Beasts of Buchloe Three Alpinas, E12, E24 and E28, come together to trace the evolution of BMW’s tuning powerhouse. Words Greg Macleman. Photography Will Williams.
ON THE ALPINA TRAIL The cars that announced the Buchloe tuner’s arrival: B7S, B7 Coupé and B9
THE BIRTH OF ALPINA, BMW’S POWERHOUSE
Some gigs you just don’t turn down, and this one has led me to an imposing compound on the banks of Lake Geneva. It’s an ungodly hour on a cold late-winter morning and, far from the Alpine idyll, concrete and barbed wire surround us. We must have taken a wrong turn but, despite the entrance looking like a scene from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, we are eventually waved through and pick our way between the railway lines and lorry tenders to where, we’ve been assured, we will see something very special.
The unit’s roller shutter clacks up in noisy protest to reveal a cavernous hall, empty but for silhouettes of row upon row of classic cars. If discovering a barn-find is like a nugget of gold among the silt, this is opening the vault doors of Fort Knox – ingot after ingot lined up against the darkness. Our eyes finally adjust to reveal the treasures within; from Bentley Continental R to Renault 5 Turbo 2, hundreds of modern classics stretch out in the gloom. But it’s the collection’s bent towards German tuning powerhouse Alpina that most excites.
‘The B9 3.5 could hit 62mph in just 6.8 secs, but it cost £23,495 in ’1984 – more than an entry-level Porsche 911 Carrera’
To see one Alpina is a thrill, to come across a room of dozens is truly remarkable – more so considering the rarity of the examples before us, some of which are so special that they’re rarely spotted outside the pages of period magazines and reference books. Incredibly, we’re given free rein, kids in a sweet shop, allowed to take the keys to whatever we like for one day only.
The temptation is to start at the beginning – but that exact point is up for debate. The earliest Alpinas, after all, didn’t even have four wheels. Like Citroën’s specialism in helical gears and Honda’s production of piston rings for future rival Toyota, Alpina’s early path involved the manufacture of something more mundane: typewriters. It wasn’t until the sale of the business that the former owner’s son, Burkard Bovensiepen, turned his hand towards automobiles. And, as with the most interesting endeavours, work began in a garden shed.
Bovensiepen started tuning cars with the arrival of the Neue Klasse in 1962, reworking the manifold and replacing the single Solex carb with a twin Weber set-up to increase power by nearly 10%. His modifications were so popular that he began to sell conversion kits, and within two years Bovensiepen had gained factory approval from Munich and began producing a range of supplementary suspension and handling enhancements.
Search as you might, you won’t find any of these early go-faster shed-built examples in the halls of this collection. There were plenty of them built, though: by the mid-1970s, Alpina was churning out as many as 300 cars per year and more than twice as many conversion kits, which were often fitted by inexperienced mechanics. It was the danger of shoddily converted home-brew cars damaging Alpina’s reputation that led to its focus on converting entire cars and, with BMW’s backing, brandnew cars were shipped straight to Buchloe. The shift was heralded in 1978 by the arrival of three new bona fide Alpina-badged models: the E21 3 Series B6 2.8, the E24 6 Series B7 Turbo Coupé and the E12 B7 Turbo.
It’s the latter of this early trio that became the most desirable of the marque’s models, and nestled in a quiet corner of this warehouse is a jaw-dropping Sapphire Blue Metallic example. In über-rare ‘S’ trim, too.
Alpina had been tinkering with BMW’s businesslike Marcello Gandini and Paul Bracq-penned E12 since it first went on sale in four-cylinder guise in 1972, but the highlight of the range arrived in 1978. And, as one of Alpina’s first complete packages, the B7 Turbo showcased what the firm could do. The humble 5 Series was treated to a hotted-up 2985cc six-cylinder M30 that now produced 295bhp thanks to lightweight pistons, reshaped combustion chambers, a hot camshaft and Pierburg continuous-flow fuel injection, plus a KKK turbocharger that was more usually spotted in the back of Porsches. Boost pressure could be varied from 0.5bar to 0.9bar via a small dial between the front seats; the adjustability allowed the driver to turn down the power to 236bhp if low-quality fuel had to be used. The impressive spec sheet also boasted a dogleg five-speed Getrag gearbox fitted with close ratios and a limited-slip differential.
The pinnacle of the E12 range, the B7S Turbo launched in 1982, took things even further. At its heart was a turbocharged iteration of the 3453cc sohc six-pot found in the 635CSi E24 and M535i, with full power rated at a dizzying 325bhp. The 3-litre car had already been crowned the world’s quickest four-door saloon, and the new version dropped the 0-62mph sprint time from 5.9 to 5.8 secs – less than half a second off the pace of a Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxer.
There’s no confusing the B7S Turbo with its cooking-model siblings, either. It might keep the same instantly recognisable silhouette, but its features are tough with an incredibly deep front spoiler, trademark turbine-style wheels and plastic boot lip that isn’t just there for show.
It’s straight-laced but mean; its purposeful 16in rims fill the arches and help its muscular stance, which comes courtesy of Bilstein dampers and firm lowering springs. The ‘Deko’ decals that run along each flank, appended by its model designation emblazoned in gold, complete the look. Open the heavy door and the detail continues inside the cabin: it is decked out with all the trimmings including plush green and blue velvet-trimmed sports seats, and a meaty four-spoke steering wheel.
Walking deeper into the frigid storage facility is like stepping through Alpina’s back catalogue, and it isn’t long before we spot the unmistakable sharknose of the E24 6 Series, second of the complete models that marked Alpina’s move away from the aftermarket. Buyers wanting autobahn- storming performance were spoiled in 1976 by Bracq’s replacement for the aging E9 Coupé, and many went straight to Alpina for its E24 630CS B2 and E24 633CSi B8 versions. But again, the best was saved for the car that was badged as an Alpina: the B7 Turbo Coupé.
