In the late 1980s you had a couple of choices if you didn’t want an M5 – Alpina’s B10 and AC Schnitzer’s S5. We pit these ’80s icons against each other to see how they fare today Words: Johann Venter Photography: Mahomed Abdulla Alpina vs. Schnitzer E34 grudge match – B10 3.5 takes on S5 Heavy Weight Contenders E34s from AC Schnitzer and Alpina do battle.
During the 1980s South Africa was plagued by political turmoil, strife and unrest. For a large part of the decade South Africa was placed under a state of emergency, by the oppressive white minority regime. The ‘80s weren’t however all doom and gloom, on the contrary, Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister, a leading man from Hollywood, Ronald Reagan, occupied the White House.
And there was a cosmic shift in technology, the Space Shuttle launched for the first time in 1981, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, Steve Jobs brought the personal computer (the Apple Macintosh) to the masses. Sony launched the Walkman, so you could take Madonna and Michael Jackson with you wherever you went and the mobile phone came to market, albeit the size of a brick. And for many South African BMW enthusiasts the period represented the heyday of BMW. Think of the unique models produced during the ‘80s – the E23 745i, E30 333i and the iconic 325iS – the latter machine a legend both on and off the track. The penchant for BMW was so great at the time that local dealership JSN Motors became the sole importer and distributor for AC Schnitzer on the African continent in 1982.
Stuart Bromfield, the largest independent BMW dealership at the time, attained the sole Alpina license for Africa. Both JSN and Stuart Bromfield were in sparing distance from each other in the heart of the Johannesburg CBD. The Polaris silver Alpina B10 which you see in front of you is number three of six converted at Stuart Bromfield. Where it gets interesting is that the current owner is Deen Sing, son of Shaun Sing who was the Master Technician at Stuart Bromfield responsible for the conversion in 1989. Shaun was actually the lead technician responsible for all Alpina conversions carried out by Stuart Bromfield. If the names Shaun Sing and Stuart Bromfield ring a bell, that is because Shaun’s E12/8 M535i (unique to SA with E28 interior) was featured in the June 2015 issue of BMW Car. I spoke to Shaun Sing, Dave Minton (Technical Director at Stuart Bromfield at the time) and to Stuart himself and what became overwhelmingly clear from the conversation with each individual, is the passion for Alpina. When Stuart was granted the Alpina license, Stuart Bromfield became only the second BMW dealership in the world, other than Sytner in the UK, to officially carry out Alpina conversions. At the time Stuart Bromfield offered conversions on the full range of BMWs, which included the B6 2.8 for the 3 Series, B10 3.5 for the 5 Series, B11 3.5 for the 7 Series and eventually the B12 5.0 for the 8 Series. Shaun recalls fondly when they were based in Lyndhurst, (a suburb north east of Johannesburg), where five work-bays in the workshop were allocated specifically for the Alpina conversions.
Shaun explains: “The conversions were pretty straight forward, all the Alpina components which included the engine, gearbox, brakes, suspension, diff and exhaust were shipped in from Alpina. In the case of the B10 the engine has bigger valves, a gas-flowed lightweight alloy cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, higher compression lightweight Mahle pistons, and a 280 degree cam. A complete Alpina high performance stainless steel exhaust was also fitted, including branches. With regard to the suspension we fitted stiffer springs, Bilstein shocks and thicker anti-roll bars front and rear. All conversions included an Alpina steering wheel and gearshift. Owners could decide if they wanted the aero appendages and the decals, in this particular instance the owner opted for anonymity, it didn’t even have an Alpina badge… preferring the ‘sleeper’ look.”
Looking at the B10 here one could be forgiven for thinking we’re not talking about the same car. “Deen has added the front spoiler and the badges as well as Alpina mats that were needed,” explained Shaun, while also adding that he’d like to see the car wearing its Alpina decals, too; “I have the decals for the car from when the conversion was done – not sure how they ended in my tool box – but age has taken its toll, so they are no longer usable.”
