The beginner’s guide to Alpina

They're more than just BMW tuners
by Craig Jamieson | Oct 8, 2022
Everything you need to know about Alpina
PHOTO: Alpina
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Who’s Alpina, and when did it start making cars?

Alpina wheels
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.

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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.

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Where are Alpinas built, and how many does Alpina build a year?

Everything you need to know about Alpina
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.

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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?

Everything you need to know about Alpina
Put simply, it builds gas 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?

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The gas-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.

Everything you need to know about Alpina

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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 gas-fed 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.

What’s the cheapest car Alpina builds... and what’s the most expensive it builds?

Everything you need to know about Alpina
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?

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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 (P4,157,077 sans local taxes). 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 (P9,787,134, taxes not included). 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?

History of Alpina

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 320kph, 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.

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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-liter, twin-turbo V8 version of the 5 Series that a) can hit 330kph, 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 wagon – if you’re willing to accept a paltry 325kph top speed. Yeah, we’ll live.

What's Alpina’s most surprising moment?

Classic Alpina
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.

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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.

Tell me an interesting fact about Alpina.

Everything you need to know about Alpina

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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.

This story first appeared in TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Alpina
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