Everyone knows AMG, the independent company specialized in the tuning of Mercedes engines that the latter took over in 2005 and that is since fully owned by MB. Next to building the most powerful version in most product lines, having AMG inhouse also enables MB to stick various AMG logos on lots of other models as well (and whether that “logo inflation” is a good thing or not is something that certainly can, and perhaps will be discussed in a future post). AMG is thereby comparable to the M-division at BMW. M didn’t start as an individual company, but today represents the same for BMW that AMG does for Mercedes, i.e. various cosmetic sports packages as well as the most powerful models.
But if you’re a BMW fan. there’s also the option of getting an Alpina. To clarify, given this is sometimes misunderstood, Alpina is neither an M car badged differently, nor is it a brand owned by BMW. It is something far more exclusive. An Alpina can be viewed as the grand tourer version of BMW’s M offer, different in character, very individual and built in small quantities. BMW and Alpina work closely together since more than 50 years, but BMW has no ownership in the little known manufacturer from the small town of Buchloe, close to Munich. Today we’ll look closer at the company’s history and whether, if you’re a market for a “real” BMW M, you should consider the corresponding Alpina before deciding. I don’t think I’m ruining the party by answering that last question straight away: in most cases, yes you should!
Burkhard Bovensiepen from Buchloe (an alliteration as good as any) could have had an easy if not very exciting life, had he decided to take over the family’s thriving typewriter business. But somehow, back in the early sixties, he decided that this wasn’t what he wanted his life to be about. A couple of years earlier, Bovensiepen had owned a Fiat 1500 he felt needed more power, so on a trip to Italy he had visited a local tuner who sold him the standard kit of improved camshaft and double Weber carburettors, thereby managing to squeeze out a bit more power from the small engine. Unfortunately though the treatment wasn’t long-lived, and the motor literally fell apart on Bovensiepen’s way back to Buchloe. That convinced him of two things: firstly, more power was fun (as long as the engine doesn’t break), and secondly, professional tuning had to be done in a way adapated to the specific car, rather than as standardized after-market kits for various engines. On the basis of that philosophy Alpina was born in 1962, and Bovensiepen decided to focus on cars from the automaker right around the corner in Munich: BMW.
BMW had at this time launched the 1500 (yep, same name and nope, that wouldn’t be possible today!) that was to become Alpina’s first project car. Bovensiepen bought one and started working on the carburettors, exhaust and various other parts, hereby improving the output by 10 hp to 90 hp. The rather basic marketing effort consisting of sticking notes under the wipers of BMW 1500’s, inciting owners to give their cars the Alpina treatment for around 1000 DM. The very basic marketing proved surprisingly successful and in 1965, BMW approved of the modifications and went as far as granting Alpinas the same guarantee package as the original cars. That’s how a close collaboration that lasts until this day started, with Alpina, initially with only 8 employees, tuning most new BMW models and with time, also offering further options for interior design and suspension.
During the 70’s Alpina competed in German car races with its own team next to BMW, in both cases based on the BMW 02-series. Both teams were very successful and with drivers such as Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Jacky Ickx, they would go on to win most races both in the European and German championships, be it touring, rallies or mountain races. In 1977, Alpina ended the racing adventure as other projects had now become more important, most notably three new developments: BMW Alpina B6 2,8 based on the 3-series, the B7-Turbo based on the 5-series, and the B7 Turbo Coupé, based on the 6-series. Both B7’s, thanks to a KKK turbo and intercooler, would develop up to 330 hp and had a top speed over 260 km/h, but were at the same time very civilized to drive, thereby setting the mark for Alpina’s niche: powerful but not edgy, more grand tourer than sports car.
Alpina continued to grow and develop through the years, although the number of cars built on each specific BMW model in the 80’s and 90’s could be as low as 20-30, so very small series, obviously making these very sought-after today. A further recognition of the seriousness of the Alpina proposition came in 1983 when the company was registered as a car brand in Germany, i.e. not just a tuner. Other notable developments were the first bi-turbo engine in 1989 and the first diesel Alpina ten years later, in 1999. Today, diesels make up close to half the cars produced.
It’s difficult to summarize all the models Alpina have worked on over the years and the highlights are to a certain extent a matter of personal preferences, but a couple of noteworthy ones are clearly the two BMW Alpina Roadsters based on the Z1 and the Z8 (and where Alpina fitted an auto box to the otherwise manual Z8 to boost US sales), as well as the Alpina B6 GT3, based on the BMW 6-series and that in 2010 marked Alpina’s return to racing, going on to win the German GT3 series the year after. Today the company offers a version of most BMW models, including the big X7 SUV (of which there is no M-version). Many of the engine parts as well as gearbox, instruments and wheels are today sent to BMW from Alpina. BMW then build and paint the cars before returning them to Alpina for fitting of tailor-made interiors and aerodynamic kits etc.
There’s basically three ways to distinguish an Alpina from the corresponding regular BMW: firstly by colour, at least if it’s in the specific Alpina green or blue, both rather bright and flashy, and colours Alpina also like to do interior stitching in. Secondly, by side stripes. Because yes, the stripes that to all intents and purposes look like something straight out of the 70’s and aren’t necessarily very elegant, is something Alpina still sticks on its cars if they owner wants them to. There seems to be roughly a 50/50 split between those opting for and against them. Finally though, and by far the nicest mark of an Alpina, are the lovely, 20-inch and beyond multi-spoke wheels. Interiors can be individualized and are again, often a matter of taste, but typically include different steering wheels, gauge clusters, seats, wood trim etc. Nothing very spectacular, and arguably also not always of good taste, but with a high degree of individualization.
Whether an Alpina is a better proposition than an M-car depends on what you’re looking for. Driving-wise it’s been described pretty well as the M-version being the track car, and the Alpina the car to get you to the track. After the racing era in the 70’s, Alpina’s focus has been to build powerful but easy to drive cars, which in most tests are described as less sporty than M-cars, but also a more rounded experience all in all. So it’s really up to your personal preferences. If you’re looking for the sports car characteristics of an M-car, that’s probably the way to go. If however you’re looking for more of a GT nature, then you really can’t go wrong with an Alpina. Warranties are the same as for any BMW car, and the local BMW garage will also not have any issues servicing it. The starting price of an Alpina tends to be close to the corresponding M-car (net of some equipment differences) with resale values typically higher, obviously due to the fact that in spite of its success, Alpina even today sticks to building no more than 1500-1700 cars per year. You’ll thus pay more if you buy a used one (especially if it’s one of the smaller series), but future values can be estimated to remain very stable. Given this, although there’s nothing wrong with answering the question on what car you drive with “BMW”, saying “Alpina” definitely has a more exclusive ring to it!