The plucky German who turned his fast-car fantasy into thriving business

Jun 07, 2019
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Like most young German engineering students, Burkard Bovensiepen was into cars and while he was working for his family’s typewriter business, Alpina, all he could think about was making his car go faster.

The Munich-based student noticed the amount of empty space in the engine bay of his BMW 1500 at the same time as he realised it needed more power.

So he used the garage of his family’s typewriter factory to knock up his own twin-carburettor manifold to suit a pair of Webers to replace its single Solex.

It was an easy, bolt-on way to get 10hp (7.45kW) and with that he went into production in 1965, roping off a corner of the typewriter factory to establish Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH & Co. KG in time for the Frankfurt motor show.

Above: BMW 1500, the first car to receive the Alpina treatment

Instead of paying for a stand, Burkard slipped flyers for his twin Webers under the wiper of every BMW 1500 in the car park and hunted down some motoring journalists to drive his car.

As he received favourable media coverage, BMW management accepted an offer to test his car and agreed that it was a better package so gave the fledgling company the break it needed, a BMW warranty.

With the warranty certificate, kits were sent unsolicited to BMW dealers across Germany and it was an easy sell to customers to include the twin Weber option.

In 1973 Alpina saw the new E9 3.0 BMW coupe and thought that it could lose some weight, so went about replacing its steel panels with lightweight alloy and Perspex windows instead of glass. BMW liked the job so much they took it and named it the 3.0 CSL. The giveaway to Alpina’s parentage is the signature 20-spoke alloy wheels which remained on the CSL throughout its life.

Above: BMW 3.0 CSL

The company’s second major breakthrough came in 1978 when Alpina, now a fully-fledged BMW tuning business and out of the typewriter game, produced its first line of turn-key cars which led to the company being granted full manufacturer status by the German Ministry of Transport, using its own engine and chassis numbers instead of BMW’s.

Along the way, Alpina developed a number of ‘firsts’ in the automotive industry, including the first cross-drilled disc brake, the first computer ignition system and it claims to have beaten Porsche’s Tiptronic transmission to market by five months with its Shift-Tronic system in 1983.

Like the Porsche Tiptronic, this used buttons on the steering wheel and while Porsche has now switched to the widely-used paddles, Alpina has kept the buttons, albeit now behind the wheel, but it too is working on a paddle system for future models.

Today it’s still a family business with Burkard’s sons Andreas and Florian running the company, expanding it into other markets including Australia.

“I didn’t begin with Alpina. I started working for a company that was making parts for race seats before joining BMW in suspension development,” Andreas said.

“There, I worked on the Z8 project, responsible for the technical meetings, timetables and budgets for seven years comprising five in engineering and two in marketing from 1995 before coming to work for Alpina in 2002.”

Of the 282 people at the factory in Buchloe, an hour west of Munich, 40 per cent are engineers as virtually everything is produced in-house. Its newest toy is the emissions testing equipment designed to meet the new WTLP standards for 2019.

Read more: Everything BMW

“The new testing is very strict.” Andreas says.

“The cars have to start from cold straight on the dyno and run through a full road cycle. The exhaust gases are trapped and the particulates are measured to 10,000ths of a milligram at 45 per cent humidity.”

Away from the factory, the company does its own high speed testing at the Nardo proving ground in Italy because unlike BMW, Alpina doesn’t use speed limiters so need to test components above 250km/h.

The cars are tested for 2500km at their top speed of up to 347km/h, stopping only to refuel every 100kms and change drivers over a 15-hour, non-stop run.

While Germany remains Alpina’s biggest market selling 500 units annually, the US accounts for 400 just with the B7 and B6 Coupe while Japan is the third largest market averaging 300 cars a year.

“The creed of my father was to make no more than 500 cars each year but development costs are always rising and when I joined, I said we needed to go to America as it’s the biggest market for performance cars.

“We started with the Z8 which we made as an automatic just for the USA and sold 555 cars in 2003 with 450 bound for the US.”

The company prides itself on building large engines and while it has the contract to develop the race engines for MINI’s Dakar rally campaign, don’t expect to see Alpina badges on anything smaller than the BMW 3 Series.

“Models like the X1 and 1 Series don’t suit our plan as they use a different architecture with a Japanese transmission and are front wheel drive, so we will stay focused with the 3 Series, 4 Series, X3 and X4 as our base models.”

Similarly, the thought of moving into electric vehicles is a distant observation at this stage. Andreas says Alpina will only go EV if there is political pressure.

“Going EV depends largely on what governments are doing as they can change a market very quickly, but as long as you can register internal combustion engines, people will still want them.

“What I think will increase quickly though are 48-volt systems so the industry can say that every model is electrified by offering a short range of electric power to get into cities that ban combustion engines.”

Given that Germany remains its biggest market and a large percentage of Alpina’s owners commute at high speed on the Autobahns, the idea of a hybrid or electric Alpina is a long way down the agenda.

“In Germany, you will see new Tesla owners driving at 160km/h for the first few weeks but then they drop back to 100km/h to save fuel. They go fast for maybe 150 kilometres but then have to park on a supercharger for 45 minutes. The battery also takes up a lot of space on hybrids like the 3 Series for example which can only fit a 40-litre fuel tank.

“If you like to accelerate, you’re burning 10L/100km in a 2.0 hybrid and end up with a range of just 400km compared to 700km from a diesel, so I think there’s room for more improvement. This tells us that the EV market is not ready for us so we will focus on combustion engines and look to hybrids only when the technology is ready.”

As development costs continue to rise, pressure on small volume and niche manufacturers also increases, however Andreas believes that a loophole offered to smaller businesses like Alpina will see them act as a supplier to the major players for some time to come.

“If you sell less than 1000 cars in Europe, you have more flexibility with CO2 emissions where our target is currently 210 grams compared to the big manufacturers figure of 95 grams.

“To reach 95 grams is a tough ask and we may see a situation where it’s not possible for the big players to make V8s in Europe any more. This could open some doors for us to keep building cars like B5 Biturbo because we have our own deal with the EU commission as a low volume manufacturer.

“We need to show roadmaps that we’re getting better each year but they are not as strict on us so we can help the major manufacturers in the mean time.”

Did you know the history of Alpina? Would you like to get your hands on one of these cars?

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