The word “exclusive” might have become devalued in recent years, but exclusivity is most definitely what luxury is all about – the experience of not simply owning things that are special, but owning things that are so special that not many (and preferably not any) other people have them. And when it comes to high-end cars, meeting that requirement off the shelf is becoming increasingly difficult.
Last year, Maserati produced 42,100 vehicles, Bentley 11,023 and Ferrari 8,014. Even Rolls-Royce turned out more than 4,000. Granted, all of the above offer personalisation services that promise to lend a touch of individuality to standard models. But it’s often a bridge too far to ask for a specially tuned engine, an uprated gearbox, reworked suspension, bespoke wheels and performance enhancements that make the car faster than standard and nicer to drive – and also contrive to make it more economical.
However, there is a firm that does such things as a matter of course, that finishes every car by hand and, during its 52-year history, has seldom produced more than 1,500 vehicles in any 12-month period. And, with allocations to any particular market never exceeding the low hundreds, the chances of another of these cars pulling up beside yours are extremely small.
The marque in question is Alpina, the officially recognised tuning house that has been enhancing BMWs since the early 1960s, yet which remains largely under the radar. Alpina’s story is remarkable. Its roots go back to 1962, when German engineering and business student Burkard Bovensiepen took the initiative to develop a twin-carburettor unit for the BMW 1500 while seeking a reliable sporting model to indulge his passion for making cars go faster.
The then-27-year-old Bovensiepen – whose father ran a factory making typewriters and other precision mechanical objects – marketed the kits by dishing out leaflets in a car park at the Frankfurt motor show. His idea proved so successful that, by 1965, Bovensiepen was able to register Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen KG as an official business offering a portfolio of accessories to enhance the latest BMW models.
Competition success quickly followed, with now-legendary drivers such as Derek Bell, James Hunt, Jacky Ickx and Niki Lauda all racing Alpina-tuned BMWs to victory in events between 1968 and 1973. This encouraged BMW itself to entrust Alpina with a project to create a lightweight, aluminium-bodied racing car called the 3.0 Gösser CSL Coupé to contest the European Touring Car Championship – which it promptly won.
In the early years of its existence, Alpina specialised in manufacturing aftermarket components for BMWs that customers would take away for retrofitting. But in 1983 it became an official manufacturer that owners could commission to modify their cars to Alpina specification – an expensive business, since it involved discarding standard engines, gearboxes, suspension units and wheels in order to replace them with the enhanced components.
However, the quality of its upgrades and the remarkable improvements they offered over the standard vehicles ensured that, as Enzo Ferrari liked to say, Alpina has always made “one less car than the market demands”. Which is hardly surprising, given the fact that its B7 Turbo of 1978 was called “the world’s fastest sedan”, the B7 Turbo Coupé of 1982 was as quick as a Porsche 911 Turbo, and the B10 Bi-Turbo of 1989 was described by the late and highly respected Belgian racing driver and Road & Track journalist Paul Frère as “the best four‑door in the world”. And, returning to the subject of Ferraris, the large and luxurious Alpina B12 6.0 of 1999 could cover a kilometre from a standing start in just 23.6 seconds – swifter than the Prancing Horse marque’s contemporary F355.
Since 2003, Alpinas have been put together on special production lines at BMW’s Munich, Dingolfing and Regensburg plants in Germany and its Spartanburg factory in the US, with every model being sent to Alpina’s headquarters in Buchloe for the finishing touches to be applied. Around 250 employees work at the Buchloe HQ – where Alpina has been based since 1970 – and it is from there that the Alpina components are shipped to the BMW assembly lines. It is at Buchloe, too, that modelling and prototyping are carried out, engine and gearbox upgrades are designed, specialised parts are made and the in-house saddlery workshop produces the cars’ superb hand-stitched interiors using flawless Lavalina leathers.
Indeed, the Alpina engineering centre is so sophisticated that it houses eight dynamometers – kit representing an investment of more than €12m – that are used to assess the output of the specially modified, always twin-turbocharged Alpina engines. These engines are designed to provide not just a high top speed, but surprising improvements in fuel economy and the greater pulling power that gives the cars both astonishing acceleration and effortless long-distance cruising ability. Every Alpina also gets modified electronics, an upgraded gearbox, aerodynamic enhancements, highly adaptable suspension that radically improves both handling and comfort, and – a signature touch, this – a set of highly distinctive 20-spoke wheels.
BMW supplies the firm with engineering data at least two years ahead of production to enable thorough development to be carried out, during which durability tests, hot and cold climate tests and performance tests result in prototype cars being driven 40,000km, including 1,500km of those at top speed. Which – because Alpinas are not restricted to the 155mph of standard BMWs – can be anything up to 190mph in the case, for example, of the recently released B4S Bi-Turbo, or 205mph for the B7 Bi-Turbo. And what is truly surprising is that, despite all this effort, entry into the eight-model world of Alpina can be had for as little as £48,000 – although a top-specification B7 Bi-Turbo with a few bespoke extras can cost more than three times as much.
By now, though, those who are unfamiliar with Alpina might be pondering the difference between its specially tuned products and those of BMW’s in-house, high-performance M division, which also builds go-faster versions of the marque’s cars. Well, the difference is akin to chalk and cheese – not least because an Alpina isn’t simply about going fast, but about an entire package of enhancements that takes the best features of a standard BMW and makes them work in perfect harmony.
“People who have a feel for a car get into an Alpina and instantly appreciate the steering reaction, the special suspension, the improved engine and so on – but equally, people who don’t have that ‘feel’ tend to get in, drive for five miles and recognise that they are behind the wheel of something different,” says Andreas Bovensiepen, son of the founder and Alpina’s co-owner and chief executive. “They feel that harmony.”
Bovensiepen junior says the typical Alpina buyer is a highly successful entrepreneur who often covers a high annual mileage (30,000 or more per year is usual) and demands a level of exclusivity beyond the personalisation offered by top luxury marques. “If you look back 20 years, we sold fewer than half as many cars as we do today,” he explains. “Production has gradually increased because our portfolio of models is much wider than it used to be – in the past, for example, we didn’t offer an SUV or any diesel engines – but it’s also because more people are looking for something special. That said, we still make fewer than half the number of cars that Rolls-Royce does. We have a very personal connection with all our customers and we want to maintain that.
“Of course, nearly every manufacturer now offers some form of bespoke service, but we like to think we have an advantage in the fact that we are small and can fulfil almost every individual request, right down to the thickness of the leather backing on a rearview mirror. We seem to attract the type of people who really appreciate that type of detail and the fact that our cars are hugely capable but also quite understated,” he adds.
Having driven from Munich airport to Buchloe in the fast and practical diesel-engined D3 Bi-Turbo Touring, traversed country roads and highways in the absurdly rapid, spoilingly luxurious and eerily quiet B7 Bi-Turbo, and returned to the airport in the sporty B3 Bi-Turbo, I consider Alpina’s printing of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated saying “I’m a man of simple tastes. I’m always satisfied with the best” in its company brochure entirely justified.