Behind the flashy white exterior, 20-spoke alloy wheels, go-faster stickers and and eccentric yellow-tinted driving lamps, the Coupé is every bit the performance tool of its more restrained four-door counterpart. Opening the hefty bonnet reveals an identical drivetrain to that of the early B7 Turbo, from its proven 3-litre turbocharged ‘six’ to its five-speed gearbox, while inside the interior is trimmed in more upmarket hide – everything you would expect from a range-topping GT. Only 153 examples left the factory, in part due to a whopping pricetag of £20,900. Just 60 were made of the ultimate B7S Turbo Coupés, built to the uprated 3.5-litre specification in 1982.
The next step in Alpina’s development – and a big driver of its commercial success – came courtesy of the E28 5 Series, which replaced the outgoing E12 in 1981 and served as a stop-gap until the arrival of the more heavily reworked E34 in 1987. BMW was surprisingly slow off the mark when it came to performance variants of the E28, with buyers having to make do with the range-topping 528i until the arrival of the 535i, M535i and M5 E28 four years later. Bovensiepen was only too happy to plug the early gap, setting out his stall with the B9 3.5 just six months after the new model was released.
As with previous generations, the route to greater power for the new Alpina was achieved through extensive engine modifications. Wolfgang Siebert was the man in charge of extracting more power from BMW’s 3453cc straight-six, doing so via a new gas-flowed cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, beefier inlet valves and a lairy 268º camshaft, allied to a re-mapped management system and free-flowing twin-pipe exhaust. The result was a useful power increase to 242bhp from the 528i’s 215bhp, with performance figures and price-tag to match. The B9 3.5 could hit 62mph in just 6.8 secs, but it cost a hefty £23,495 in ’1984 – more than an entry-level Porsche 911 Carrera.
Lining up outside the warehouse, it’s clear that the E28 shares many of the same design cues as the E12, to the point that it’s easy to confuse the two saloons – particularly when the cars in question both wear Alpina detailing. Differences are most noticeable in the cabin, where the E28 centre console is canted towards the driver – a feature carried over to countless models in the following decades, reinforcing the idea of the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Of the three Alpinas, the legendary B7S Turbo calls to be driven first. Freed from the confines of the collection, we point the nose towards the hills surrounding the lake and squeeze the organ-pedal accelerator. It feels a world away from the kick-up-the-backside power delivery of a 2002 turbo, but waking all 325bhp is still an eye-opening experience.
There’s lag, followed by a relentless surge of power that would border on frightening were it not for the eerily quiet cabin, which fills not with engine noise but the increasing whine of the spooled-up turbocharger. It’s only at inadvisable speeds that road and wind noise begin to intrude. Throw it into corners and you’ll be surprised at how composed the big car remains, its firm suspension doing just enough to keep a tidy line.
Press harder and it doesn’t take much to provoke the back end, which slips sideways with predictability – particularly on flattering uphill Alpine switchbacks, where gravity is on your side. Sharing many components with its saloon sibling, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the sharklike E24 Coupé performs in a similar fashion. The car deftly transforms from consummate grand tourer to ballistic missile quicker than Clark Kent can find a phone box. It’s devilishly quick when it breaks its shackles, on paper capable of keeping pace with a contemporary 911.
Plant the accelerator and you’re met with a familiar onrush of turbo power, a wave of seemingly exponential torque that you can only ride in short bursts between hairpins. It feels quicker than the saloon – and it is, despatching the dash to 62mph in just 5.7 secs. It’s poised and planted, too; the centre of gravity feels somehow lower, whether by design or a trick of the driving position, and it clings on well in the corners.
The straights truly delight, so too the commanding view over that long bonnet that rises up under hard acceleration. It is a view recognisable to all E24 fans – and of those there are many. Swapping to the youngest car, the E28, it’s easy to feel disappointed – after all, it makes do without a turbocharger, and the example we’ve taken up the mountain has the optional automatic transmission rather than the more engaging manual. But what it lacks in terms of outright power it makes up for through an accomplished and well-balanced chassis that is eminently chuckable. It feels as composed on the long sweepers of the valley floor as it does the acute narrow lanes, making a good account of itself during a straight-line blast. In isolation it’s superb; you’d only be disappointed if you found yourself chasing its more powerful forebear along the autobahn – especially given that the E12 B7S Turbo remained on sale until 1982.
Eventually the cars are returned to their temporary slumber at the storage facility, but not for long. The first cars of the collection have already crossed the block at the RM Sotheby’s Rétromobile sale in Paris, including the sublime B7S Turbo that fetched €138,000, with dozens more at Techno-Classica in Essen. You’ll need deep pockets, but for the die-hard followers of Buchloe, these cars are priceless.
Thanks to RM Sotheby’s; the next sales are in Fort Lauderdale on 29-30 March and Essen on 11-12 April (www.rmsothebys.com)
Clockwise from main: BMW E28 reflects its forebear E12; B9 seems light on power compared to the earlier cars; auto ’box was produced by ZF. Far left from top: B9 comes alive in sweepers; distinctive lineage brought together. Clockwise from main: Deko decals continued through to 6 Series E24; upmarket trim increased premium feel; impressive top speed cleared 160mph mark; 3-litre ‘six’ and drivetrain were carried over from the early B7 Turbo. Clockwise from main: just 60 B7S Turbos were made, all with distinctive gold Deko pinstripes down the side; interior was plush for a performance machine; despite its size B7S is composed through turns; 325bhp 3.5-litre ‘six’.