Get Down With Topasbraun In A Rare BMW ALPINA B8 E23 7-Series
Photography by Timo Gerlitz
The natural habitat for most big brown luxury sedans is a sweltering parking lot of a golf club in the kind of retirement community where the only source of driving excitement is somebody’s grandparent mixing up an Avalon’s gas and brake pedals. Travel to the land of the sport sedan however, and you can find a few exceptions.
The German auto industry didn’t single-handedly invent the concept of fast four-doors, but between the engineering departments like those in Stuttgart, Ingolstadt, and Munich—linked by the Autobahn—the country’s longtime contributions to the segment have made its cars something of a de facto benchmark.
If a company wants to make a sporting name for itself, it must stack up BMW M, AMG, and Audi Sport. And this is to say nothing of the specialty manufacturers like Alpina, which build even quicker bits of kit. Of course very few people will find themselves in a situation where they need to set a time at the Nürburgring or pass another highway motorist at a 100mph differential, but it’s nice to know what’s possible, and the right day dreams can move inventory.
However, it seems we’re rapidly approaching or have already reached the endpoint of diminishing returns. When there are at least a dozen ways to get from 0-60 in under four seconds in a car with room for four, what’s so significant about another tenth of a second? Even with the insane capabilities of electric motors, we’ve already come close to the physical limits of rubber with our combustion engine creations.
Seeking any sort of progress is just natural though, and it’s hard to imagine there not being a source of demand for even tiny increments of evolution when it comes to performance cars, of any shape and seating configuration. The leaps and bounds between the past generations of fast cars are going to be shorter in the future. To bring this back around to sport sedans in particular, it’s unlikely that the next three BMW M5s will be as radically different from one another as the E34-E39-E60 section of the timeline. A few hundred extra horsepower can only do so much when you have to sell these things to people who don’t want to change the tires on their sedan every couple hundred miles.
This isn’t to say old cars are better than new ones because “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” That’s a pretty narrow-minded approach to cars, but it’s okay to have preferences, and if you’re reading Petrolicious it’s safe to assume at least a general acceptance of older vehicles. Chasing the bleeding edge of high performance yields some amazing creations (and even if you’re staunchly in favor of classics, don’t forget that these cars were new once upon a time), but it’s wrong to think that the performance element of a can ever be totally outdated—eclipsed on paper does not equate to irrelevance.
The stereotypical mantra about analog and mechanical being more enjoyable than automated and insulated certainly applies, but the enjoyment of driving these cars comes not only from the act itself, but the thought of who else drove it, and where, and when, and why. In other words, driving older cars—sports cars, sports sedans, old pickup trucks, whatever it is—connects us to different contexts, while our imaginations fill in the gaps. It’s a bit romantic and mushy maybe, but surely a lot of us can attest to this. There’s just a little less room to imagine or relive your car’s past experiences when they are limited to an assembly line and a shipping vessel.
This 1978 BMW ALPINA B8 has experienced its share of life over the course of its 300,000-plus kilometers. The car was originally put together directly from the start—i.e., not a conversion brought in later on—and was initially used as a display and demonstration car for a BMW ALPINA dealership near Cologne, where it was eventually purchased by a physics professor. Now, a Topasbraun 7-Series with a tan cloth interior does sound like an apt ride for a tweedy type of fellow on the surface, but this car is hardly dowdy and sensible.
Alpina’s prominence in the German motorsport scene was already well established before the company started producing road going cars across a wide model range and earned manufacturer status in the early 1980s. Although the turbocharged E12-based B7 Turbo was deservedly earning the majority of attention for Alpina’s road car efforts in the late 1970s when the B8 pictured here was constructed, the B8 had its own impressive credentials.
Using the fastest 7-Series available at the time—the BMW 733i, as the turbocharged 745i was not yet available—Alpina boosted its output to 240hp thanks to a modified cylinder head with higher compression pistons, swapping out the stock camshaft for a more aggressive ALPINA-designed piece while beefing up the rest of the valvetrain to match, and installing a freer flowing exhaust system. Alpina also added an LSD (rare for the few E23-based B8s built), which was fed by a four-speed manual Getrag, and the whole package was provided with some tautness courtesy of Bilstein.
Visual modifications included the signature air dam and 14” Alpina 20-spoke wheels on the outside, and Recaro sport seats, an Alpina shift knob, steering wheel, and serial number plate on the inside. Along the way this example also received larger, but still period correct, 16” Alpina wheels, the silver deco-set, and a dogleg five-speed. It’s a lesser-known piece of the company’s impressive history of road cars, but it lives up to its more famous and, given the color, “extroverted” peers. Which makes its current ownership situation seem all the more appropriate, seeing as its owner is in charge of Alpina’s one-man archival department. Timo Gerlitz, better known as “sportfahrer” to those who follow him on Instagram, at first seems too young to possess such an encyclopedic knowledge of this company’s history, but when you take into account that his dad had a B8 similar to this in the 1970s, you realize that Timo’s been immersed for quite some time already.
Since only 40 E23-based BMW ALPINA B8s were made, Timo tried to track down the exact one that used to be in the family all those years ago, but the other side of the low-volume equation meant that finding any B8 in decent condition would be an opportunity hard to pass up. In the many-year-long but unfortunately fruitless search for his dad’s B8, Timo came across this example in 2013 in an online classified, but couldn’t afford the asking price. He was patient though, and when the car reappeared for sale six years later, he took it home.
The old physics professor racked up his share of distance in this car, and between him and a few other owners the car saw its share of duty as, well, a car. Timo is enjoying it as is for the time being, but plans for the future involve a pretty extensive restoration, of course repainted in the same beautiful color.