Stunning Alpina Roadster V8. The Other Z8. It might look like a Z8, but Alpina’s Roadster V8 was an entirely different animal and all the better for it.
Think this is a BMW Z8? Think again! It’s the even rarer #Alpina
Roadster V8, but it might just be the car the Z8 should have been in the first place… Words: Matt Robinson. Photography: Max Earey.
ALPINA ROADSTER V8
Late summer, 2003, Nottingham. A different time, a different world, a different job. I might be making this sound overly nostalgic, given we’re only talking about 13 years ago but in many ways the pace of change in the 21st century does make the early 2000s feel like a different era in retrospect. Take BMW. Back on that sunny day I’m referencing above, the company’s lineup ran thus: Three, Five, Seven, X5, Z4. The 6 Series was on the way but it wasn’t in showrooms. That list doesn’t, of course, include the MINI, which was still only a three-door hatch at that point, but it’s clear to see that the current widespread diversification of the Munich fleet had not yet begun to take effect.
Actually, I’m missing a car out of the 2003 roll call of honour and that’s the Z8, one of BMW’s largely forgotten vehicles. A glorious mix of the cutting edge (aluminium space frame chassis, 4.9-litre V8 from the contemporary M5) shoehorned into that indulgently classical body (designed to evoke the 1950s 507 Roadster) it rather spectacularly missed its target because it didn’t appeal to flame-surfaced petrolheads wanting the latest Bangle designs, nor did its six-speed manual gearbox and rather aggressive manner coerce historic car buyers into shelling out for it. Almost 6000 of them were made, which suggests that #BMW
would argue the Z8 was an unqualified success, but we can’t help feeling that without a largely underwhelming appearance in the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond film franchise (it basically did bugger all before getting cut in half longitudinally with a helicopter-mounted buzzsaw), BMW’s most opulent roadster would have fared worse on the global markets. It needed to be a little more laid-back, a little more comfortable to ride in. It needed an automatic gearbox option. In short, it needed to be more like the Alpina Roadster V8.
Which is the reason I’m banging on about Nottingham in the days when England’s cricket team were still desperately searching for an Ashes series victory, when Gareth Gates was (shudder) a force to be reckoned with in the charts, and when Tony Blair was midway through his second term as Prime Minister. Because, lucky sod that I am, I was in the biggest city in the East Midlands that day in order to drive an Alpina Roadster V8 when it was new. It was car 47 of 555 and it was Sytner’s demonstrator, finished in Stratus grey with a light-coloured leather interior. It was utterly glorious and, as cars go, rarer than rare. Sure, 555 might not seem the most limited of production runs but 450 of the Roadster V8s were destined for the US, another 75 remained in mainland Europe, 20 headed east to Japan, and the final ten were allocated to the UK – although rumour suggests only eight of these actually sold. I drove that 2003 UK car and thought it was magical. I was also convinced I’d never, ever get to have a go in one again.
Cut to a cold moorland road somewhere between Bradford and Hebden Bridge, early 2016. And to my surprise, I’m in a 2003 model year Alpina Roadster V8 once more. This time, naturally, it is not new, but it might as well be – the example I’m in has covered a scant 15,000 miles in its 13-year life and it feels as tight as the proverbial percussion instrument. The mellifluous 4.8 up front is burring away, responding with decent haste to throttle inputs and shoving the ‘modern classic’ forward with real intensity. The Alpina Switchtronic gearbox isn’t unduly hesitant or struggling to find the right cog for the job, while its quaint, handstitched ‘+’ and ‘–’ buttons on the steering wheel prompt shifts as and when you need them. It feels good to be back in the saddle. Actually, scratch that; it feels superb. It seems this most curious of Alpinas has retained all of its allure, and then some.
