaren replaces the gearbox for £27k, but Thorney has developed its own driveshaft seals, input seals and bearings and, says Thorne, “we can now repair any gearbox around the world for £7500”. Cam phasers are prone to wearing, especially if engines are revved hard before fluids are warmed or run low on oil. That’s a top-end rebuild for £10k. So, yes, 12C ownership can be ruinous if things go really wrong.

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The £70k question, though, is where would our expert put his own cash if he could own just one? “The McLaren, all day long,” comes the definitive reply.

£70 will also buy a…

Porsche 911 GT3 (996): A direct CSL rival in period, the first GT3 offers comparable performance from a similarly exquisite naturally aspirated six, but it’s more like a McLaren dynamically. It’s more abundant than a CSL and can be had in the low-£50k bracket, but most are up for around £70k.

Ford Sierra RS Cosworth: The CSL wasn’t the first repmobile-based motor to scare supercars, as this car attests. No charismatic motor here, though, just a 2.0-litre YB based on the old Pinto with added twin cams and single turbo. It only just clears 200bhp (or 500bhp with work). Two are currently at £65k and a rare RS500 is up for £82k.

Lamborghini Gallardo: The Gallardo’s mid-engined concept is similar to the 12C’s, but its execution could barely be more different, courtesy of an atmo V10, optional manual gearbox, all-wheel drive and a driving position like you’re piloting a nuclear warhead. Take your pick of sub-40k-milers at £60k-£70k.

Ben Barry