For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
In the light of the events of recent years, it’s difficult not to look back on 1973 as something of a watershed moment.
Britons, more than ever before, were looking to the Continent for inspiration and, although you were still more likely to holiday in Margate than Marbella, the change was clear to see in everything from pop music to restaurant menus.
Just like our evolving gastronomic tastes, we gained a growing appreciation of exotic performance saloons – and who could blame us for having our heads turned when at home we were being served up a lukewarm platter of Austin Allegro and Morris Marina?
One of the first foreign firms to capitalise was Alpina, a small company based out of an old typewriter factory in Buchloe, Germany.
What began with tuning kits for the BMW Neue Klasse saloon eventually encompassed the lion’s share of Munich’s model line-up, covering everything from entry-level models right up to the firm’s top executive offerings – each of which elicited a fascination among the British public that was rarely matched outside Germany.
Alpina’s presence in the UK started in the Surrey village of Westerham, with Crayford. Although best known for its convertible conversions of mainstream fare, the concern also served as a concessionaire for the German firm from 1970.
Crayford put a 2002 demonstrator on the road before distribution was taken over by Alpina factory driver Brian Muir, and later Tom Walkinshaw.
In 1982, responsibility for Alpina in the UK shifted to Sytner, the Nottingham outpost of BMW run by legendary Touring Car racer Frank.
Sytner’s stewardship proved a turning point for the tuner’s fortunes in Britain, and for the first time Alpina’s cars were available to view in a dealership and – crucially – configured in right-hand drive.
Against the backdrop of shoulder pads, power ballads and white-lined excess of the 1980s, BMW’s second-generation 3 Series – the E30 – became a runaway success.
The baby Bimmer was soon the car to be seen in for everyone from estate agents and investment bankers to permed footballers and popstars, largely due to the model’s broad appeal; it could be had in just about every conceivable configuration, including a four-door, convertible, coupé and even a load-lugging tourer.
And whatever your poison, it could be breathed on by the boffins at Buchloe and assembled in Nottingham.
The first Alpina-tuned E30 derivative was the C1 2.3, introduced in 1983 and featuring a revised version of the previous generation’s 2316cc straight-six, but it failed to impress despite an improvement in power output of 30bhp over the standard car’s 137bhp.
The cam was particularly aggressive, only coming alive after 3500rpm, and when BMW boosted its factory model to 148bhp that same year, it somewhat negated the advantages of the pricey tuned version.
By the time the C1 landed on British shores a year later it was a tough sell, and Sytner fell well short of its planned 47-car sales target. In the end, only 35 were built.
It wasn’t long before Alpina introduced a bigger-engined version of the E30 – the B6 2.8 – but of the 259-strong production run, just one car was produced with right-hand drive.
It was built at Buchloe for Sytner, who decided instead to wait for the more affordable C2 2.5. Power came from the economy-minded smallblock ‘eta’ M60 engine, modified with a 323i crank and Mahle pistons, with capacity reduced to 2554cc and power upped to 182bhp.
Despite impressive performance figures, the 2.5 didn’t exactly fly out of the showrooms; it wasn’t until its big brother was launched in 1986 that the C2 finally captured the imaginations of buyers.
Unlike previous Alpinas, the full-fat C2 2.7 was an Anglo-Saxon collaboration, with the first example being built not in Buchloe but Nottingham – a task that was entrusted to Alpina Supervisor Mark Adkin.
“It was just me and one other bloke – it was basically a full-time job,” says Adkin, who worked exclusively on the Alpina conversions from 1983-’89.
“I built C2s, B9s, B10s and B11s, and I was the first person to go over to Germany to build a V12 – Frank Sytner’s 7 Series demonstrator – but there was nothing on the market like the C2 2.7.”
Just three years after the first 2.7 left the Nottingham works, Adkin and his small team turned out F885 JCH, a two-door coupé finished in Lachs Silver: “I built the car in 1989,” says Adkin today, as he lifts the front-hinged bonnet and points out the chassis plate, which bears a number that begins with his initials, MA.
“It started life as a standard 325i with M-tech suspension and an M-tech bodykit,” he explains. “All the cars were brand new and bog standard to begin with. We used to take out the engine, remove the gearbox, take off the old suspension, brakes and exhaust – that was all changed.
“We swapped the front and rear dampers to Bilsteins, with firmer springs all round, and a tubular exhaust manifold made by Janspeed was then mated to a full Alpina exhaust system.”
The attention to detail is impressive even in the interior, where the original dashboard was stripped down and the speedometer and tachometer were modified, with the needles carefully painted in red.
The main party piece, however, was that straight-six engine. “It was a real gem,” recalls Adkin. “It was built at Buchloe using Mahle pistons, a different camshaft and an uprated ECU.”
As with its predecessor, the C2 2.7 used the ‘eta’ block, retaining the original 84mm bore and 81mm stroke for a capacity of 2693cc.
Trick pistons increased the compression ratio from 8.5:1 to 10.2:1, while the cylinder head received hemispherical combustion chambers and bigger valves.
