The song remains the same

Alpina has specialised in seductively tuned torque for 50 years. The lure of the race track comes and goes, but its brand of power is as potent now as it ever was
Writer Ed Foster

How many car manufacturers were started by someone described as “single- minded, a stickler for detail?” Burkard Bovensiepen, the founder of German automotive favourite Alpina, was one of them – a man who got what he wanted, someone who had “no room for bullshit”.

His father, Dr Otto Rudolf, owned a company that made office supplies – typewriters, counting machines and the like – but this was a problem for the young Burkard. It wasn’t just that the company was struggling (its biggest client paid only sporadically, then not at all), rather that he had no interest in office supplies. He much preferred cars and the 1961 Frankfurt Motor Show offered a way out.

It was there that BMW launched its 1500 and that September weekend one of the show’s 950,000 visitors was Burkard. He pored over the Neue Klasse car and noticed the potential for improvement. The result, two and a half years later, was a Weber twin carburettor kit that added 10bhp for 980 Deutschmarks.

Far from feeling aggrieved by someone else’s modifications, BMW embraced it. Ever since the 90bhp 1800 was launched in ’63 BMW had faced a barrage of complaints from 1500 owners. They had bought something that was trumped only two years later by a car with a larger and more powerful engine.

The easiest thing for BMW customer relations was to send its 1500 owners to Alpina’s door for its sporty carb update. Very quickly BMW agreed to honour its warranty even if the car had been fitted with Burkard’s kit, and 50 years later Alpina continues to do much the same as it did then – improving standard BMWs.

Today BMW sends over its designs well ahead of production and, after deciding which cars it would like to make its own, Alpina then gets approval from the BMW board. On average Alpina will change 300 parts on a standard BMW and adds a raft of special touches, such as bespoke leather interior. BMW’s warranty covers its parts, Alpina’s the ones that have been upgraded and the cars are even sold through BMW dealerships.

So what’s the difference to an M car? The philosophy is simple: Alpina strives to extract as much low-down torque as possible and, unlike BMW’s flagships, the suspension is supple; they’re geared towards businessmen doing tens of thousands of miles a year. We had a drive in its current B6 Edition 50 and it is an extraordinary car – 800Nm of torque and 600bhp from a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 in what looks like a standard saloon. On a wet road with all the ‘save me’ systems turned off it is one of the most lairy saloons we’ve ever driven.

Burkard’s sons Andreas and Florian now look after the company on a day-to-day basis, but the 79-year-old founder still comes into the office – “he gets in at 10.30am, though…” – and helps with strategic decisions as well as the wine business. Yes, that’s Burkard’s other passion. He built a business around that too… In 2014 annual turnover reached an impressive €100m and 10 per cent of that was down to the wine. At the end of our factory tour we are shown the wine store. It is huge, packed floor to ceiling with wines priced from seven euros a bottle to many thousands. Alpina buys and then sells to wine lovers and top restaurants.

“Burkard always loved his wine,” remembers Christian Danner who drove for Alpina during the 1988 DTM season. “We had our own chef at each race and I remember at the Norisring Burkard was trying to get me to taste wine immediately before qualifying. ‘No, no Christian, you have to try this white because I’ve just opened it and I don’t want to put it back in the fridge.’ I said ‘Burkard! It’s qualifying at the Norisring!’ He persisted – ‘oh, come on…’ – and eventually succeeded in filling up half a glass of white for me, which I duly drank. I don’t think it did me any harm actually. It was clearly a different approach…”

Twenty-two years earlier Alpina had dipped its first wheel into motor racing via a 2000 TI in the 1966 International Journalists’ Rally. An ex-competitor himself, Burkard loved his motor sport. “We won the 1970 Spa 24 Hours and the Nürburgring 24 Hours three times from 1971 to ’73,” Andreas says, his face hiding none of his pride. He also is an ex-racer, finishing third in the 1984 European Karting Championship, going on to compete in the 1987 DTM and then winning the 1998 Nürburgring 24 Hours. “I even did the 1985 Formula Ford Festival,” he recalls, “and I qualified on the front row with Mark Blundell for the first heat. I crashed in the final while Johnny Herbert won.”

Back to the early ’70s: “Christ, they were bloody great days,” remembers Derek Bell who won his first touring car race driving a BMW-Alpina in the 1973 Silverstone TT. “Bovensiepen was such a charming man and he had great engineers. It was a small team, but everyone was hugely enthusiastic. I was thrust into this beautiful bright orange car at Silverstone with Harald Ertl and we won the race. Usually when you get to a new team your results only improve over time, but I arrived and the car was really, really good. They just dished out a beautiful car.”

Alpina has an on/off passion for motor sport, often leaving as quickly as it arrives, but the standard of preparation has always been near perfection. Both Andreas and Burkard have racing in their veins, and as the former shows me round the BMW 6-series GT3 racer with which Alpina won the 2011 ADAC GT Masters with Dino Lunardi and Alexandros Margaritis, his enthusiasm behind its engineering is clear.

