German Ambassador – Karl-Heinz Kalbfell

The history of the motor industry is littered with lost causes and alternative realities. Today, we look at one of the more poignant examples.

Karl-Heinz Kalbfell. Image credit: speedweek

Even in automotive terms, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell is not a household name, although perhaps he ought to be. The late German engineer and product supremo enjoyed a stellar career at BMW and in 2004, landed what appeared to be not only a dream job, but one which promised truly great things.

Kalbfell, an engineering and marketing graduate, joined BMW AG in 1977, gaining responsibility for such programmes as the BMW M-series cars, leading the development of BMW’s high performance range as CEO of BMW Motorsport and later Head of Central Marketing.

He was also a leading light behind BMW’s return to Formula One and their involvement with the McLaren F1 roadcar project. In 1997, Kalbfell was appointed Head of Brand and Product Strategy and in 2000, in addition to helping revive the MINI brand, he was placed in charge of BMW’s reinvention of Rolls Royce.

This, one of the most carefully wrought and sensitively handled marque reanimations of the modern era was perhaps Kalbfell’s defining project and along with MD, Tony Gott and design head, Ian Cameron saw the creation of a range of cars entirely in keeping with the storied marque’s traditions. Kalbfell worked at the Petuelring and their FIZ engineering skunkworks for 28 years, but in 2004, he resigned, much to BMW management’s dismay.

Image credit: auto IDNES

A siren voice it seems, lured the performance car and motorsport aficionado across the Alps. “I’ve had job offers before”, Kalbfell told journalist, Gavin Green writing for Motor Trend in 2004, “but Alfa Romeo was irresistible. It has such emotion, tremendous potential, and is underachieving at present.” Head-hunted by Fiat Auto CEO, Herbert Demel to replace the underperforming Daniele Bandiera, Kalbfell’s remit was to supercharge Alfa’s prospects and turn the Biscione into a genuine BMW competitor.

According to an Automotive news report, Demel had lost faith in Bandiera, suggesting he had neglected cost-saving opportunities by failing to push parts and component sharing across the brand portfolio, savings the beleaguered Fiat Auto badly needed at the time. Furthermore, ANE reported; “Bandiera missed all the volume targets he had set for Alfa Romeo.” From 207,618 units in 2001, Alfa would end 2004 making fewer than 170,000 units, its lowest level since 1997.

Kalbfell and 159. Image credit: automobile

Shortly after his appointment, Kalbfell was also handed the Maserati remit, following the abrupt departure of Martin Leach, but his fealty to the Scudetto was palpable. Speaking to the Telegraph newspaper, he said; “It makes me crazy. Alfa Romeo is full of car enthusiasts without the awareness of what the brand means outside the company. It’s full of engineers who all want to launch new cars and don’t want to deal with the boring bits in between. Now is the time to stop being polite to each other. I have a plan and now we have to be in front of the crucial discussion of the future for this company.”

Maserati’s renewed fortunes too were in the German’s sights. He told Green, “Its relationship with Ferrari will continue, and it’ll continue to build beautiful, individual, exclusive Italian cars.” Plans involved a rise in production to over 10,000 cars a year, at the time, an unheard of figure for an exclusive one-time Ferrari competitor. They also involved a doubling of Alfa Romeo’s sales, and the reintroduction of the marque to the USA – something that a decade later remains strictly a work in progress.

Image credit: leonardo motori

There is little doubt that given the resources (both manpower and financial) at his disposal and a senior management with the resolve to see it through, Kalbfell, with his product background and firm grounding in the sharp end of the business could have achieved great things. However, timing is often as much a factor as talent or indeed for that matter, luck.

Perhaps Kalbfell was unlucky. But more likely was the Borgia-esque machinations within Fiat SpA which saw Demel out and Marchionne in that year. By September 2005, his Alfa responsibilities were summarily handed to Antonio Baravalle, Kalbfell’s role reduced to Maserati CEO and the coordination of Alfa and Maserati’s common projects. In late 2006, the man who spoke about Alfa Romeo and Maserati with the passion of an Italian departed, his work unfinished.

It still is. Since his departure, the list of Alfa and Maserati chief executives has been as bewildering as Sergio Marchionne’s ever-changing business plans. It continues with the latest appointment of Tim Kuniskis as joint Alfa / Maserati chief. What he can bring that a revolving-door series of senior management could not is a question only Sergio can answer – if indeed even he knows.

Sadly, Kalbfell’s appointment was probably the best shot Alfa (and Maserati) had for a credible and durable reinvention. While the Marchionne-led reboot has yielded some results (Maserati’s 2017 figures would have seemed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in 2004), they are at some considerable cost to brand equity – something which is fiendishly hard to regain once lost.