And that undiminished appeal brings us onto another area where 2003 again feels like a different era. Back then, the brand-new Roadster V8 was around £6000 more expensive than the 400hp Z8, costing £86,000 in the UK. Time, though, has done funny things to the values. The BMW Z8 has become something of a collector’s piece, despite everything, with values sky-rocketing past the original purchase price. So imagine what has happened to the financial status of a car of which just 555 were made. This one, in the more traditional Titanium silver so many Z8s are seen in, is No.116, a machine which has spent its pampered life cloistered away in a collection over in the US. Imported back here by those connoisseurs of fine automotive exotica, Kahn Design, it is now up for sale – with a previous owner on the logbook and 15,000 miles on the clock – for practically three times its original value. You’ll get a fiver change from £240,000 if you want to buy it. Wow.
It is an astonishing market performance for a less well-known example of an often-overlooked BMW model. But maybe there’s a wider appreciation for its deliberately retro looks nowadays. Put it this way, in about four hours in the Roadster V8’s company for our photoshoot, we had the full gamut of public response: young kids on the roadside gawped and even applauded as it trundled past (maybe the ‘OO 77’ numberplate helped); one bloke in a garage was convinced it was a modern re-creation; another was astonished when we told him that the Alpina was from 2003, not 1963.
Yet it cannot be denied that the Roadster V8, and by extension the Z8 on which it is based, is a gorgeous car. That long bonnet, those sweeping haunches, the slender rear light clusters – it’s a design where you can really enjoy spending a long time simply drinking in the details. For what it’s worth, Alpina didn’t do a lot to BMW’s basic shape. You’ll notice there’s no branded ‘cow-catcher’ spoiler adorning the Roadster’s face, nor are there side skirts or a revised rear bumper. The V8 actually wears a lot of BMW roundels, on its bootlid, side gills and at the pointiest bit of the sharp prow. The biggest giveaways that you’re not dealing with your common or garden Z8 are the Alpina legend on the Roadster’s rump and those 20-spoke alloys – not cotton-reels, in this instance, but rims with five clusters of four spokes each. When driving No.47 back in 2003, I was told by Sytner’s then-representative that fitting spoilers to the Roadster V8 would have been “like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa”. What was true then remains valid now.
Linked to the lack of a bodykit, the biggest change Buchloe made to the Z8 was one you cannot see, with the E39 M5 drivetrain of the regular car replaced by one of Alpina’s own making. A 4.8-litre V8 developing 381hp (down 19hp on the Z8) and 383lb ft (up 14lb ft on the Z8, and crucially peak torque is available at lower revs in the Roadster V8, too), it was mated to Alpina’s five-speed Switchtronic automatic. That last detail alone is what made the Roadster infinitely more appealing in the US than the manualonly Z8. But what has all this got to do with spoilers?
Well, although the Alpina is slightly slower on acceleration than the Z8, clocking the 0-62mph sprint in 5.3 seconds compared to 4.7 for the BMW, it has a higher top speed of 166mph against the Z8’s 155mph limited maximum. However, the Alpina could go faster still, but aerodynamic lift beyond 166mph means that a rear spoiler would be needed – and we’re back at square one in terms of disrupting the Roadster V8’s delicate exterior lines. The fantastic interior is much the same story of restraint. No.116 has black leather, which is practical, and again the Alpina changes are subtle. The trademark blue dials are in place, complete with the little gear indicator directly in front of the driver, while there’s an Alpina-branded centre boss on the exquisite three-spoke steering wheel, which also features the green-and-blue stitching of Buchloe. Other than that, it’s the same as a Z8, Switchtronic gear lever notwithstanding. Again, this is no bad thing, because the Z8 used bespoke switchgear that you won’t find in any other BMW – such as the rocker switches for the electric windows, the slender silver stalks on the steering column, and the rotary dials for the climate controls. About the only familiar button you’ll spot is the heated seat switch, sequestered away next to your thigh on the centre console.