But how is it that Deen ended up with the Alpina in the first place? “Over the years I’ve remained in touch with many of the Alpina customers, especially since we’ve been run our own independent BMW workshop, Tune Tech, for over 20 years now,” says Shaun. “Although we did not service the B10, the owner kept in touch, he dropped in for a coffee one day and said he was thinking of selling. Deen made him an offer there and then. The deal took a while to work out but he knew he was getting a good car, the same owner since new had it maintained by Evolution 2 Motorsport (our competition so to speak) once out of motorplan.”
It might be a good time to talk about Evolution 2 Motorsport and in particular the proprietor Alec Ceprnich, who carried out all the Schnitzer conversions at JSN during his tenure there, Alec and Shaun thus both performing the dark art of BMW conversions for opposing sides. Today they operate two of the most reputable independent BMW workshops in South Africa. Two giants in the South African BMW universe and yet are good friends, even if their rivalry extends to the race track, both fielding cars in the BMW Car Club Race Series.
To get the low-down on the Ice white Schnitzer I dropped in at Evolution 2 Motorsport to chat to Alec and I was pleasantly surprised to find Peter Kaye-Eddie (classic BMW race car owner) discussing his next classic BMW race car project. Peter has fielded various BMWs over the last 40 years, mainly driven by Robbi Smith, and as I soon as I start asking Alec about Schnitzer the pair of them start a long reminiscence about wild drives in Schnitzers back in the day including the time when Alec was nearly locked up when he was caught speeding in the Free State! As fascinating as their stories are I have to interject, otherwise I will never get to the bottom of the 3.5-litre Schnitzer conversion. Alec reluctantly comes back on topic and explains that, “Johnny Stavros, my then boss and owner of JSN, could not wait to get his hands on an E34 535i for us to do the conversion, so he imported the car so we could beat Stuart Bromfield to the punch, in terms of the B10. The Ice white example is one of three 3.5-litre conversions that we did, it became Johnny’s personal car and a showcase as to what could be done.
“This example has the full aero kit, front spoiler, rear apron, side skirts and rear wing. In terms of the engine it has a gas-flowed Schnitzer cylinder head, 282 degree Billet cam, Schnitzer Eprom and full Schnitzer performance exhaust system. Brospeed engineered the exhaust manifold, using the left hand-drive version sent by Schnitzer as a template to develop a right hand-drive equivalent.” To make sure it handled as well as it went JSN uprated the suspension, as Alec recounts; “We fitted Bilstein dampers and H&R springs. I must say that the 2.7- litre conversion was more substantial, it included all the modifications as mentioned with the 3.5-litre.
Plus we fitted an E34 525 turbo diesel forged steel crankshaft, with the standard forged steel connecting rods, with 84mm connecting rod gudgeon pins Mahle slippery type pistons, plus the stroke was also lengthened. The entire bottom end of the engine was then dynamically balanced.”
Now that we’ve heard from both the Alpina and Schnitzer camps, let me give you my interpretation of these rivals. I find that the B10 cuts a better stance and looks more menacing, the front Alpina spoiler is definitely lower. The Alpina 20-spoke rims, 8.5J in the front, shod with 235/45 R17 Bridgestone Potenza rubber and 9.5J at the rear with 265/40 R17 size tyres, fill the arches nicely. The S5 on the other hand sports the attractive 17-inch AC Schnitzer Type 1 wheels, but are the same size on every corner, 8.5J fitted with 235/45 R17 Dunlop SP Sport boots. Frank Puncec, the owner tells me that he is in the process of fitting shorter more progressive springs, which will give it a more aggressive stance.
