John McIlroy is the Deputy Editor of Auto Express
. The views expressed here are his own.
One of nature's most curious relationships is that between the pilot fish and the shark. The latter could swallow the former in a single gulp, but instead the huge predator allows its tiny companion to pick uneaten food from between its teeth. The pilot fish gets a free meal, the shark a free dental plan.
This mutual arrangement is replicated, in a way, in the car industry. Specifically, it resembles the relationship between BMW, a global giant that makes over two million vehicles a year, and Alpina, a family firm that produces around one-thousandth of that number.
Alpina's cars are re-engineered versions of existing BMW models. They come with different engine and transmission configurations, as well as bespoke cabin treatments that feature higher-grade leather and greater scope for personalization.
You might expect BMW to take a dim view of this (or to treat Alpina as a mere tuner). But in fact, every one of the tiny company's creations is assembled by specially trained technicians on BMW production lines around the world.
An Alpina engine. Credit: bmw
Furthermore, to help prepare for forthcoming models, BMW feeds Alpina's engineers top-secret information on product plans up to four years in advance. And long after the cars have been delivered to customers, the giant German brand honors Alpinas with the same after-sales warranties that cover its own vehicles.
It's one of the coziest, most trusting and downright strange friendships in the cut-throat car industry.
Alpina started life as a typewriter manufacturer, but turned its focus toward automobiles when the company's founder Burkard Bovensiepen started producing tuning parts for BMW in the early 1960s.
The octogenarian Bovensiepen still lives in a house tucked away on the factory site in Buchloe, Bavaria, where his swimming pool is heated with hot exhaust gas from the plant's engine testing equipment.
Bovensiepen's vision for his "exclusive automobiles" (a phrase that appears on a plaque inside every Alpina) was for them to be both faster and more comfortable than regular BMWs.
And therein lies the basis for the two firms' unusual relationship -- BMW doesn't consider Alpina a rival because its cars are sold in tiny numbers and thus don't directly compete with its own high-performance sub-brand, M Division.
What does BMW get out of the deal, though? To begin with, it's a revenue stream -- Alpina pays for manufacturing, vehicle storage and logistics. And then there's always the possibility that Alpina's engineers come up with something that benefits the whole BMW range. The tiny company has already licensed exhaust and gearbox technology back to its big collaborator.
Most of all, however, Alpina is flexible enough, personal enough and exclusive enough to keep a small band of ultra-discerning BMW customers happy. These are people who would, in all probability, go to another brand altogether if Alpina's distinct offering weren't available.
As it is, these customers are able to visit the factory, talk with individual engineers and even see their leather steering wheel being hand-stitched. Which, Alpina claims, makes the items more comfortable than if they had been machine-stitched items.
Alpina's line-up ranges from BMW's smallest sedan, the 3 Series, up to the 7 Series limousine and even the X3 SUV. It offers petrol and diesel engines, with company bosses open about embracing hybrid technology in the future.
Bovensiepen has ceded day-to-day control of the firm to his sons, although he still takes a keen interest when not focused on his hugely successful wine import business.
Alpina technicians hand-stitch leather onto steering wheels. Credit: Alpina
The company is doing pretty well without him, recovering in key regions like Japan and Germany after the global financial crisis, while expanding into new territories such as Australia and, most significantly, China.
Alpina continues to shift a respectable number of units in the United States too (although -- in another peculiarity of its existence -- Alpina cars in the American market are purchased back by BMW and sold on through the car giant's own network).
But further expansion will be difficult. The lack of space at Alpina's factory site limits capacity, as does the number of available slots on BMW's production lines. And the Bovensiepens won't be switching from BMW to another brand any time soon, despite regular overtures from Japanese brands, notably Toyota.
While numbers may creep up eventually, it's hard to imagine annual production figures getting much beyond the 3,000 mark. After all, Alpina is a brand that is sustained and reassured by its own exclusivity. And by definition, the current set-up suits BMW quite nicely as well.