Either Fiat couldn’t afford what Kalbfell was agitating for, or simply Marchionne had his own ideas of how the goal could be reached. Either way, the results speak for themselves.

Image credit: scalfaro watches

Post-Fiat, Kalbfell set up his own consultancy, advising amongst others, Lotus Cars, Magna and GAZ. He remained a keen motorsport enthusiast, regularly competing at classic events. It was at one such meet at the Brands Hatch circuit in 2013 that Kalbfell lost control of his motorcycle and crashed. He later died from his injuries. He was 63.

The automotive press love to lionise what they describe as ‘car-guys’, the men who can bring passion to product. Few of these however have been in possession of any palpable business nous.

Karl-Heinz Kalbfell however was different, so while accountants now stalk the corridors of power and spreadsheets replace dynamometers as markers of progress, we pay tribute to a man who successfully blended emotion and intellect into something compelling, honourable and inherently correct.

Qualities those storied Italian marques sorely lack now.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “German Ambassador – Karl-Heinz Kalbfell”

  1. Hear, hear. Little doubt that his plan for Alfa and Maserati would have been thorough and taken a long term view. In other words, requiring of financial commitment. Marchionne’s outlook has always resembled a series of short term ideas, each of which meant to deliver instant corporate value to the shareholder. Whilst not a stupid aim, it usually needs luck with timing. In any case, I don’t think it was Kalbfell’s way.

    1. Looking at matters coldly, it’s probable that Kalbfell hadn’t a chance against a level of intrigue that would have made the Vatican look like a vicar’s tea party in Shipton under Wold on a bright (if slightly blustery) May afternoon. He was schooled at BMW, where things were done correctly and for good reason. Where talent was nurtured and rewarded and furthermore, where the human factor was not neglected. Arese must have been something of a shock to the system. Unfortunately, the situation at Fiat SpA was already past its tipping point by then, so there was no real way Kalbfell could have furthered his agenda, not that he would have known that at the time.

      One could (grudgingly perhaps) acknowledge that Marchionne also arrived too late to do much apart from make do and mend, and like all great what might have beens, Kalbfell’s tenure at Alfa was never really tested. He didn’t last that long after all, but goodness, what it could have been!

      My thanks to our Auto-Didaktic cohort from Hamburg, both for bringing the good Mr. Kalbfell to my attention and for his assistance with this piece.

  2. KH Kalbfell once told a German journalist that before joining Alfa he’d thought they produced around 600,000 cars per year and only after taking the hot seat he found out the actual numbers.
    He also insisted on Alfa’s future being comfort oriented cars aimed at customers who wouldn’t buy an Alfa in the first place, an approach that already had backfired more than once with late Alfettas, 90 or 146. All that at the same time when Audi decided the best way to increase their sales numbers that already were five times Alfa’s volume was by making their cars more sporty…
    The overweight and soulless 159 with its lack lustre engines and uninspiring road manners could be seen as the pinnacle of this strategy even if he arrived too late to have had any influence on that car’s concept.
    The 159’s complete failure in the market should have shown that any comfort biased strategy was wrong for Alfa.

    1. Dave – Interesting insight there.

      Shame on Karl-Heinz for not mugging up on the basic numbers before the Fiat interview, particularly as his Industrial Engineering degree seems to have majored on marketing, with a side-order of process engineering, and his career was in marketing and communications rather than engineering and design.

      As for the “overweight and soulless 159”, I think you’re being a bit harsh. Any owner I know loves (or loved) theirs, and was absurdly forgiving of their unreliability and – often numerous – costly failures. I see far more of them around than Nuova Guilie, despite the last having been made seven years ago, and my neighbourhood certainly not being Alfa’s heartland.

      As for the comfort priority, K-H may have been on to something. “Looks sporty, feels comfy” seems a good principle for the sort of use to which a mid-sized premium saloon will be put. I don’t think the Nuova Giulia is immune from the idea either; in the more restrained colour combinations there is a distinct evocation of the Rover 75.

    2. The quote may even have been an overly dramatic conceit to point out both how underperforming Alfa was, and how much of a labour of love this job was for Kalbfell (‘you had me at “ciao”!’).

