A Touch of Class
One of the most pleasurable aspects of working for MOTOR SPORT is the opportunity of meeting top people in top places, part of the attraction of which is the continual hope that some of the stardust will sprinkle itself upon oneself.
In many cases the subject turns out to be an average human who is doing something that he is good at which a) makes him a lot of money or b) makes him the focus of media interest. It is not usual for that person to be otherwise a cut above the average man in the street.
In Herr Burkard Bovensiepen, boss and founder of the Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH + Co in Germany, we have an exception to that rule. If ever there was a man whose product was a reflection of himself, then it has to be the products which are produced in a leafy village in Bavaria.
Looks are deceptive. It is hardly imaginable that such a quiet, sleepy place such as Buchloe, half an hour's drive from Munich, is the centre of so much activity, a deception which continues even when entering the premises.
Instead of the high tech razmatazzz which is usually associated with BMWs, one of the yuppy status symbols of the Eighties, one is met by a few low slung buildings and just a few staff busying themselves on cars. It is in complete contrast to BMW Motorsport's own activities as well as to some of the larger tuning establishments in Britain.
There are the departments one would expect to find in any serious automotive company, but everything is scaled down. At the moment there are two engine test benches, although there are plans for a third to be built and there are the usual engine, machine room and spares departments. At the moment, though, Herr Bovensiepen has had to recognise the need for at least a modest expansion, so the company is enduring a certain amount of upheaval as each department in turn is temporarily relocated. At the time of our visit in August, the company had just seen completed the construction of a new building on the site. Although this has enlarged the present area by 20%, the extra space will not necessarily translate into one fifth more increase in cars produced due to the complexity of the machines they now assemble which thus require extra time.
Under German law, a manufacturer must keep spares in stock for ten years once a model has gone out of production and naturally Alpina comply with this. In one vast 2000 square metre warehouse, there is row upon row of parts, each carefully labelled and stored, but this warehouse is nothing like as interesting as the one next door. Known to only a few outside Germany, Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH is also a wine merchant, dealing in wines of the premier cru. A look around that warehouse was even more fascinating for somebody like me with only a limited knowledge of wine.
The obsession of being the best stems from Herr Bovensiepen's own ideals, although the emphasis with regard to the cars has changed over recent years.
In the early years, in the mid-Sixties when he had borrowed the Alpina name from his father's defunct typewriter business to use on his own engine tuning company, Bovensiepen was far more concerned with extracting greater horsepower from engines than he was with refinement and luxury. Obviously there was pride in a job well done, but the greater importance was to see just how far a standard engine could be abused in the search for more power.
It was the company's good fortune that it decided to specialise in BMWs, a marque which has since seen a steadfast rise in sales and prestige after a period of near bankruptcy in the Fifties. As BMW began to supply their own 'hot' versions of their models, though, those from Alpina subtly began to change. Out and out performance gradually slipped from being the ultimate goal, and instead became just part of the overall package. So comprehensive was the development of the base model, though, and so great the modifications made, that in due course Alpina was granted the status of being a marque in its own right as granted by VDA, the West German equivalent of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
It may be a marque, but the Alpina symbol still remains highly rare, and to the uninitiated, it still remains a BMW at heart. Both facets, however, are attractive to Alpina's customers: on the one hand they are buying a proven product, and one that is already a status symbol, while on the other he will have one of just 600 handmade examples, 150 of which will have been made that year in Nottingham. The British connection may be a surprise to some, but its operation, through the Frank Sytner dealership, is one that has been successfully developed since 1982.
It had become clear by the early Eighties that Alpina had reached a plateau as far production was concerned — albeit the 200 cars then produced was less than half the number produced last year — and yet there was still a demand to be fulfilled for right-hand drive from Britain alone — one that could not be ignored. It was BMW (GB) which saw Alpina through the next phase of its life.
Although not in a position to handle the business themselves on an operational level, they realised the kudos that the Alpina BMWs could bring to the entire BMW range if imported into the country.
They would do for the BMW range what Austin Rover's marketing men hoped the Vanden Plas version would do for the Allegro range, except that in the Bavarian case, the execution of the job was a lot more professional.
It was at this stage that Frank Sytner was brought into the frame. Not only was he well known for his racing exploits, his dealership was centrally located in the country and he was ebullient enough to do something with the golden opportunity handed to him.
