An interview with Frank Sytner always had the potential to lay waste to the 1400 words earmarked for the story of Alpina in this country.
It was Frank’s older brother Alan who founded The Cavern Club in Liverpool, where The Beatles were discovered and made 292 appearances during the early 1960s. The two then went into business together and in 1968 founded their first car dealership in Nottingham, specialising in BMW. Over the next three decades, they grew the network to the extent that Roger Penske’s United Auto group was prepared to pay some $155 million for it in 2002.
And that was merely Frank Sytner the hugely successful businessman. Over the years, he also fed a passion for motorsport, planted in 1954 by Alan, who exposed his 10-year-old brother to the howl of BRM’s V16 Formula 1 car at Aintree. Sytner started off racing an Austin A40 with another Frank – surname Williams – before moving to Formula Fords and competing in the kind of ultra-exotic historics that most of us dream about simply sitting in. Then, in 1988, the Liverpudlian hit a career high when he was crowned British Touring Car champion in a Prodrive-prepped E30 M3. ‘Fearless Frank’ was the nom de guerre, although reports suggest hat it belied a talent that few could match, amateur or professional.
However, we don’t delve into any of that, because it would require an entire magazine supplement. In the wake of the new Alpina B3 Touring’s five-star road test, Sytner is calling from his home in Liguria to instead talk about another episode in his life.
It was in summer 1981 that, having clocked the appeal that a brand like Alpina would radiate among car-loving Brits, he flew to Munich with Alan. They made a deal with Alpina’s remarkable founder, Burkard Bovensiepen (“an imposing, fearsome character”, but once you were on his wavelength, “absolutely wonderful”) to take responsibilities away from Tom Walkinshaw Racing’s wayward operation and become the sole UK importer of Alpina. It meant Sytner Nottingham would become the only place in the world outside Buchloe ever authorised to carry out BMW-to-Alpina conversions, and it was one car that really got the esoteric Bavarian ball rolling.
“The B9 3.5 was the breakthrough car,” says Sytner, referencing the E28 5 Series conversion that Bovensiepen and his team had devised around that time, “because it was the first serious high-performance executive sporting saloon on the market”. That’s true: Mercedes-Benz’s products were still too luxury-focused, every Audi understeered and BMW was yet to cotton on and deliver either the M535i or the very first M5.
As for Alpina’s future, Sytner has few concerns, whatever uncertainties lurk. “Andy’s skillset runs parallel with his father’s, only with even more professional engineering training,” he says. “I would expect the imagination of Andy and his team to [keep finding] the niche.”
Final reflections are reserved for the simple phenomenon of Alpina. “Maybe I’m making all of this sound more important than it is. You know, it’s an alternative car brand,” says Sytner, feigning indifference. “But it’s the kind of thing you won’t really see again,” he quickly follows, with an intensity that reveals his true feelings. “It’s part of the past: entrepreneurial, the creation of something that shouldn’t have happened. How the hell did Burkard do it?”