In 1978, sixteen years after Burkhard Bovensiepen started selling his carburetor kits for Neue Klasse BMWs in the parking lot of the Frankfurt auto show, his Alpina company presented its first complete cars. Based on BMW’s 3 and 5 Series sedans, the Alpina B6 2.8 and B7 Turbo took BMW to new heights where performance and refinement were concerned.
For the launch of the new G12-based B7 at Laguna Seca, Alpina brought a freshly restored example of its ultimate E12 variant: a B7 S Turbo from 1981. One of 60 such cars built in Buchloe, this car was purchased from a private owner in Switzerland with 150,000 miles on the odometer. It was restored at Alpina to show off the company’s early prowess in turning ordinary BMWs into superlative sport sedans, and to demonstrate the thoroughgoing excellence that has been part of its DNA from the beginning.
As current CEO Andreas Bovensiepen explains, Alpina’s aren’t just faster BMWs; they’re better BMWs. Even so, Alpina’s first E12-based B7 was the world’s fastest sedan in 1978, able to sprint from zero to 62 mph in just 5.9 seconds on its way to a top speed of 163 mph. With 300 hp and 341 lb-ft, the Alpina was considerably more powerful than even the M535i, which produced just 218 hp and 233 lb-ft despite using the 3,453cc M30 six-cylinder engine where the Alpina made do with the 2,985cc version.
Like the first B7, the B7 S Turbo got the full slate of Alpina parts: a reinforced clutch and Getrag close-ratio five-speed gearbox, taller 2.56:1 final drive with an oil cooler, Alpina-tuned Bilstein springs and dampers, new anti-roll bars, cross-drilled disc brakes up front and 16-inch Alpina radial spoke wheels that measured 7.0 inches wide up front and 8.0 inches wide at the rear on 205/55 and 225/55 VR-rated rubber.
All B7 S Turbos were painted in Sapphire Blue metallic with gold Alpina deko stripes, and all had the Alpina steering wheel, shift knob and gauges, including additional gauges for boost pressure and rear differential temperature. The example restored by Alpina also has blue and green striped Alpina cloth upholstery and the larger auxiliary fuel tank, whose extra 7 gallons gave this car incredible range on long autobahn journeys.
The Alpina’s extremely stiff clutch springs make starting off a challenge, especially as the clutch engagement point is fairly high off the floor. But it’s not abrupt, and the car slips into gear fairly easily. We have to make a mad dash to cross Highway 68 in heavy traffic, but the B7 S has plenty of torque for takeoff and a tall first gear that lets us get up to speed without having to shift too quickly into second.
The steering lacks power assist, but it’s not particularly heavy on 205-section front tires. Those were considered oversized in their day, but now they’re just about perfect for this 35-year-old car. As Harrison Ford said, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” This car has covered 150,000 miles over its lifetime, and the wear on its steel chassis is noticeable through the steering wheel despite new suspension parts and bushings. Nothing creaks or groans, but the miles are apparent.
The real story, however, is the motor. We start off with the boost set to minimum—0.5 bar, which yields about 250 hp—but even here the engine is willing, and it’s no slouch going up the Grade. Revving it out on full throttle gives a nice but not overwhelming rush of turbocharged power, and not too much lag for a system of this vintage.
Andy explains that Alpina has always prized driveability, and that being the first in the automotive world to use computerized ignition allowed the company’s engineers to perfect the fuel/air mixture at all engine speeds and all throttle openings. That was a rare thing in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when any kind of tuning often made cars lurch and stumble when they weren’t accelerating, as in steady-throttle cruising.
Now we’ve got 0.9 bar of boost, and the difference is dramatic. I thought we had plenty of torque and horsepower before, but at full boost this engine really comes alive. M30s are among my all-time favorite BMW engines, and their inherent smoothness goes perfectly with turbocharging.
I wish we had a bit more room to explore this car’s acceleration, because even on the short sections where we’re able to charge up the hill this engine is seriously impressive. Yes, there’s plenty of turbo lag on full boost—it takes a couple of seconds before the turbo really spools up—but this engine is a joy to experience. And if you can keep both the cams and the turbocharger on the boil, it’s still pretty damn fast.