Despite being chronically unwilling to be associated with aftermarket tinkering, ALPINA actually represents the ideal of a specialised manufacturer finessing a mass product.
Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH + Co. KG is a peculiar company, and not just because the ALPINA part is officially written in capitals. Its signature decorative stripes, called Deko-Set, are also but a mere symptom of an underlying quaintness that is truly without equal in the automotive business.
ALPINA is a true family affair, but, above all – and without any undue pathos -, one man’s automotive vision. That man’s name is Burkard Bovensiepen, and his vision wasn’t defined by a single criterion, but a number of, sometimes contradictory, objectives: reliability, exclusivity, inconspicuousness, precision, quality, performance and efficiency.
Before trying to find out how such a small business (ALPINA is selling less than 2.000 cars per annum) could even hope to deliver on such a comprehensive premise, it is important to take a look at the man who not only lent the company its official name, but, more importantly, its soul.
As befits as complex a creation as ALPINA, Burkard Bovensiepen is a rather complex man. A bonafide bon vivant, as well as a noted perfectionist (traits that typically exclude one another), Bovensiepen has acted as ALPINA’s general manager, a self-educated engineer, and put himself in charge of marketing and styling. There is simply no part of his company he hasn’t engaged in on a significant level, yet he’s far from a control freak who times his underlings as they’re off to the loo. History has proven Bovensiepen to be a patron of some outstanding talents, not least former ALPINA head of engineering, Fritz Indra, who went on to a remarkable career at Audi and GM, and Indra’s long-serving successor, Alois Wiesinger.
A renowned food and wine connoisseur, Bovensiepen is also one of Germany’s premier wine merchants, which results in Alpina Feine Weine boasting a legendary cellar – both in terms of its size and the quality of its contents – right on the premises of ALPINA.
As a man who understands about taste, Bovensiepen has lent ALPINA a clear identity that stretches far beyond capital letters and Deko-Sets. Of course, much choice is given to ALPINA’s customers, who can choose leather, suede and fabric in any possible colour combination to their respective hearts’ content. But the base, the root of the changes in comparison to each ALPINA’s donor BMW, is thoroughbred Bovensiepen.
Which leads us back to the ALPINA premise of marrying reliability with exclusivity, inconspicuousness with precision, and quality with performance and efficiency. All these traits are, to some extent at least, dictated by the standards of the Bayerische Motorenwerke, but are either intensified or smoothened by ALPINA’s corps of engineers and craftsmen. BMWs are fast, BMW ALPINAs are faster. BMWs are reliable, BMW ALPINAs are just as reliable, or even more so (certainly in comparison to M GmbH’s products of yore, which actually did owe a lot to motorsports, for better and worse).
Where the quality of BMW components is just sufficient, ALPINA exchanges them for parts of the utmost quality, as a BMW ALPINA needs to be able to be very fast at all times, and not just under a restricted set of circumstances – which is also why Bovensiepen has always ensured that his cars are suitable for daily use, also with regards to their handling limits and ride comfort.
Another factor that was always close to Bovensiepen’s heart is efficiency. This resulted in certain BMW ALPINAs boasting better fuel economy (sometimes just per bhp, sometimes in absolute terms) than their equivalent base cars. It also had the effect of putting little ALPINA at the forefront of modern diesel technology, which the company embraced as early as in 1999, with the BMW 5 series-based D10 Biturbo model. Mind you, all this fuel saving certainly doesn’t mean Bovensiepen, who openly describes himself as a ‘dyed-in-the-wool capitalist’, was prone to greenwashing, but rather that he strictly adhered to his set of values in this instance, as well.
Despite his mischievous attitude, Bovensiepen is a man of values, be they taste and performance – or loyalty. He’s as willing to walk the tightrope of irony regarding a great many topics, as he’s remorseless when it comes to his company, its products and his employees. Both BMW ALPINAs and ALPINA’s employees, many of which have been with the company for decades, are no laughing matter to him, which is why the company’s factory in the small town of Buchloe in Bavaria feels every bit the family business where everybody knows everybody’s birthday. The fact that Bovensiepen lives in a traditional Bavarian house right in the middle of the factory’s premises only serves to stress the point.
But when it comes to aesthetics, Burkard Bovensiepen’s mischievousness comes into play yet again. Once more, ALPINA is all about juxtaposition: the discreet appearance of a mass production vehicle, coupled with idiosyncratic details such as the Deko-Set or the traditional ALPINA wheel (which is a Bovensiepen design, by the way); the impeccable craftsmanship of ALPINA’s artisans and saddlers contrasting with the garish plaque that adorns every ALPINA’s dashboard. Despite being a proud Bavarian (albeit Saxony-born), there’s always a sense of cheekiness to the aesthetics of Burkard Bovensiepen that’s decidedly un-teutonic, but could be expected from a man who only ever drives his ’54 Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith wearing a chauffeur’s uniform.
In today’s Nürburgring lap time obsessed automotive realm, ALPINA finds itself in the unique position of being supremely successful on the one hand, but a bit of an anachronism on the other. Of course, ALPINA doesn’t have to buy complete BMWs in order to de- and then reassemble them, with a great many components being exchanged for ALPINA-worthy parts, anymore. The days of in-house engine manufacturing are also gone (instead, ALPINA’s components are installed right at BMW’s factories).
Yet this is still a business whose owner knows many of his repeat customers by name, a company that hasn’t sold itself to big business (despite overtures). Today, ALPINA may be selling SUVs like anybody else, but is wilfully restricting its tall offerings to an ALPINAFIED X3 variant, rather than selling hundreds of overweight, overpowered X6s to sheikhs and oligarchs.
Burkard Bovensiepen may have left day-to-day operations to his sons, Andreas and Florian, but his influence is sill felt everywhere. Long may this brave little company – that has nothing to with aftermarket offerings whatsoever, by the way – continue with doing things the Bovensiepen way.
The author of this piece is running an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com