Alpina, a company whose name is synonymous with that of BMW, is gearing up to celebrate its half-century in 2015.
Among the ideas under consideration to mark the occasion are special new Alpina models and the appearance at selected events of some of the most successful BMW Alpina competition cars.
Alpina currently produces high-performance petrol and diesel versions of BMW’s 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 Series plus the X3. It is listed by Germany’s vehicle certification agency, the TÜV, as a car manufacturer, a status it has enjoyed since 1983. But it has no stamping or welding shop, nor an assembly line.
Since the early 1990s the 1,500 or so cars it “makes” every year are built on BMW production lines around tuned parts developed by Alpina’s 50 development engineers. These are then sent to Alpina’s headquarters in Buchloe, Bavaria, to be finished with bespoke trim and equipment.
The only exception is with the Alpina version of the X3, which is shipped to Buchloe from BMW’s American manufacturing plant to be modified in-house.
Outwardly, this looks like a conflict of interests, since BMW has its own M high-performance range, but Alpina insists that the two are very different. While M focuses on sportiness, Alpinas are geared towards performance with luxury: every model has automatic transmission, and the suspension settings are softer and the brakes less biased towards track use.
The UK accounts for around 10 per cent of Alpina’s output – although the record was 300 sales in 2006 – through the 15 Sytner BMW outlets. The group’s former owner, Frank Sytner, recalls how he set up the deal 32 years ago.
“I could see the potential in the UK, but the problem was Type Approval and getting the blessing of BMW,” he says. “Because of my relationship with BMW I was able to talk to Alpina on the basis we had support from BMW.
“We couldn’t bring complete cars in, so I got the cars from BMW GB with a kit containing all the stuff we needed to convert them. We then sent back the original engine.” The result was the B9 3.5 – a 528i with a modified 3.5-litre six-cylinder engine, transmission, suspension and brakes. This was followed by the C1 and C2, based on the 3 Series.
“It was an immediate success,” says Sytner. “We sold a lot of them.”
Japan is currently the largest global market for Alpina, taking more than a quarter of production, although the US occasionally assumes top spot when a new model is introduced and there is a rush in demand. Germany, Belgium and Switzerland are other significant markets.
The Alpina story started when the company began fitting modified twin Weber carburettors to BMW production cars in the 1960s. The work was of such a high standard that the finished cars were given the full BMW warranty.
From 1968 to 1977 BMW Alpina was also one of the most respected names in motorsport and included such luminaries as Derek Bell, James Hunt, Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda and Hans Stuck in its line-up. The stand-out year was 1970, when the team won the European Touring Car Championship, the Spa 24 Hours and the major German track and hillclimb titles.
Those years saw Alpina lay the foundations for what is now the most profitable side of its business – selling wine to major hotels and restaurants as well as celebrities. Pavarotti was a regular customer.
The team trucks would return from overseas events weighing more than when they left because of the scores of cases of fine wines crammed into them – the foundations of a cellar of more than one million bottles.