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