Niche automaker Alpina adds 'effortless' power and exclusivity to BMW
Alpina vehicles are even more rare than a Ferrari or Rolls-Royce.
The fastest and rarest BMWs sold in the U.S. do not come from the Bavarian automaker's headquarters in Munich.
Nearly 300 dedicated workers in Buchloe, Germany, an hour's drive from Munich, tune, modify, upgrade and hand-assemble the cars, giving each one the "white-glove treatment" before they're shipped overseas.
Alpina, an independent, autonomous company and household name among Germans, produces low-volume, specialized automobiles that are even more uncommon than a Ferrari or Rolls-Royce. About 1,700 Alpinas are built each year, with 400 shipped to the U.S. Ferrari, in comparison, sold 10,131 sports cars in 2019; Rolls-Royce delivered 5,152 vehicles that same year.
Founder Burkard Bovensiepen and his two sons, Andy and Florian, run the 55-year-old company, named after the family's former typewriter factory. In 1962, Bovensiepen got the attention of BMW executives and owners when he squeezed more power from the 80 horsepower, four-cylinder engine in the 1500, BMW's new medium-sized car, with a tuning kit he developed from a Weber dual carburetor. The kits were soon mailed to owners who sought a performance boost in their Bimmers, launching Bovensiepen's simple tuning shop. Bovensiepen and BMW signed a partnership deal in 1965, a pact that's lasted more than five decades. Alpina was recognized as an independent automaker in Germany in 1983.
Formula One champions Niki Lauda and James Hunt raced Alpinas in the 1970s. The company decided to leverage its engineering prowess and success in motorsports to road-going cars "where we have built a strong and loyal customer base who value our products," Andy Bovensiepen told ABC News.
The longstanding and close cooperation with BMW has helped raise awareness of the Alpina brand overseas. Alpina's largest markets are Germany, the U.S. and Japan.
"The BMW partnership with Alpina is sacred," Matt Russell, Alpina's representative for North America, told ABC News. "Our U.S. customers are knowledgeable, passionate and savvy about automobiles. We do see a high degree of repeat business."
Russell also pointed out that the company does not advertise.
"We rely on word of mouth," he said.
Alpina gets access to BMW concepts and prototypes years before they enter production. Models undergo aerodynamic, top speed and racetrack endurance testing. They're also forced to withstand testing in "real world" locations like Death Valley, California.
The new XB7 -- Alpina's take on BMW's wildly popular X7 SUV -- marks a first for the boutique automaker. Alpina engineers spent weeks training a small team of top technicians how to replicate the hand-finishing process at Plant Spartanburg, BMW's massive manufacturing facility in Greer, South Carolina.
"We're bringing the Alpina method in-house to South Carolina," Russell said. "The hand-finishing process allows us to have a high standard of quality."
Alpina formally entered the U.S. in 2002 with the Roadster V8. The Roadster's automatic drivetrain, which replaced the six-speed manual in the famed Z8 sports car, added torque. A tuned suspension helped soften the ride. Alpina produced 555 Roadster V8 units, of which more than 90% went to American customers. The "super saloon" B7 arrived two years later followed by the B6 Gran Coupé in 2014. Alpina will likely debut a new model this year.
Expectations are high for the $141,300 XB7, which went into production last August. Michael Baxley, a product manager at BMW, said sales could reach 400 units a year, almost a two-fold increase over the Alpina B7 sedan, now in its third generation.
"With the XB7 we're selling more Alpinas than we ever have," Baxley told ABC News. "The XB7 is a product that's tailor-made for the U.S. The SUV trend is not going away."
The wait time for an XB7 is 22 weeks; only two are produced at Plant Spartanburg each day. "It's such a labor-intensive car," Russell explained.
Alpina's exclusivity, craftsmanship and refined handling certainly attract luxury buyers. Power matters, too. The three-row XB7, for example, comes with a 4.4-liter, bi-turbocharged V8 engine that has been carefully calibrated to deliver 612 hp and 590 lb.-ft. of torque. The 5,860-pound ute needs just 4 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph and its top speed is 180 mph. (The less expensive BMW X7 M50i produces 523 hp and hits 0-60 in 4.5 seconds).
"What Alpina strives to achieve is effortless power," Baxley said. "We use Alpina as a capstone for us. It's the pinnacle of our luxury brand."
The introduction of the XB7 signals that Alpina, a niche, exotic brand for the wealthy, may be looking to expand its reach with American drivers, according to MotorTrend's Jonny Lieberman.
"Alpina is trying to change [its exclusivity] by doing SUVs," Lieberman told ABC News. "SUVs will always outsell sedans."
Karl Brauer, executive publisher at the website CarExpert.com, said Alpina's challenge continues to be separating itself from BMW's storied "M" performance division.
"I don't think Alpina is as clearly defined," he told ABC News. "Alpina suffers from being in the shadow of the M cars."
Still, "these special versions of high-volume production cars have proven to be a boon for automakers," Brauer noted. "Alpina is elevating those models for BMW."
Adrian Turek, head of sales at BMW of Manhattan, said his dealership sold 14 Alpina B7s last year. He pre-ordered five XB7s and two have already been claimed.
"One of the reasons I build the cars for stock is to show the differences," he told ABC News. "Seeing is believing. The attention to detail is insane in the Alpinas."
Turek said he would sell even more Alpinas if BMW aggressively plugged and promoted the brand.
"There's not enough coverage in the U.S.," he argued. "It's been my biggest fight for years."
The symbiosis between Alpina and BMW may be unique though not unusual. German manufacturer Ruf, another family-run business, has tuned, enhanced and restored Porsches for decades. Ford Mustangs, Jeep Trackhawks, Dodge Vipers and Chevy Camaros, among others, get high-performance aftermarket upgrades from Hennessey. Mercedes ultimately acquired AMG, its longtime performance technology partner, in 2005.
"These old-world connections keep these relationships going," Chris Perkins, a senior reporter at Road & Track, told ABC News.
Alpinas, according to Perkins, do not always receive the recognition they rightfully deserve.
"The B7 is super underrated and more special. It's such a good GT car ... but performance isn't sacrificed," he said.
He added: "Alpinas are a status symbol most Americans don't know about. They're a rare car that only has bragging rights among car enthusiasts."
The Bovensiepen family maintains that it has no plans to relinquish control of its operations to BMW and a merger was never on the table.
"To create unique BMW Alpina automobiles we are convinced the current relationship is the best solution," Andy Bovensiepen said.
And the Bovensiepens are determined to keep Alpina relevant in a world rapidly shifting to electrification and battery electric propulsion.
"As a small series manufacturer and family business, we are not in a position resource wise to develop a stand-alone electric or hybrid drivetrain," Andy Bovensiepen said. "The developments by the big manufacturers [are] very high-paced. We are monitoring developments in this area because it is not something you can ignore."