That 4.8 is worth looking at in closer detail. A double overhead-cam 32-valve V8 of 4837cc, it is a development of the Alpina 4.6 – and, yes, these are the same pair of motors that Buchloe famously ‘gave back’ to BMW as a present, for use in the ‘iS’-badged performance variants of the original X5. With an aluminium block and head, Bosch Motronic engine management, a revised crank with a 93mm bore and 89mm stroke, Mahle pistons and an Alpina exhaust system, it managed to develop its peak outputs without resorting to forced induction. All right, the specific output of 79hp-per-litre might be a touch leisurely, but the way it goes about its business is anything but. Even in a world where hot hatches can do 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds, the 1615kg Roadster V8 still feels acceptably punchy.
Alpina’s final alterations came in terms of the handling. Buchloe chose to soften off the Z8, fitting its own dampers and springs with gentler rates in both instances. However, beefier anti-roll bars front and rear ensured that the handling didn’t go to pot. And, to an extent, Alpina worked its customary magic. Fire up the engine with the plain black leather starter button to the right of the wheel and it turns over with a creamy roar. Slot into ‘D’, release the brake and the Roadster V8 oozes off down the road in a charming, cultured manner. It’s a doddle to drive and despite 20-inch rubber of 255/35 aspect front and 285/30 rear, the ride is sumptuous. I remember No.47 rode well, but not as smoothly as this. Maybe sports cars of today, adjustable dampers and all, still can’t flatten out imperfections as well as these cars of, er, yesteryear. The steering is another area which deserves credit, as it’s full of weight and feel from the off. It would appear it hasn’t been Americanised beyond all reason. Stoke the 4.8 up and the Alpina will pick up its skirts and hustle, although it’s a GT first and foremost.
Under harder cornering the rear axle tries to skip and jump on bumpier surfaces, while during this style of driving the steering feels a touch slow on the uptake. Point-and-squirt would be the better approach to adopt when pushing the Roadster V8 quickly, rather than trying to eke every last ounce out of it as the last of the late brakers. Nevertheless, however No.116 was being conducted, it felt as good as new – no undue squeaks, rattles or groans were to be heard, and all of its major controls felt cohesive and taut.
Is there anything negative to note? Yes, we couldn’t get the hard-top off. The tool was there and all the locking bolts moved smoothly enough, but our guess is that its previous owner never once removed the hard-top and, as a result, it’s a little too attached to the windscreen’s header rail. A little bit of care and attention in Kahn’s workshop will see that right in a jiffy. Apart from that, it’s a clean bill of health. Not only does No.116 feel mechanically sound but the interior is absolutely flawless, as if it has never been used. Slightly more than a decade might not be the most challenging period to keep a vehicle in time warp condition but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be commending the Alpina’s former owner for having done so.
In short, then, this is your best chance of owning an as-new Alpina Roadster V8. But should you splash out a quarter of a million on such a machine? That’s trickier. It remains a sublime GT, with its bespoke interior, svelte appearance and that wonderful Alpina drivetrain. But £240,000 gets you a lot of choice in the car world these days and for all the things the Roadster V8 excels at, a supercar it ain’t. Kahn’s people reckon it will become part of a larger collection, where it will be the fifth, sixth or maybe even 20th addition to a rich person’s horde. That sounds about right to us. Whoever buys it, though, is getting something magnificent, out-of-the-ordinary and from a completely different era of car building. Even if that era is 2003.
Tel: 01274 749999
Stoke the 4.8 up and the Alpina will pick up its skirts and hustle, although it’s a GT first and foremost.
Below: Alpina 4.8-litre V8 is a jewel and really suits the car’s character Right: Plenty of modern/retro details and a smattering of Alpina badges.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE #2003
ENGINE: #Alpina #V8
, DOHC, 32-valve / #M62
MAX POWER: 381hp @ 5800rpm
MAX TORQUE: 383lb ft @ 3800rpm
0-62MPH: 5.3 seconds / #ZF5HP
TOP SPEED: 166mph (limited)
PRICE: £86,000 (2003 UK+Tax), £239,995 (today 2016 UK)
You’ll get a fiver change from £240,000 if you want to buy it. Wow.
Left: Auto transmission lever is a surprise addition to the Z8’s interior Right: Trademark Alpina blue dials and neat gear indicator.