How Alpina went from typewriters to high-octane autobahn-burners
If Nardi had done a better job tuning Burkard Bovensiepen’s Fiat 1500 in the early 1960s, he might have reluctantly taken over the typewriter-making business founded by his parents, or continued his career in car sales and stockbroking. The crippling engine failure that prematurely ended a trans-alpine trek from Italy to Germany in his Fiat completely changed the course of his professional life, leading him to found a beloved niche manufacturer of asphalt-eating BMWs—Alpina.
Bovensiepen’s oldest son, Andreas, runs Alpina these days. He’s one of the most laid-back and approachable executives I’ve ever met in the automotive industry. The energetic, fast-talking German jumps from topic to topic as he reflects on how a need for speed, an Italian-flavored mechanical breakdown, and a little bit of luck helped his father launch BMW’s go-to performance partner.
Burkard Bovensiepen began looking for a high-performance sedan after accepting he couldn’t comfortably fit three children in his Porsche 356. Finding a four-door model that was quick, dynamic, reliable, and reasonably affordable was almost impossible during the early 1960s, especially in Europe where the terms “muscle” and “car” were mutually exclusive. However it was much easier in those days to legally squeeze more power out of an engine than today.
Bovensiepen drove his humble Fiat 1500 to Nardi’s workshop in Turin hoping to learn the wizardry of engine tuning; instead, he quickly learned why the company was better known for its gorgeous wood-rimmed steering wheels than for its tuning kits. An engine bearing-related breakdown about 30 miles into his drive home convinced him he could do much better.
BMW unknowingly provided the starting point he needed to become a tuner when it released the 1500—part of its revolutionary New Class family of models—in 1961. Its well-tuned chassis was let down by a four-cylinder engine that wheezed out only 80 horsepower. BMW engineers knew this, they were already working on the 90-horsepower 1800, but Bovensiepen beat them to the punch by a full year.
Tirelessly working out in a warehouse next to his family’s typewriter business, he designed an intake manifold that could bolt onto the 1500’s head wearing a pair of Weber 40 DCOEs, a type of carburetor commonly found on Alfa Romeo models made during the 1960s. The plug-and-play Weber setup raised the 1500’s output to 90 horsepower. Sales began in 1962, but orders arrived in a trickle, not a deluge.
His business plan began looking a lot more solid when the 1800 made its debut in 1963. Early New Class customers were suddenly out-classed. 1500 owners wrote to the Munich-based firm saying they would have happily waited to buy the more powerful variant had they known it was coming. Bovensiepen had the solution, but telling the world about a new product was complicated and expensive before the pound sign became the hashtag. He couldn’t afford to buy floor space at the 1963 Frankfurt auto show, so he printed leaflets and left them on the windshield of every 1500 he found in the event’s parking lot. His campaign sold about 150 twin-Weber kits for 980 deutsche marks each.
As the chatter got louder, he showed his twin-Weber kit to BMW and convinced Paul Hahnemann, the company’s head of sales at the time, to allow 1500 owners to have it installed by a trained professional without voiding their car’s warranty. Bovensiepen and BMW signed a deal in 1964, and Alpina was founded on January 1, 1965. He allegedly kept the name of his family’s typewriter business because it gave him cheap and easy access to branded stationary, pens, and other supplies.
Alpina’s star rose during the 1960s. It continued improving its twin-Weber kit, and it began making other parts like tachometers, electronic ignition kits, and redesigned cylinder heads. It also successfully branched out into racing, but its spot in the growing BMW empire was called into question when the automaker formed its Motorsport division (what would become BMW M) in 1972.
“When M was announced, not everybody at BMW was convinced that they should still be supporting Alpina. There were some discussions with Opel, but then my father found out that the firm had to report to Detroit every three months. He said ‘no, that’s too complicated’ and remained with BMW. It was the right decision,” recalls Bovensiepen.
