The beginner’s guide to Alpina
Putting the ‘express’ in executive express. The ‘executive’ too, come to think of it
Who’s Alpina, and when did it start making cars?
In a nutshell, it’s the car person’s car company, alongside the likes of Ruf and Dallara. Down to its singular focus, stellar talents and severely limited build numbers, Alpina has become something of a byword for the chosen chariots of the car cognoscente. Alliteration really is fun.
In slightly less of a nutshell – perhaps a tasty nut-based spread, or a happy addition to a salad – Alpina is a German manufacturer of extraordinarily fast and luxurious cars based on contemporaneous BMWs.
Alpina started in the 1960s, but if we’re going to be absolute sticklers about it, it only started officially making road cars in 1983. Of course, the difference between what’s official and what is... well, it’s the entire reason we have the phrase ‘de facto’. Alpina was tuning cars in the mid-Sixties, building race cars by the late Sixties and building road cars by the late Seventies. The wheels of bureaucracy take time to spin, after all.Advertisement - Page continues below
Where are Alpinas built, and how many does Alpina build a year?
In one way of thinking, Alpinas are built in Buchloe, a small town in deepest Bavaria. Well, not deepest Bavaria – it is possible to go slightly further south – but certainly far enough down to get Krampus at Christmas and know their way around a Schuhplattler.
But as Alpina’s cars are actually integrated into BMW’s production line – most notably the now-departed B7 – you could conceivably also say Munich. So if you just kept it to ‘Germany’, or perhaps ‘Bavaria’ at a pinch, you’d cover all bases well enough for most conversations.
In terms of build numbers, Alpina makes Ferraris and Rolls-Royces look mass-produced. You’re looking at about 1,700 or so a year, which gives you some indication of the build process. As does the fact that Alpina’s Buchloe facility employs some 300 workers. Suffice to say you could describe the process as ‘painstaking’ without having to pop a few coins in the ‘overused adjectives’ jar. As an aside, if Top Gear actually had one, it could probably cover the Friday bar tab. But we, as you’ve come to expect by now, digress.
What cars does Alpina build?
Put simply, it builds petrol and/or diesel versions of the BMW 3, 4, 5 and 8 Series, as well as the X3, X4, and X7. Up until recently, that list also included the 7 Series, but... well. That’s life, eh?
The petrol-powered cars get the prefix ‘B’, given that Benzin is Deutsche for petrol, while the diesel ones get the prefix ‘D’. For diesel, you see. Because Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the compression-ignition engine, was German.
But we’re hardly here to discuss loanwords. If we were, we’d wonder why just about every country in the world calls pineapples ‘ananas’, while we insist that a fruit which bears no resemblance to an apple, which grows in a tree that bears no resemblance to a pine, is somehow a pineapple.
With prefixes (and increasingly ADHD asides) sorted out, we can move on to suffixes. And, helpfully, Alpina keeps it simple: the B3 is Alpina’s take on a petrol 3 Series, while a D5 is a diesel-powered Alpina based on the 5 Series. It hasn’t always been the case – take the late-Seventies B7 Turbo, based on the 6 Series coupe – but it’s settled into a fairly straightforward pattern now.
Speaking of – these days, the diesel versions get a little ‘s’ suffix, possibly to make up for the fact that you chose a diesel. You should also note that, when referring to builds based on BMW’s ‘off-road’ (ha!) range, Alpina uses the X first, then the fuel type, then the number suffix of the SUV monstrosity in question, ending up with the likes of the XD3 and XB7. With any luck, you won’t end up with one. Alpina’s great and all, but the even the greatest of polish won’t save a tur...Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s the cheapest car Alpina builds... and what’s the most expensive it builds?
We’re sorry, sir, this isn’t that kind of establishment. If you’re looking for something cheap and German, can we suggest Volkswagen, or maybe a Trabant?
Yes, sir, we understand that you’d still like to proceed and we’re sorry to have caused offence. The cheapest we can do is the D3S, for £63,500. Of course, sir, that is quite a bit of money, but perhaps sir hasn’t been made fully aware of what this establishment offers in exchange for such sums.
What’s that, sir? You’d like to know our most expensive option? Just for reference, you say? Very well, sir – one moment, please. Ah, yes, that’s going to be the XB7, for £149,500. Correct, sir; not many people do choose that option here, but we hear it’s vastly popular over in America.
What’s the fastest car Alpina builds?