Being the bullish sort of man he is, Sytner immediately calculated that he could sell between 60 and 80 cars a year, but it was a figure that Alpina could not supply. Thus began the arrangement whereby Sytner assembled the components manufactured out of BMW parts by Alpina — a type of lateral franchising. Over the ensuing years the two companies worked hand-in-hand so that by the end of this year, a full 25% of the total Alpina output will have been assembled in Nottingham.
Britain is not the only market, however. The land of the rising sun in one short year is already bigger than Britain in terms of turnover while Switzerland and France are important, but remain relatively small.
The Japanese connection came about through the commercial activities of the son of the German ambassador to Japan who began by importing specialist racing components from Europe, such as a range of products from Automotive Products, Mahle pistons and Alpina parts. It was only when he became a fully fledged BMW dealer in 1989, though, that Alpina noticed a dramatic upturn in its fortunes with an order from him for 100 of the top of the range models.
Like Britain, Japan is right-hand drive, but so keen were the customers to acquire them that even in left-hand drive form the cars were quite acceptable.
Questioned about the USA, Herr Bovensiepen again came back to the issue of quality not quantity. He is simply not interested in producing an ever increasing number of cars to satisfy insatiable demands. For him, like a good wine, each and every car has to be individually tested and flavoured. The more that are manufactured, the greater the fall in quality.
At present there are nine different Alpina models: the B3 2.7-litre saloon, touring and convertibles, which is based on the 325i, and is confusingly called the C2 2.7 in Britain; the B6 3.5 which is also based on the 325i, but develops 254 bhp, 50 bhp more than the B3; the B6 3.5S, with the same horsepower figures but based on the M3; the B10 3.5 based on the 535i; the new B10 Bi-Turbo, also based on the 535i, but which develops 360 bhp; the B11 3.5, based on the 735i developing 254 bhp, and the B12 5.0 and B12 Coupé, based on the 750i and 850i respectively, both developing 350 bhp. Finally there is Alpina's version of the Z1.
The 'B' tag is one that has stuck to the Alpina model, although that was not the original intention. The early models with the 4-cylinder engines were the 'A' series, while the 6-cylinder engines greater than 2.5 litres became the 'B' series. The C series comprised of the baby sixes and from a logical point of view, the 12-cylinder models should have been prefixed by the letter 'D'. It was felt, though, that the 'D' series sounded cheap whereas the B12 somehow didn't, so it has transpired that the 'B' prefix has come to mean the same thing to Alpina as the 'M' prefix does to BMW Motorsport.
Without exception, these models have been extensively developed with almost as much lead time-in time as that of BMW themselves. For instance, on one of the two test beds, we saw the new 4-valve 2.5-litre engine being put through its paces. Already bored out to 2.8-litres, this is an engine destined to power the Alpina version of the new 3 series due for next year and yet it is one not yet officially announced.
The 450 cars that Alpina expect to have manufactured by the end of this year include 180 B10 BiTurbos, 100 B10s, the same car but with the normally aspirated engine, 100 B12s, 44 Z1 based Roadsters and the remainder 3 series cabriolets, touring and four wheel drive models, the low numbers reflecting the declining sales of the 3 series prior to the launch of the new model at the beginning of next year as well as the emphasis the company is putting on the new Bi-Turbo model.
A chance to drive the Bi-Turbo in the most deplorable of conditions showed just what a good car this is, but its wet weather performance was but one asset.
As soon as you open the door and are confronted by the plush interior of polished wood and attractive Alpina upholstery, you know you are in a different territory from the usual 5 series BMW. The luxurious and well appointed car obscures the fact that it is in fact capable of more than 180mph, a bullet in any language.
The 360bhp which Herr Bovensiepen's men have managed to extract from the 3430cc engine are mainly from the use of a couple of Garrett T25 turbochargers which are regulated by a Bosch system. Naturally, the extensive modifications made to the engine have all played their part, but any car weighing 1695kg which can accelerate to 62mph in 5.6 seconds, and yet be driven at 30mph in fifth gear while doing a mere 1000rpm, has to be taken seriously.
In conditions which were akin to driving through a car wash, the car displayed exemplary manners and never stepped out of line once, while the heating and ventilation systems worked quietly and efficiently to keep the car's environment acceptable.
At the end of the journey, one could be only but impressed, for Alpina has produced a fine car even if it will cost £57,250 in England. More's the pity, then, that it will be be produced only in left-hand drive form. WPK