Germany's Alpina celebrates golden jubilee

A parade of Alpina cars in Buchloe was the highlight of the carmaker's jubilee festivities.
A parade of Alpina cars in Buchloe was the highlight of the carmaker's jubilee festivities.PHOTO: ALPINA

The German carmaker opened its factory doors and threw a parade to celebrate its 50th anniversary

The mere mention of Munich will make people think of beer, sausages and BMW cars. After all, the annual Oktoberfest celebration and the luxury marque are closely associated with the capital of Germany's Bavaria state.

But mention the city of Buchloe and you are likely to be met with blank stares. The city, about an hour's drive from Munich, is home to Alpina, an exclusive manufacturer of automobiles that are based on BMW models.

Alpina's exclusivity comes from its low production figures - it produces just 1,200 to 1,700 vehicles annually. That figure is a drop in the bucket compared to BMW, which manufactured 939,820 vehicles in the first half of this year. Even so, Alpina is represented by official agents in 22 countries, including Singapore.

Alpina, which is family-owned, originally produced typewriters. In 1965, company founder Burkard Bovensiepen made the firm's first foray into the automotive industry by offering a Weber twin- carburettor kit for the BMW 1500.

The firm, however, soon began to rework BMW models. Apart from extensively fettling powertrains and suspensions, it also launched three of its own models in 1978: the B6, B7 and B7 Coupe.

Notably, the B6, which was based on BMW's E30 3 Series saloon, was equipped with a 2.8-litre inline-six, making it the first 3 Series with a six-cylinder motor.

In 1983, Alpina was officially recognised by the German Federal Motor Authority as a car manufacturer.

It does not make racing machines for track days. Its philosophy is "luxury cars for the road". Therefore, its models pack plenty of horsepower plus enormous levels of torque that give them the effortlessness and driveability their owners love. For instance, the B6 Bi-Turbo Coupe (based on the current BMW 6 Series) has a 4.4-litre V8 with 600bhp and 800Nm.

Alpina works closely with BMW. Its cars roll off the latter's production lines and are sent to Alpina's 20,000 sq m factory in Buchloe to be completed.

During the firm's 50th anniversary celebrations over a weekend in June, about 8,000 visitors got a behind-the-scenes look inside the factory.

My first stop during the factory tour was the machine shop. Within this facility is the metal workshop, which produces welded components and prototype parts that will be tested and refined as well. Components such as intercooler pipes (which are larger than the ones on standard BMW models) and brake calliper brackets are made here.

Alpina models undergo further tests at the firm's engineering centre. Apart from the five engine test bays, there is also a lab for emissions testing. Impressively, this centre further features a climate chamber, which simulates temperatures ranging from searing heat to extreme cold.

According to Mr Kristian Sen, Alpina's head of development methodology and application, engines undergo development for up to two years in the centre before they are tested on the road.

Interestingly, the engine test bays have microphones that enable engineers to listen to the exhaust notes while putting the motors under load.

Apart from car manufacturing, Alpina also deals in wines. One million bottles of wine are stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse on site.

The only area that was off-limits during the open house is the home of company boss Burkard Bovensiepen, which is also located on the factory grounds.

Alpina models have customised interiors and the work for this is done at the factory's saddlery. Wrapping a steering wheel in leather, for instance, takes a craftsman four to five hours.

Customers can specify parallel stitching, which feels smoother than the regular cross-stitches found in most cars. Mr Ulrich Zecke, who is in charge of the department, proudly states that parallel stitching for steering wheels can be done only by hand.

The saddlery is also capable of colour-matching the leather to a client's specifications. Even the size of the stitches and their width can be customised.

I asked Mr Zecke if the company would agree to upholster a client's sofa in premium Lavalina leather. It was an odd question, but his answer was an unequivocal yes.

The highlight of Alpina's 50th anniversary celebrations was the 105-car parade through Buchloe. The normally quiet streets became festive as Alpina owners from as far as the United Kingdom arrived in the city.

Iconic Alpina models from the 1970s and 1980s, such as the 2002 tii and B10 Bi-Turbo, were present. There were also several rare B12 models, based on BMW's classic 8 Series grand tourer.

What made these older cars more amazing was that they were all well-maintained. The gleaming paintwork, mechanical thrum of the engines and rorty exhausts were a reminder of motoring's good old days, when design and performance took priority over eco- friendliness.

•The writer is with Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Alpina jubilee'. Print Edition | Subscribe