Even though they all look like BMWs with pinstripes, Alpina is a fully-fledged manufacturer in its own right, and the legendary performance brand has its roots in a shed… Motormouth went to Bavaria for a closer look at Alpina’s inner sanctum
As a young German engineering student in the 1960s, Burkard Bovensiepen used to while away the hours at his family’s typewriter business, Alpina, with daydreams of cars. All he could think about was making his little BMW 1500 go faster.
One day in an outbuilding on the company’s Munich premises, he noticed the amount of room he had to play with in the engine bay of his BMW, and this was all the motivation Burkard needed. He’d decided to make up his own twin carburettor manifold to suit a pair of sidedraft Webers in place of the stock single downdraft Solex.
It was an easy, bolt-on way to get 10 horsepower 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.
Instead of paying for a stand, Burkard slipped flyers for his twin Webbers under the wiper of every BMW 1500 in the car park and hunted down some motoring journalists to drive his car. With 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 Burkard got his first look at the new E9 3.0-litre BMW coupe and thought that it could lose some weight, so Alpina went about replacing the car’s steel panels with lightweight alloy and using Perspex instead of glass windows. BMW liked the job so much they took it and named it the 3.0 CSL – the rest as they say… The giveaway to Alpina’s parentage is the signature 20-spoke alloy wheels which remained on the CSL throughout its life.
Alpina was now well on its way to becoming a renowned brand, and the company’s next major breakthrough came in 1978 when – as a fully fledged BMW tuning business and completely out of the typewriter game – the company produced its first line of turn-key cars which led them to being granted full manufacturer status by the German Ministry of Transport using their 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 they claim to have beaten Porsche’s Tiptronic transmission to market by five months with their 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 stuck to tradition and kept the buttons, albeit now behind the wheel, but they too are 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 internationally.
“I didn’t begin with Alpina,” Andreas said. “I started working for a company that was making parts for race seats before joining BMW in suspension development.
“There, I worked on the Z8 project, with responsibilities for the technical meetings, timetables and budgets for seven years 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. Their newest toy is the emissions testing equipment designed to meet the new WTLP standards for 2019.
“The new testing is very strict.” Andreas said. “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 ten-thousandths of a milligram at 45 percent humidity.”
Away from the factory, the company does its own high speed testing at the Nardo proving ground in Italy because unlike BMW, they don’t use speed limiters so need to test components above 250km/h. The cars are tested for 2,500km at their top speed of up to 347km/h, stopping only to refuel every 100km 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 cars 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,” said Andreas. “We started with the Z8 which we made as an automatic just for the USA and sold 555 cars in 2003.”
The company prides itself on building large engines and while they have 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 on the 3 Series, 4 Series, X3 and X4 as our base models.”
Similarly, the thought of moving into EVs vehicles is a distant observation at this stage. Andreas says Alpina will only go electric if there is political pressure.
“Going electric 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 Alpina’s biggest market and a large percentage of customers commute at high speeds 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 range. They go fast for maybe 150 kilometres but then have to park by a supercharger for 45 minutes. The battery also takes up a lot of space in hybrids like the 3 Series for example, which can only fit a 40-litre fuel tank,” said Andreas.
“If you like to accelerate, you’re burning 10 litres per 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 1,000 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 5-Series-based B5 Biturbo V8 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 meantime.”
During this precarious time of indecision concerning global mobility, we could all be in for a sweet irony if we end up with a bunch of boutique marques championing the natural-combustion cause. Small car companies such as Alpina could one day soon become the last remnants of old world horsepower. Thanks Burkard…