The result was an output of 207bhp at 5800rpm – not only eclipsing the standard ‘eta’ unit to the tune of 80bhp and the factory 325i by 38bhp, but also comprehensively outmuscling the then-new M3, which mustered 192bhp from its four-cylinder S14 motor.
And though the horsepower figures won bragging rights in the bar room, on the road the real difference came from the vast surplus of torque – 197lb ft (213lb ft for the cat version) compared with the M3’s 166lb ft.
Little is known of the car’s history after it left Sytner in 1989, and Adkin followed it out of the door a short time later: “I only left due to a change in the law,” he explains.
“In April that year the government decided that all the cars had to be taxed and insured before being converted, which resulted in a lead time of six months. That just killed it off; we went from building a car or two every week to nothing. I decided it wasn’t going to change so got a job at a Porsche garage.”
The story might have ended there, were it not for Alpina’s 50th-anniversary celebration at the Silverstone Classic in 2015, and the chance find before it of a C2 2.7 that was ripe for restoration.
Sytner’s Matthew Stripling managed to source a car that had languished in a garage for years, forgotten and half buried under a pile of old carpet – and that car turned out to be F885 JCH.
An ambitious plan was soon hatched to have the E30 track-ready for Silverstone.
Adkin was still heavily involved in car preparation, and had just finished work on a Lancia 037 and the ex-Harri Toivonen Metro 6R4 when he got the call: “The phone rang and Matt said to me, ‘Come back and build it again.’ So I put the car back together.”
Mirroring 25 years earlier, an area was set aside in the Sytner workshop for Adkin’s project: “They gave me a ramp and everything I needed to get on with it – just like in 1989.
“We had everything out of it – engine, gearbox, suspension – and everything from the underside came off. We fitted new dampers and springs, new brake pipes and a fresh long-range fuel tank – Frank never liked filling up,” Adkin laughs.
“Underneath, it had never been welded. It was absolutely immaculate, as was the paintwork – the previous owner had the car painted in the 1990s and it was still perfect, despite being stored all those years.
“It had a few nasty things on it, such as horrible lip spoilers. All the lights were black, so we took those out and threw them away in order to put it back to original. We didn’t have any trouble getting parts – most are still available, and what we couldn’t get through BMW we were able to source from other manufacturers.”
Despite working alone, Adkin managed to turn the car around in just five months, in time for the birthday celebrations at Silverstone, but the C2 hadn’t even left the workshop before it was snapped up by eagle-eyed E30 racer David Hunt.
“I went to Sytner looking at new BMWs,” recalls Hunt, “but when I saw it in the showroom I thought, ‘If I can get that at the right price, it’s coming home.’ It wasn’t even ready for sale, but we came to an agreement.”
The Alpina then joined a collection of classic BMWs that included a Buchloe-built E28, his first ever E30 racer, and an E36 that he currently campaigns with the Classic Touring Car Racing Club.
As Hunt’s burgeoning collection grew, the C2 2.7’s position within it gradually became more precarious. But, as before, a buyer was found before it was offered for sale: his brother, Alex.
“I never thought he’d sell it,” says Alex, who moved on a mint E30 M3 to fund the purchase. “I sold the M3 and bought the C2 that same afternoon.
“The M3 was a lovely car, but this just had such provenance there was no way I was letting it out of the family. Knowing that Mark has done all the work on it – again – is unbelievable. It’s a gorgeous car; you don’t even have to drive it to appreciate it.”
There’s a definite note of mischief in those final words as he presses the keys into my hand.
With the run of the Lincolnshire Wolds open to us, I turn the key and kick the silky straight-six into life.
It’s an unobtrusive, almost civilised engine that sounds only slightly fruitier than a standard 325i at idle, while the luxuriously trimmed interior is unmistakably E30, Alpina wheel aside, from the fantastic all-round vision through the boxy glasshouse to the centre console angled selfishly towards the driver.
The gearbox is shared with the factory car and is precise, with a longish throw, and it’s only when you really start to push the C2 that the advantages of Alpina’s tuning package come to the fore – notably the ready torque and easily accessible power.
The M3 is a performance icon, with better brakes and steering unfettered by conversion to right-hand drive, but it’s a peaky machine that needs to be properly wrung out.
In contrast, the C2 feels quick all over the park, particularly at lower speeds where the muscle of that 2.7-litre ‘six’ helps it power out of corners.
It isn’t the fastest car on paper, or the flashiest to look at, but there’s something undeniably brilliant about the C2 that you only realise when it’s on the move; it’s one of those cars that proves far greater than the sum of its parts.
Giving it back is harder than you might think, but it’s clear that Alex Hunt is a safe pair of hands.
Will he ever get rid of it? “If I sold it, I would regret it for ever,” he replies without hesitation. “My brother is definitely sorry he sold it, and, as for Mark, I think he would have kept it if he could.
“It’s a car that you just want in your garage, and it puts a big smile on your face every time you open the door.”
Images: John Bradshaw