Why Alpina isn't planning to roar into the future in an electric vehicle

We talk to the owner of the German brand, which says the electric market is not ready for its kind of performance vehicles

Alpina from Germany. Courtesy Alpina
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Like most young German engineering students, Burkard Bovensiepen was into cars.

While working for his family’s typewriter business, Alpina, in the early 1960s, all he could think about was making his wheezy, 1.5-litre BMW go faster.

So, the Munich student designed his own twin carburettor conversion kit, which extracted an additional 10 horsepower. That was enough to convince him he was on to something. In 1965, before the Frankfurt motor show, he established Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH & Co KG in the corner of the typewriter factory.

With no budget to exhibit at the show, Burkard instead slipped flyers for his kits under the wiper of every BMW in the car park before cornering journalists outside to offer them a drive of his car.

Following favourable media coverage, BMW accepted his invitation to test his car and, liking what they saw, gave the fledgling company the break it needed – a BMW warranty.

It’s a far cry from the exotica wearing the Alpina badge we see on the roads today. Distributed through Abu Dhabi Motors, Alpina products sell alongside the BMWs they are based on, though the family is keen to emphasise the differences.

If you look under the hood of an Alpina-badged BMW, you will see that it uses its own engine and chassis numbers instead of BMW’s because, in 1978, it produced its first range of turn-key cars and was granted full manufacturer status by the German Ministry of Transport.

Five years earlier, Alpina saw the new E9 3.0 BMW coupe and thought it could lose some weight, so went about replacing its steel panels with lightweight alloy and glass with Perspex. BMW liked the job so much it 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.

“We called the business Alpina because my grandfather thought it was an easy word to say in English and we were literally at the foot of the Alps,” says Burkhard’s son Andreas, who is now running the business, in Buchloe, an hour west of Munich, with his brother Florian.

Damien Reid with Andreas of Alpina. Courtesy Alpina
Damien Reid with Andreas of Alpina. Courtesy Alpina

Typewriters succumbed to the Japanese onslaught of digital machines in the late 1970s and forced Alpina to focus on the car business. The small company developed a number of firsts, including the first cross-drilled disc brake and 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.

Of the 282 people who work at the factory, 40 per cent are engineers, because virtually everything is produced in-house. The team's current task is understanding the latest emissions-testing equipment designed to meet the new WTLP standards.

“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.”

 While Germany remains Alpina’s biggest market, selling 500 units annually, the US accounts for 400 with the B7 and B6 Coupe only, 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. When I joined, I said we needed to go to America as it's the biggest market for performance cars

“The creed of my father was to make no more than 500 cars each year, but development costs are always rising. When I joined, I said we needed to go to America as it’s the biggest market for performance cars,” says Andreas. “We started with the Z8 which we made as an automatic just for the US 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 used in Mini’s Dakar rally campaign in Saudi Arabia, 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 different architecture, with a Japanese transmission and front-wheel drive," Andreas says.

Similarly, the thought of moving into electric vehicles is a distant one, with the company only planning to move to EV if there is political pressure.

"In Germany, you will see new Tesla owners driving at 160 kilometres an hour for the first few weeks but then they drop back to 100kph to save battery life. They go fast for maybe 150 kilometres but then have to park on a charger for 45 minutes. The battery also takes up a lot of space on hybrids and so they can only fit a 40-litre fuel tank," Andreas says.

“With a small tank like that, you’re burning 10 litres per 100km of fuel in a two-litre hybrid if you’re driving quickly, but have barely 400km of range compared to 700km from a diesel. This tells us that the EV market is not ready for performance cars, so we will focus on combustion engines and look to hybrids when the technology is ready.”

Alpina cars. Courtesy Alpina
Alpina cars. Courtesy Alpina

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

"If you sell fewer than 1,000 cars in Europe you have more flexibility with CO2 emissions as our target is currently 210 grams compared to the main manufacturers figure of 95g.

“To reach 95 is tough, so we see a situation where it’s not possible for the big players like BMW to make V8s any more. This could open doors for us to keep building cars like our Alpina B5 Biturbo (a 4.4-litre, twin turbo V8 based on the BMW 5-Series) which is a car that BMW cannot produce themselves.”

Alpina-badged cars may look and sound like BMWs, but as Andreas, Florian and father Burkard will quickly tell you, they drive and behave very differently. It's a cosy relationship that allows a giant car manufacturer to offer a select number of hand-made alternatives, while it gives the Bovensiepens the reassuring backing of a large company – allowing them to plan for their family business to grow into its seventh decade.