BAHNSTORMERS

Buchloe and Munich fought it out with each other to make the best go-faster E28 5 Series, but was it the tuner or factory who triumphed?

Words: Chris Chilton Pictures: Neil Fraser


 
download+(1).png

When you sign up to the newsletter you will receive exclusive Modern Classics magazine content every fortnight! Love your hero cars from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s? Then this is the newsletter for you. 

 

IMG_7271_preview.jpg

Organ pedal flattened, big six wailing, wind hammering against the old-fashioned upright, slim-framed windscreen: going hell for leather in a classic fast Five is one of our favourite pastimes. And thanks to the success of the second-generation E28 5 Series, there are plenty to choose from.

BMW launched the 5 Series way back in 1972, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it really found its mojo. Modifications to the styling and chassis of the original E12, and an even greater spread of powertrains, helped the E28 become the go-to big sports saloon, drawing Brits away from their traditional high-end Rovers, Fords
and Vauxhalls and pushing BMW into the big time.

With the E28 5 Series, BMW got serious about performance Fives. And no factory-built E28 was more serious than the original M5. Here was a car that looked like a sports saloon but had the engine of a supercar and all the comfort and refinement of the world’s best luxury cruisers.

Back in the 1980s, neither Mercedes-Benz nor Audi dealers had anything comparable to offer. Alpina did though, as it had began offering its own high performance E28s long before BMW got around to it. But which was best, BMW’s own M5, or Alpina’s quite different take, the B10?

IMG_6888_preview.jpg

Before you’ve so much as glanced at the technical credentials of this pair, there’s every chance you’ll have found a favourite just by looking at them.

The M5 is the soul of discretion, and many were even more so, because this particular example has the optional body kit more normally associated with its contemporary M535i little brother. 

That kit comprises a set of side skirts and entirely new front and rear bumper units that, together with another option fitted here, the ‘shadowline’ blackout treatment on the window surrounds, banishes all hint of chrome.

Even the handsome cross-spoke BBS wheels, shared with the contemporary E30 M3, don’t draw too much attention, while a modest M badge on the front grille, and an M5 logo on the rear offers very little resembling a clue that this thing was nearly as quick as a Ferrari 308.

And then there’s the Alpina. If the M5 is as coolly reserved as Spandau Ballet, then its Buchloe rival is Sigue Sigue Sputnik, shamelessly shouting about its performance potential – and in marked contrast to the genteel approach taken by modern Alpinas.

There’s much more of a late ’70s touring car look about it with that huge cowcatcher front spoiler and lairy love ’em or hate ’em optional graphics along the flanks. That front air dam and the subtle rear valance cover work neatly with the original chrome bumpers. The porn star ’tache rear boot lid spoiler gives the E28’s bulbous rear end a very different look than the more modern colour coded item perched atop the M5’s rear deck.

The iconic cotton-reel wheels, though, they’re the making of this car. They’re 16in in diameter, like the M5’s, but instead of being 7.5in wide all round, they measure 7in across at the nose and a more fulsome 8in at the back to really fill those rear arches. Later E28 Alpinas switched to the more modern design with a flush lockable centre cap, though still featuring 20 spokes (most replica wheels only have 19, and don’t look right). But the early style with the exposed lugs and black centres suit the E28 far better, giving the whole car a loutish demeanour.

Alpina had been selling thuggish Fives like the B6 and nutty turbocharged 300bhp B7 since the 1970s, the B referring to engines based on BMW’s big-block straight six, and the number relating to Alpina’s development of it. So when BMW launched the E28 in 1981, Alpina lost no time creating its own, introducing the B9 before the year’s end.

A B9 is very similar in concept and style to the car you see here but it used the early version of BMW’s M30 3.5-litre six seen in the first E24 635i coupés, but never offered in a factory E28. With a modified Alpina cylinder head, higher compression Mahle pistons and a new camshaft, Alpina pushed power from the stock 218bhp to 245bhp, way above the 184bhp you got from the 528i, the hottest factory-produced 5 Series at the time. Then in 1985 Alpina switched to the shorter-stroke M30 3.5 that BMW was now fitting to its cars, including its own M535i, and gave the upgraded model a new name: B10.