The two divisions were just different enough to co-exist. Bovensiepen stresses that Alpina is not rooted in racing; BMW M is. The former builds cars for the autobahn, while the latter makes cars for the Nürburgring. Some models have punctured the thin membrane that separates the companies, like the 3.0 CSL, but Alpina and M have largely remained on opposite ends of the same bench. Establishing boundaries gave Alpina the freedom to quit racing—which was largely a way to prove the reliability of its builds—and focus on selling its own cars upgraded with a complete suite of mechanical, chassis and visual modifications developed and made in-house. It released the E21-based B6 2.8 and the E12-/E24-based B7 Turbo in 1978. The latter shared a 3.0-liter straight-six engine turbocharged to 300 horsepower and 341 pound-feet of torque, an unbelievable amount of power in the late 1970s. BMW M didn’t make a regular-production, street-legal road car with 300 horsepower until it released the second-generation M5 in 1988.
From a tuner to a builder
Alpina graduated from a tuner to a manufacturer in 1983, a status it still holds in 2019. Transcending the rank of tuners unlocked a tremendous amount of opportunities for the firm. It receives CAD files of new BMW models three years before they enter production, and it begins testing prototypes 18 months before a car’s on-sale date. By the time BMW unveils a model, its Alpina offshoot isn’t far behind.
Turning a BMW into an Alpina is a surprisingly long process that involves both visual and mechanical modifications. Take the 7 Series-based B7, which is receiving an array of updates for the 2020 model year. Alpina kept the 4.4-liter V-8 from the 750i but modified the intake geometry and tweaked the turbos to unlock more horsepower, more torque, and ensure both are available lower in the rev range. The 750i offers 522 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque; the B7 bellows with 600 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. An Alpina-designed cooling system keeps the big eight cool.
Power travels through a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission, and a rear-biased, Alpina-specific version of BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system. The driveshafts, the four-wheel steering system, the air suspension, the steering system and the brakes are all either tuned or designed by Alpina, too. The result is a sedan that defies accepted notions of handling at high speeds.
The B7 has to make a good first impression; it’s priced at nearly $150,000. To that end, Alpina customizes the interior with smoother stitching on the steering wheel, and buyers in some markets can order a type of super-leather called Lavalina which is nearly grain-free. Alpina was the only car manufacturer that offered Lavalina until Rolls-Royce asked for permission to use it.
Overall, the B7 exudes an aura of craftsmanship I normally associate with a Bentley, not a BMW, while maintaining a low-key look. Alpina’s body kits add downforce to ensure cars like the B7 stay on the pavement and out of German airspace, but designers never go overboard with oversized wings or vents.
While Alpina operates as a manufacturer, it relies on many of the same suppliers that build parts for BMW. Components are sent to the factory that builds the model each car is based on, meaning a B7 is manufactured on the same Dingolfing, Germany, assembly line as a standard 7 Series. BMW sends partially-assembled cars back to Alpina’s headquarters in Buchloe, about an hour west of Munich, where final assembly takes place. Completed cars are road-tested before being shipped to their new home.
Alpina sells about 1700 cars annually, and roughly 400 of those are sent to the United States, where the brand remains a well-kept secret outside of enthusiast circles. Japan is another one of Alpina’s big markets, because Japanese customers appreciate the stunningly high attention to detail that characterizes every build. Of course, Germany remains the firm’s largest market, partly because customers there can use their cars the way they were designed to on the autobahn, and because Alpina’s European lineup includes diesel-powered models with more mass appeal—like the 3 Series-based D3.
Bovensiepen is not overly concerned about increasing his company’s annual production figures. He’s fine with making highly exclusive cars in limited numbers; that formula has been an important part of the firm’s success since the late 1970s, and his team is careful not to alter the balance too much. Besides, not every BMW is suitable to receive the Alpina treatment. For example, the firm has never seriously considered modifying a front-wheel drive 2 Series Active Tourer, which is hardly surprising. Bovensiepen told me even the 2 Series coupe isn’t the right car for Alpina. He explained it would cost as much to engineer and manufacture as a 3 Series, but it would have to sell for much less.
Looking at recent additions to the BMW line-up, the second-generation 8 Series (which is available in three body styles) and the seventh-generation 3 Series will spawn new Alpina models. Both will be sold through BMW dealers in the United States. I can’t give too much away, but expect the company to unveil something quick and America-bound at the 2019 Frankfurt auto show opening its doors in the fall. Speed-craving enthusiasts won’t have to leave a leaflet on a BMW in the parking lot to find out about it, either.