What is an Alpina?
October 3, 2017
If you read my first blog entry, Sleuthing the Car (how I found my Alpina), you likely recall the noise about whether the car was “really” an Alpina. That begs the question: What is an Aplina. Its easy to answer for modern cars. After all, Alpina, now, is a bona fide car manufacturer (with their own Vehicle Identification Numbers and VIN plates) and the cars they build are Alpinas. Case closed.
But back before they became a manufacturer in 1983, Alpina was just a BMW tuner, like Dinan is now (and Ruf is for Porsche and AMG was for Mercedes Benz). The parallel to Dinan is striking. Like Dinan, Alpina back in the day, was the premiere vendor and manufacturer of parts to modify your BMW and builder of BMWs that they modified. And, like Dinan, you could get the modified BMWs directly from Alpina (or Dinan) or you could get a BMW modified by an authorized Alpina (or Dinan) dealer.
So, a pre-1983 car being presented as an Alpina usually falls into one of three categories: a car that has some random Alpina parts installed on it by God-knows-who (that isn’t really an Alpina), a car built by an authorized Alpina dealer/distributor (which may be an Alpina, depending on your definition), and a car build by Alpina themselves.
A little Alpina background probably helps. They began tuning BMWs in 1962, first by strapping a pair of Weber carburetors on the M10 in a 1500 sedan. In the 60s, they developed motors with Webers, increased-compression pistons, longer-duration camshafts (notably the BMW Motorsport 300* camshaft), and porting, polishing, and combustion chamber machine work on the head. While this unleashed lots of locked-in horsepower, it wasn’t all that innovative. Indeed, it was fairly common work that many talented machinists could accomplish. What made Alpina so special was they were the first to do it regularly and their work was pretty damn good. Then they designed some pretty neat (and very expensive) parts of their own, like the A4 four-throttle injection system for the 2002tii (they also put the A4 engine in the early e21 3-series cars).
Alpina then took a a page out of Carrol Shelby's book and put in bigger motors. The e21-based B6 2.8 is a perfect example: They took the M30 motor out of the 5-series and plopped it in a the small 3-series two-door sedan; the earlier ones had unique fuel injection, but about half-way through the run, they changed it to stock BMW L-Jet Bosch fuel injection. Alpina, essentially, followed Shelby’s model (bigger motor in smaller car) but used motors from the original manufacturer (BMW). Their other trick was turbocharging the bigger cars that already had the bigger motors, like the 5- and 6-series (the B7).
At first, this work was done in the Alpina factory, but soon authorized dealers popped up in England, Holland, and the United States. Here, we had Miller/Norburn in North Carolina, Hardy & Beck in Berkeley California, and Dietel Enterprises in Mission Viejo, California. These authorized dealers did several things: sold Alpina parts, installed Alpina parts and built Alpina cars, and in some cases imported cars built by Alpina.
What makes it difficult to know whether a pre-1983 car is “really” an Alpina? Alpina has limited records of the cars they built – for instance, all they could tell me about my C1 2.3 is that it had been brought to them in February of 1982, not what they did to it – or anything else. And from what I’ve heard Alpina has no records whatsoever of the cars built by their authorized dealers. While a car built by Dietel Enterprises might legitimately considered an Alpina, without a record, it is simple a nice car with nice parts and maybe an Alpina dash plaque (which any yahoo could buy off eBay and put on the car).