Lift the bonnet of the M5 though, and you’re presented with something altogether more epic. Still 3.5-litres, still based around a heavy cast iron block canted over to fit under the bonnet, but topped with a 24-valve twin-cam head. This wasn’t quite the motor fitted to the M1 supercar, but it was close enough.

I owned an E28 M5 once, and I loved the way it looked, hunkered down (or possibly just sagging under the weight of its 150,000 miles) on its BBS rims, the bodykit-free Dolphin Grey paint and shadowline trim giving it a real mean presence. But it was a £1000 hound, and this one – car  No 185 of only 187 right-hookers – is an absolute peach. No surprise then that I reach for the M5’s keys first.

This particular car feels so good it’s hard to believe it’s done the same 150,000 miles as my nail had. The gear linkage is tight, the diff is quiet and even the recirculating ball steering feels reasonably on form. 

And oh, that engine. Breathing through six throttle bodies, the response feels deliciously urgent after the turbocharged 2015 AMG E63 I arrived at the shoot in, even if the performance isn’t anywhere near as dramatic. Don’t get me wrong though, this is still a quick car. The M88 3.5 makes 286bhp at 6500rpm, which is enough to push it to 60mph in 6secs, 100mph in around 15, and eventually on to 150mph. But it’s deceptive. You could jump in and pootle around without realising its true potential at all. In fact, as with the exterior, there aren’t many interior clues to this car’s performance heart.

IMG_7059_preview.jpg

Before you’ve so much as glanced at the technical credentials of this pair, there’s every chance you’ll have found a favourite just by looking at them.

The M5 is the soul of discretion, and many were even more so, because this particular example has the optional body kit more normally associated with its contemporary M535i little brother. 

That kit comprises a set of side skirts and entirely new front and rear bumper units that, together with another option fitted here, the ‘shadowline’ blackout treatment on the window surrounds, banishes all hint of chrome.

Even the handsome cross-spoke BBS wheels, shared with the contemporary E30 M3, don’t draw too much attention, while
a modest M badge on the front grille, and an M5 logo on the rear offers very little resembling a clue that this thing was nearly as quick as a Ferrari 308.

And then there’s the Alpina. If the M5 is as coolly reserved as Spandau Ballet, then its Buchloe rival is Sigue Sigue Sputnik, shamelessly shouting about its performance potential – and in marked contrast to the genteel approach taken by modern Alpinas.

There’s much more of a late ’70s touring car look about it with that huge cowcatcher front spoiler and lairy love ’em or hate ’em optional graphics along the flanks. That front air dam and the subtle rear valance cover work neatly with the original chrome bumpers. The porn star ’tache rear boot lid spoiler gives the E28’s bulbous rear end a very different look than the more modern colour coded item perched atop the M5’s rear deck.

The iconic cotton-reel wheels, though, they’re the making of this car. They’re 16in in diameter, like the M5’s, but instead of being 7.5in wide all round, they measure 7in across at the nose and a more fulsome 8in at the back to really fill those rear arches. Later E28 Alpinas switched to the more modern design with a flush lockable centre cap, though still featuring 20 spokes (most replica wheels only have 19, and don’t look right). But the early style with the exposed lugs and black centres suit the E28 far better, giving the whole car a loutish demeanour.

Alpina had been selling thuggish Fives like the B6 and nutty turbocharged 300bhp B7 since the 1970s, the B referring to engines based on BMW’s big-block straight six, and the number relating to Alpina’s development of it. So when BMW launched the E28 in 1981, Alpina lost no time creating its own, introducing the B9 before the year’s end.

A B9 is very similar in concept and style to the car you see here but it used the early version of BMW’s M30 3.5-litre six seen in the first E24 635i coupés, but never offered in a factory E28. With a modified Alpina cylinder head, higher compression Mahle pistons and a new camshaft, Alpina pushed power from the stock 218bhp to 245bhp, way above the 184bhp you got from the 528i, the hottest factory-produced 5 Series at the time. Then in 1985 Alpina switched to the shorter-stroke M30 3.5 that BMW was now fitting to its cars, including its own M535i, and gave the upgraded model a new name: B10.