When Frank found his Schnitzer S5 in 2010 it was a bit of a dog, at some stage it had been used on a farm. Frank explains: “I fell in love with the S5 when I first saw it in Germany in the early 90s, I felt that I needed to save this car, the previous owner could not maintain it. Since I’ve had it, it has been completely re-sprayed, the front suspension has been refurbished and recently the motor has been completely overhauled. This included having the cam, re-profiled from 288 to 282, which is what it should have been. I’ve also had a custom stainless steel exhaust fitted after the motor had been rebuilt.”
Both cars are now 27 years old, Deen fills me in on what he’s had to do since he took ownership in 2016: “It had a burnt valve, so I replaced it and at the same time fitted new timing chain guides. The car was a sleeper when I got it, devoid of all Alpina markings and aerodynamic aids. I’ve subsequently fitted the Alpina front spoiler, badges and mats, the Alpina gear knob is missing which I need to replace and I will probably also fit the Alpina decals.”
Both these E34s cut a fine figure, there is an integrity to the build quality that few other cars of the same vintage (and price range when new) can display. The Schnitzer shows 217,000km (135k miles) on the odometer, while the Alpina shows 273,000km (170k miles). The interior of the E34 is shatterproof and both cars are testament to this, I like the navy blue leather in the Schnitzer but I am not mad about the white Schnitzer dials and I would have liked to have seen the Alpina name on the clocks of the B10. When you fire up the B10 it settles into an idle with a nice deep base, the S5 has more of fiery crackle, thanks to the recently fitted performance exhaust.
Pull off with the B10 is smooth and effortless, the clutch slightly heavy and the gear ratios feel closer together. The drone from the engine is definitely deeper than your garden variety 535i, but not intrusive, only once over 4000rpm does the sound become more ferocious. The B10 is lower slung than the S5 but it irons out the undulations in the road with ease. The country lane we are on is a winding road over rolling hills which is perfect to test the temperament of the B10.
Deen tells me that he has taken it off the clock, no chance of that happening here today, but we are able to stretch its legs and get up to 160km/h (100mph). As we follow the black top snaking through the country side, the B10 feels sure-footed as the strut brace allows for ever tighter cornering.
The vital statistics show an output of 254hp (187kW) at 6000rpm and 239lb ft (325Nm) at 4000rpm. Twenty-one percent is the power gain which the Alpina has over the standard car, and it shows even if this example is nearly 30 years old. The power delivery is very smooth, the power band seems to stretch on forever.
We switch over to the S5, the interiors virtually identical, both cars having the Recaro Sports seats, they offer fantastic support in all the right places. Pulling away one can immediately feel that the clutch is lighter, the engine note sharper and more prominent in the cabin. And when you flatten the throttle the S5 pushes you back, your spine tightening up against the Recaro seat. The S5 is slightly up on power 258hp (190kW) but somewhat down on sheer grunt, 236lb ft (320Nm). It definitely feels feistier and there is a greater urgency in the way it delivers the power. It is not as sure-footed through the bends, but at no point however do you feel that it will become completely unstuck.
Frank tells me he’s taken it up to 220km/h (137mph), the JSN advertorial claimed a 0-100km/h (62mph) of 7.2 seconds, while the road test of the B10 in the January 1991 issue of Car magazine, shows a time of 7.7 seconds to the 100km/h (62mph) sprint. The S5 puts on a solid performance all round, the brakes in particular inspiring confidence as the horizon draws closer with each passing second.
Both these cars are engaging to drive, they heighten your senses and get your pulse racing. Times might have changed since these cars were new – Apartheid is a thing of the past, our phones are now more powerful computers than either Gates or Jobs can ever have imagined their computers would be and the UK has its second female Prime Minister. Not quite sure what to think of how the American Presidency has changed, but one thing’s for sure, these Alpinas and Schnitzers are as entertaining to drive today as the day the left their respective builders.
SPECIAL THANKS Ron Silke
Both these E34s cut a fine figure, there is an integrity to the build quality that few other cars of the same vintage can display.
“The conversions were pretty straight forward, all the Alpina components which included the engine, gearbox, brakes, suspension, diff and exhaust were shipped in from Alpina”