    3. I found that misunderstanding about sales numbes an astonishing lack of due diligence on both sides.
      It also showed how deadly serious Alfa’s suggested resurrection thanks to the 156 was perceived at BMW.
      (in Germany, Alfa sold five times as many 156s alone in 1998 as they did of their complete range in 1996. This flash in the pan seemingly distorted BMW’s perceptions).
      The funny thing is that a company producing dedidedly non sporting cars like Audi wanted to grow from just under a million cars per year to double that volume by making their cars sportier and a company like Alfa, representing the very essence of sporty vehicles was suppposed to grow from nearly nothing to not much by diluting their sporty heritage. This strategy was tried at Milan over and over again already since the Luraghi era and it invariably failed.
      The 159 might have been a good car (for an Opel it would have been sensational) but as it was, it was neither fish nor flesh and certainly not prosciutto di parma. It completely lacked the soul of an Alfa and therefore it deservedly didn’t sell.
      Just like the Nuova Giulia for which there is no interesting (proper naturally aspirated) engine and no manual gearbox for non-Diesel cars and which doesn’t sell, at least not in the projected numbers. 35,000 cars in 2017 is about Jaguar numbers and definitely not what Alfa needs for survival.

  3. The 159 was perhaps overweight and lacked a certain dynamic sparkle relative to its rather more brittle predecessor, but its a maligned car in my view. It addressed some (if not all) of the 156’s durability foibles and was from what I can ascertain (as long as one sticks to the petrol engine models anyway) a good deal better wrought. What it wasn’t, was light on its feet. An unpardonable sin in some people’s eyes.

    The main reason it didn’t sell (in this part of the World anyway I would suggest) was that the dealers were either apathetic or non-existent and Alfa’s reputation as an ownership proposition had already been shot to pieces in the media. But of those that did sell, there appears to be a surprising number left on the roads. And frankly, when a car looks as good as the 159, one can forgive quite a lot.

    Regarding the nouva Giulia, according to the good people at carsalesbase.com, Alfa sold 24,679 across Europe last year, putting it in a firm 7th position overall behind the Volvo S/V60, which sold almost twice as many. That doesn’t sound all that impressive until you go back to 8th position, where the underwhelming Jag XE now lies following its third year on sale with a mere 18,999 examples sold. That’s down 22% on the previous year and close to its first (partial) year on sale, volumewise.

    Of course it’s the first year on sale for the Alfa, but it does suggest that they’ve got something right, does it not? Mind you, once the new generation Volvo S/V60 becomes available, both JLR and FCA will truly be slugging it out for the scraps off the table. There’ll be no mis-steps in Gothenberg.

    1. Further to the above, I did a little digging and according the diligent folks at carsalesbase.com, the 159 was posting pretty healthy sales until 2008, broadly similar to those of the 156 during the later half of its career. However in 2009 deliveries almost halved. What we hadn’t considered here of course is the financial crash of 2008 and its immediate impact – especially in Italy, upon which Alfa were so reliant. After 2009, the Italian car market went through the biggest contraction since the 1973 crisis and expensive cars like the 159 were especially hard-hit. Clearly, 159 sales never recovered and it probably suited Marchionne’s purposes to can the model, which by 2012, all things being equal, should have been in line for replacement anyway.

  4. The 159 lasted six and a half years from launch in March ’05 until the end of production in October ’11.

    That’s close to a VAG, Daimler or BMW model cycle, but doesn’t excuse dropping a product which had a substantial following, without providing something for loyal customers when the time came for replacement.

    I’ve never found anything to confirm it, but I suspect that the reason for the 159’s precipitate demise was GM calling a halt on the use of their IP on the Premium platform. If the experience of the Fiat Small / GM SCCS was repeated, Fiat would have stretched and spread the bigger platform to fulfil every imaginable purpose.

    Almost a full model cycle passed in the interregnum between the last 159 and the Giulia reaching full production. Did Sergio never consider the need for a ‘placeholder’ car? The Guilietta 940 platform was stretched by 66mm for the Dodge Dart to give a 2700mm wheelbase, exactly the same as the 159. The track and body widths are near-identical. A proper boot, a bit of a re-work to the front end and some door trickery, and you have a passable 159 replacement.

    More of an Italian Montego than one of the Alfa greats, but every one sold would be one fewer loyal Alfa customer lost to the German hegemony.

    1. None of Marchionne’s actions suggest he’s in it for the long run – right up to the recent decision to do a Ferrari SUV. Immediate effects are what FCA is all about, which sometimes works (US SUVs, financial dealings) and often doesn’t (product range, brand value – Jeep, RAM & Ferrari excepted).

      Given this mindset, Marchionne appears likely to think that every lost customer can be won over again if the product is right (Alfa), and that lost causes can be left outside alone to die (Lancia, Fiat Punto).

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