Lift the bonnet of the M5 though, and you’re presented with something altogether more epic. Still 3.5-litres, still based around a heavy cast iron block canted over to fit under the bonnet, but topped with a 24-valve twin-cam head. This wasn’t quite the motor fitted to the M1 supercar, but it was close enough.

I owned an E28 M5 once, and I loved the way it looked, hunkered down (or possibly just sagging under the weight of its 150,000 miles) on its BBS rims, the bodykit-free Dolphin Grey paint and shadowline trim giving it a real mean presence. But it was a £1000 hound, and this one – car  No 185 of only 187 right-hookers – is an absolute peach. No surprise then that I reach for the M5’s keys first.

This particular car feels so good it’s hard to believe it’s done the same 150,000 miles as my nail had. The gear linkage is tight, the diff is quiet and even the recirculating ball steering feels reasonably on form. 

And oh, that engine. Breathing through six throttle bodies, the response feels deliciously urgent after the turbocharged 2015 AMG E63 I arrived at the shoot in, even if the performance isn’t anywhere near as dramatic. Don’t get me wrong though, this is still a quick car. The M88 3.5 makes 286bhp at 6500rpm, which is enough to push it to 60mph in 6secs, 100mph in around 15, and eventually on to 150mph. But it’s deceptive. You could jump in and pootle around without realising its true potential at all. In fact, as with the exterior, there aren’t many interior clues to this car’s performance heart.

IMG_7175_preview.jpg

There are some smart sports seats, and there’s air conditioning and a trip computer. Regular high-end 5 Series stuff. But then you notice the little 'M' flash on the three-spoke wheel and instruments, the speedometer markings extended to 170mph, and the way the rev counter isn’t zoned off until almost 7000rpm.

For all its supercar pedigree, this engine has impeccable manners, and its Getrag five-speed 'box in a conventional H pattern is much less obstinate than the dogleg version in the M3. But the engine doesn’t reach its full 251lb-ft potential until 4500rpm, and you quickly learn that when you play between there and the redline, the M5 is a different car altogether, the engine always so smooth, but the noise rising to a wail, the push in your back solidifying as you charge towards the next corner.

It’s a strange experience, sitting so upright, and heading to the horizon this quickly. And if you’ve had much to do with ’70s and ’80s BMWs, it’s equally strange to discover that you can slow down for that upcoming corner, and even exit it without having to gather up armfuls of opposite lock. Well, in the dry, at least.

There’s the inevitable body roll you expect of a 30-year-old car based on a 45-year-old design. But this is that rare thing: an old car with the performance
and finesse to let you hustle with new
cars on a decent road and emerge with a bigger grin. 

That B10 has a lot to live up to. It gets off to a great start. I’m already smitten with the way this thing looks from the outside, and the cabin is just as appealing. It out-blings the M5, this time with proper Recaro seats in place of the M5’s less special BMW sports seats. There’s a flash of Alpina colouring on the upholstery, the company’s distinctive four-spoke steering wheel, snazzy orange needles for the instrument pack, and a numbered plaque on the dash top to remind you that this is a cut above the M535i it was based on. Sytner Nottingham, which converted cars for UK customers under license from Alpina, produced just 25 right-hand drive E28 B10s, making this a rare beast indeed.

BMW’s M30 is a brilliant engine: strong, simple and sounding superb here, breathing through a set of large-diameter exhaust pipes. Applying the same modding tweaks they’d used on the B9, the Buchloe engineers coaxed 261bhp from the straight six, pushing the B10 to 62mph in 6.8sec.

Or probably a bit more with the auto ’box. Yeah, yeah, I can hear the groans now. And here is where we get to one of the biggest differentiators between BMW’s and Alpina’s approaches to the supersaloon. 

You didn’t have to go the auto route with your B10, Alpina – or Sytner – would happily sell you a manual version complete with gorgeous wood-topped gear lever. But in giving you the choice, Alpina offered something BMW couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And it forecast the way the supersaloon would go a quarter of a century later, when sophisticated automatic gearboxes and paddle-shifters would really help nail the balance between touring car and limo.