So why only this flirtation with motor sport? Alpina only starts a project if it can make money. It’s a philosophy that has served it well in the road car arena (it has always shied away from making its own car from scratch because the margins aren’t there). It also applies this way of thinking to motor racing and there needs to be a valid reason for it to build and run a car. With the bright orange and black 2002s, 2800 CSs and CSLs in the late 1960s and ’70s motor racing made sense to Alpina. It received some funds from BMW and success in the European Touring Car Championship and 24-hour races – via the likes of Niki Lauda – put its name on the map while also keeping BMW happy. Things changed in 1973, though, when Jochen Neerpasch launched BMW’s Motorsport division. BMW wanted to go racing itself rather than through someone else and Alpina’s financial help quickly dried up. It didn’t help that Bovensiepen and Neerpasch didn’t like each other.

Alpina was back, though, for the 1977 ETCC (BMW wasn’t competing in that series) thanks to the road car business doing so well. “I remember that year,” says champion Dieter Quester. “The Alpinas looked like they belonged in a hospital, such was their perfect preparation, which was typical. And they were really reliable. The Broadspeed Jaguars weren’t, and they used more fuel so we won the championship. Interestingly, I spoke to Fitz [John Fitzpatrick] 20 years later, and he said to me ‘do you know where we carried the extra fuel?’ I said ‘no, tell me’. ‘In the roll cage…’

“Alpina prepared the cars better than the factory would have. Burkard wouldn’t have had it any other way. He never compromised and everything was 100 per cent every time. I never drove for another team where everything was so perfect. Burkard was also very strict, but myself and Stucky [Hans Stuck] had our fun.

If there was ever a half-full bottle of coke or lemonade lying around Burkard would finish it. It didn’t matter whose it was. We got a bit sick of this so we emptied a bottle of coke and half filled it with brake fluid. He wasn’t amused. But it was the last time he drank from someone else’s drink.”

With The 1977 championship won, Alpina’s point was proven. It withdrew from racing again. Some fuel consumption competitions aside, it wasn’t until Andreas was racing that motor sport raised its head again. In 1987 Andreas wanted to try Formula 3 with the help of Alpina’s tyre supplier Michelin, but the French company was much keener on the DTM, so Alpina was back on track with Danner as one of the drivers.

“He used racing differently to others,” Danner says about Burkard. “We were partly a racing team advertising Alpina as a manufacturer, but we also had a big deal with [industrial company] Degussa because we were the first team to race with catalytic converters. And he also advertised his wine business. He loved his racing, but never forgot about the rest of the world.

“When we went racing it was the Burkard Bovensiepen personality show, but they had a mechanic called Hermann Schlachter and he was the mastermind behind those M3s. He could do absolutely anything. I remember we had a set-up problem at one stage and it was a bit spooky at the back end so I suggested a progressive rear spring. Schlachter said ‘Ah yes! We had that on the coupé in 1971…’ Off he went, came back with this set of springs, Christ knows what they were, and put them on the car. The thing went perfectly and I won both races at Hockenheim with them!”

The season wasn’t a success, though, and at its end Alpina was off to concentrate on the road car business once more. Having spent time working for a carbon fibre parts company, then BMW for seven and a half years, Andreas arrived at Alpina in 2002. Alongside Florian he slowly assumed control and, with BMW’s motor sport efforts concentrated on Formula 1, he saw a gap in the GT3 market. He chose the 6-series as a base because of its big front and rear overhangs, which would help the aerodynamics, and got the go-ahead from BMW. However, along came the economic crisis, BMW pulled out of F1 and its attention soon turned to GT3… BMW Motorsport decided to go with the Z4 and suddenly both Alpina and BMW were trying to sell to the same pool of customers. “BMW has more contacts,” says Andreas today, “so they can sell more cars. We ended up selling five.”

It wasn’t a complete disaster as Alpina won the aforementioned 2011 ADAC GT Masters and one of its customers is still getting podium finishes with the car in 2015. But the works effort stopped at the end of 2012 and one gets the impression we’ll be waiting a while before seeing another racing Alpina.

That said, the team at Buchloe, near Munich – where Alpina has been based since 1970 – is now working on the BMW turbo diesel for rally raid and the Dakar. It’s a project that will no doubt make financial sense.

What of the future? The relationship with BMW is beneficial to both sides and looks set to stay that way. Last year it sold a record-breaking 1700 cars and while Andreas believes in a higher target of 2000, the 220-strong workforce isn’t able to produce any more than that. “We’re still twice as exclusive as Rolls-Royce!” he says.

It’s rare to find a manufacturer that has done much the same thing for 50 years and remained successful. The same attention to detail remains, as do the clever business decisions and niche market to which it sells. It’s been through some “bloody great days,” but there are surely more to come.