Test Driven: 1979 BMW E21 Alpina Clone (10/10)

BMW E21 Alpina Clone

When you drive a lot of modern cars it is cool to also try out some of the older cars that preceded them. Doing this allows you to appreciate where everything in the newer cars has come from over time. My friend Nick C is very into older BMWs, and he has a pretty unique 1979 E21 3 Series Alpina Clone. It has been a bit of a project for him, but once he got the car running right he agreed to let me take it out for a spin.     It was interesting to see how they made a car “comfortable” back in the late 70s. The seats were heavily cushioned and were bouncy like a sofa, comfortable when cruising but offering no support in corners. The whole interior is very simple and bare by modern standards, but everything is wrapped in fine leather so everything is nice to the touch. The steering is very easy to operate when you consider that there is no power assistance. This is largely because the steering rack is enormous, with 4.5 turns lock to lock. The suspension is also quite soft, allowing the car to absorb bumps well. All of this just seems so deliberately mechanical compared to modern cars, which have computers to alter the car’s settings in a fraction of a second. Back then engineers really had to tangibly set up a car to be supple and comfortable, and it really goes to show how far modern cars have come in their design versatility. All that said, the car was plenty comfortable on the road, and definitely offered the most one could expect from such a car at the time.

BMW has always been about the drive though; so all this luxury would be meaningless if the car couldn’t perform. Nick C’s car did have a some light suspension modifications including Alpina sway bars, Bilstein shocks, and Scion tC springs, but I have to say that I was a bit worried it would not handle well after driving it around town for a bit. The E21 really felt like it would be an understeering pig with its loose steering and soft suspension. However, once pushed, the car changed character and became extremely competent. There was definitely some initial body roll when entering into a hard corner, but once it settled I found the car extremely well balanced, even with a little bit of oversteer to help rotate it through the bend. The steering remained loose, and I just had to be ready to deal with it. On the bright side though, it offers a lot of road feel through the wheel, being unassisted. The Alpina really surprised me through corners, and it would seem that this old E21is a wolf in sheep’s clothing like modern bimmers; again, just in a more raw and mechanical manner.

As far as power is concerned this E21 is packing a little something extra under the hood. As said earlier this car is an Alpina clone, not an actual Alpina, so it was made as close as possible with the parts available here in America. Instead of the real Alpina’s 2.8L M30 Nick C’s car has the 3.2L M30 out of the BMW 733i, and his particular motor has been built with high compression pistons for even more power. All in all in all the motor is making around 240hp on 93 octane, and I would say the car is a bit faster than a 2001-2007 Subaru WRX in a straight line. When the gas is pinned it has a really linear power curve, and a brilliant sound bellows from the inline six as the revs climb. The clutch on the car was a bit weak, so I had to be very careful not to stress it too much on my shifts. Gearing is pretty tall, as in most European cars of its time, so there was lots of room to play with while in 3rd and 4th gear on normal roads. It would’ve be really been great to try race gas on this motor because it was barely able to run on 93 octane, however Nick C recently had the motor go on him so he is currently looking into what to do next for the car.

The thing the Alpina really has going for it, above all else, is that it is unique. These days E21s are rare enough on the road to begin with, and we never got the real E21 Alpinas here in the US. This makes Nick C’s Alpina truly something special, something that is really noteworthy at a car meet in the sea of Nissans, Subarus, and Hondas etc. Last year we rolled into a local meet, I in my STi and Nick C in the Alpina, and everyone there just flocked right over to his car with all sorts of questions. Simply put, the Alpina is a very cool car, something that will always be interesting in pretty much any automotive setting. Of course it is far from perfect, but that makes it ideal for a guy like Nick C because he gets bored with cars easily when there is nothing to work on. As far as the future goes, the Alpina can be anything under the surface and still maintain its unique appearance. In many ways it has a set identity, but in many ways it is also a blank slate. I keep advising Nick C to hang onto it no matter what. So, as long as he keeps the car, we will keep you all updated on it’s status as it evolves.

WoM Score: BMW E21 Alpina Clone

Primary Function: Performance: 2….. faster and better handling than you might think
Secondary Functions: Practicality(2), Luxury(2) Unique (2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 10/10

Special thanks to Nick C for letting me review his car.

-Nick Walker


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