But that technology wasn’t around in the 1980s and there’s no getting away from the fact this thing would be much more appealing with a five-speed manual bolted between the chairs instead of the four-speed ZF auto with its T-bar and release leaver still set up for a left-hooker. 

It works reasonably well in normal driving, and the three-position dial at the base of the console lets you select from economy, normal and sport modes to tweak the shift points. But with only four speeds it never feels particularly sporty and it absolutely lacks the urgency and sense of connection the M5 delivers.

Fortunately, the sluggish response and loss of precision that’s part and parcel of driving elderly autos isn’t enough to dim your enthusiasm for the rest of the package. The M5 might be quicker off the line, but the B10 feels lusty in the mid range and sounds almost as good. It’s a different noise. Not as smooth as the M5. Deeper, grittier, with that slightly menacing ticking at idle that’s unmistakably M30. And you know what,
I think it's even more fun in the bends. Obviously, there’s a similar feel to the way they behave, and the Alpina too serves up excellent dry-weather traction from the fat rear wheels and limited-slip diff combo. But the Alpina appears to roll that bit less, doesn’t seem to suffer any more for understeer despite wearing 205s up front to the M5’s 225s, and it offers that bit more meat to the way the steering responds.

The M5 parries with its sharper throttle response and a manual transmission that lets you modulate that power delivery so much better. But then the Alpina returns fire, happily slurring between gears on the gentle cruise back to base, reminding me of the dual character of my AMG waiting for me when I hand the B10’s keys back. This is a close one to call.

 

sales_building-since1981_preview.jpg

Alpina B10

Specifications  

Engine: 3430cc/6-cyl/DOHC

Transmission: RWD, 5-speed manual

Power: 261bhp@6000rpm

Torque: 254lb-ft@4000rpm

Weight: 1340kg

Performance

0-60mph: 6.8sec

Top speed: 150mph

Economy: 20mpg

What to pay:

Concours: £45,000

Good: £35,000

Usable: £25,000

Project: £20,000

IMG_6899_preview.jpg

BMW M5

Specifications: 

Engine: 3453cc/6-cyl/turbo/DOHC

Transmission: RWD, 5-speed manual

Power: 286bhp@6500rpm

Torque: 251lb-ft@4500rpm

Weight: 1400kg

Performance:

0-60mph: 6sec

Top speed: 150mph

Economy: 20mpg

What to pay:

Concours: £45,000

Good: £35,000

Usable: £25,000

Project: £20,000

IMG_7598.jpg

Modern Classics view

We’d happily lose a limb to put either of these cars in the garage. They’re perfectly preserved windows to a time when the world was still getting used to the idea of a four-door saloon that went like a Ferrari, and BMW’s M logo was little known outside the racing world, not something you found badly glued to the back of every second Barry-d 318i around town.

As we noted at the beginning of this feature, the way each car looks will likely play a big part when it comes to deciding which one you prefer. 

The M5’s the archetypal Q-car, much like its modern namesake. With the M5, it’s all about the element of surprise, and there’s plenty to be said for that. When it comes to the Alpina, it's a bit like an Audi RS6 with its honeycomb grille and bulging arches; as much about the promise as it is the performance. It's loud and lairy, and in no way could its looks be regarded as subtle. If you find the M5 a little po-faced, you’ll love the Alpina’s sense of fun.

Judged purely on rarity, the Alpina has the BMW thoroughly licked, although thanks to the M pedigree and in recognition of how special the power plant is, the M5 is worth a bit more. Ian has his insured for £40k, while the B10 is up for slightly less. And that makes sense. The M5 is the more special machine.

But the dog-eared photo of my £1000 M5 turd reminds me that I kind of scratched that itch, and while I have come close to owning E28 Alpinas on a couple of occasions, the stars never quite aligned enough to allow it to happen. But I still want it to. With that in mind, if I could find me a manual B10, along with the £35k required to pay for it, then that’s where I’d spend my money