Given that Alpina’s metier is to create exclusive, executive expresses with effortless speed, there’s not exactly a shortage of quick ones throughout its history. If you were to run a top 10 list of fastest Alpinas, every single one would be on the speedy side of 200mph, and even the list of Alpinas that are (or were) the fastest car in their segment over the years is extensive enough to warrant its own top 10.
So with that in mind, how surprised are you that the fastest Alpina is actually a title shared by the B5, B6 and B7? Helpfully (or very much not so, depending on your frame of reference), the old 6 Series that the B6 was based on is now gone, and Alpina looks to be closing the book on the B7 for good.
Which leaves the B5 – a 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 version of the 5 Series that a) can hit 205mph, and b) offers the single hardest decision ever presented to prospective car buyers: the B5, or the M5?
Hand on heart, we honestly don’t know how we’d choose between them, barring the fact that you can get the B5 as an estate – if you’re willing to accept a paltry 202mph top speed. Yeah, we’ll live.
What’s been Alpina’s best moment?
This is going to be a bit of an interesting one – it’s perhaps a bit more speculative than you’re used to in articles like these, but it’s going to postulate about the knock-on effects of the BMW buyout.
In terms of the ‘best moment’, being bought outright by BMW is an absolute affirmation of Alpina’s craft, and the reputation it developed from that craft. From the outset, Alpina’s road cars have had a je ne sais quoi that’s been both steadfast and steadfastly unique; a quiet, genteel presence that belies just how big a right hook they can deliver if pushed. Alpina’s shown that true authenticity can still beget profits, even in a world fake enough to given Holden Caulfield an aneurysm. And, if you’ll allow us to wax properly lyrical for a moment, that there’s more than one route to automotive nirvana.
What’s been Alpina’s worst moment?
And after the carrot comes the stick.
Look, the jury’s still out on what the future holds for Alpina now that BMW calls the shots, but the end of the B7 rang more alarm bells than we were comfortable hearing. If Alpina’s metier is, as we’ve pretty much just got through saying, “to create exclusive, executive expresses with effortless speed", then why is the apotheosis of this craft the first to go now that Alpina is no longer independent?Advertisement - Page continues below
What's Alpina’s most surprising moment?
Considering what we’ve come to expect of Alpina – massive speed without giving up a modicum of comfort – it’s still kind of jarring to remember that Alpina’s had more racing success than companies that wear their sporting aspirations (or indeed pretensions) like a badge of honour.
Racing legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt are just a couple of the seriously fast and phenomenally talented drivers who’ve driven Alpina race cars, but the real mark of Alpina’s ability has to be its success at notoriously difficult endurance racing.
Doing a lap of Spa-Francorchamps at race pace without crashing is a feat. Doing 301 of these in a row, using the kind of tyre and brake tech we had back in 1970, is some kind of miracle. Yet that’s what a BMW-Alpina 2800CS did in 1970, driving more than 2,640 miles in the process and beating the second-placed (and third, and fourth) Alfa GTAm by more than seven miles. Perhaps needless to say, we trust Alpina with that whole ‘going quickly, safely’ bit.
What's the best concept Alpina built?
Like quite a few others, Alpina doesn’t do that whole ‘concept that explores the future design direction for the brand’ kind of guff. If you’re looking at something Alpina’s designed, let alone built, you can be pretty much positive that you’ll see a road-going version before too long. Well, at least in theory – they’re rarer than Ferraris, after all.
So if we’re going to talk about an Alpina concept, we have to shift the goalposts on the whole ‘concept’ part. Duly shifted, we can now happily and unreservedly state that the best concept Alpina ever had was to marry the pace of the current BMW M5 with the utility of the 5 Series estate and dress it in the reserved panache that’s really become Alpina’s stock-in-trade. It’s the B5 Touring, in case so much was not already obvious.Advertisement - Page continues below
Tell me an interesting fact about Alpina.
If you were to describe Alpina to someone, you’d probably go wrong somewhere in the first sentence. No judgement on you, your character or your knowledge of deep automotive niches, either – it’s just too easy to do.
So, here’s a first pass at explaining Alpina: ‘Oh, they’re a German company that tunes BMWs.’ Bzzzt. Wrong. Alpina is actually recognised by the German Federal Ministry of Transport as a manufacturer in its own right, and has been since the 1980s – such is the depth of its work, and of its relationship with BMW. That Alpina is entrusted to actually build, finish and sell cars based on BMW mechanicals has always set it apart from any number of tuners, as supremely talented as so many of them are.