From Soft to Hard – Tuning in the 80s

Alpina BMW Tuning

The term “tuning” is generally associated with a certain image. The reason for this lies to a not inconsiderable extent in the 80s, when the motto “wider, faster, louder” was lived out with consistency.

But the tuning world is more diverse than one would generally think. The quest for improvement and individualisation is as old as motorised vehicles themselves – cars and motorbikes alike. Where can I get a few more horsepower (engine tuning), how can I make more of an impression on the neighbours (body tuning), how can I stand out from the other models “off the rack” (light, material or sound tuning).

Before 1980, the focus was on technical tuning. Engines, carburettors and exhausts were souped up or spoilers and wings were added to improve the handling – or simply to make a grand entrance in the neighbourhood.

This could be the half-strong kid who souped up his Schwalbe, his Vespa or his moped a bit to make more of an impression on like-minded people. At the other end of the performance spectrum, however, a few percentage points were also tickled out of sports cars.

Brabus Motor

There’s not much difference between a bunch of youngsters on their mopeds in the Thuringian Forest and successful businessmen with their Porsche 911s on the Kö in Düsseldorf, because no one wants to come in second when sprinting at the traffic lights.

In the 80s, the trend went more and more towards optical tuning. Wide tyres, widebody bodywork, lowering and tinting were intended to turn sometimes staid models into racy sports cars. The sometimes close interlocking of tuning companies today, which like AMG, for example, are now part of the Daimler Group, did not exist in this form back then.

Irmscher, Koenig, Oettinger, Strosek and all the others were able to let off steam with the customer’s vehicles and put some quite idiosyncratic creations on the road. Among others, the following four companies have made a name for themselves with different focuses.


A classic example of another form of tuning, for which it would be better to use the alternative term “refinement”, can be found in the vehicles from Alpina, which are often only recognisable externally by the typical 20-spoke rims and fine decorative stripes all around. Yet there is so much more power slumbering in the models made by ALPINA Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH from Buchloe in Ostallgäu than in the basic BMW on which the cars are based.

Burkard Bovensiepen’s company has been in existence since 1965 and from the very beginning Alpina has been closely associated with BMW brand vehicles. Bovensiepen developed a performance-enhancing carburettor system for the “New Class” BMW 1500 in his father’s former typewriter factory.

Subsequently, it was mainly the 02 series and the six-cylinder models from the E3 and E9 series from which Alpina tickled out a few more percentages. At the beginning of the 80s, Alpina also appeared as a manufacturer with the blessing of the Federal Motor Transport Authority. In 1978, the 528i (E12) became the BMW Alpina B7 Turbo with 221 kW/300 hp output. Based on the BMW 3 Series E21, the B6 2.8 was launched in 1978 and the C1 2.3 in 1980.

In this tradition, performance-optimised vehicles based on current BMW models are still offered today. When assessing a classic Alpina, one should check the continuous production number. Like most tuners, you could not only buy complete vehicle conversions, but also order individual components for your BMW.


AMG was founded in Burgstall as an “engineering office, design and testing for the development of racing engines”. The letters stand for Aufrecht, Melcher and Großaspach – Aufrecht’s birthplace. In 1971, AMG became famous overnight: The red-painted AMG 300 SEL 6.8 took a commanding class victory at the 24-hour race in Spa-Francorchamps and finished second overall.

The legend of the “Red Sow” was born and AMG’s path was mapped out. Just five years later, AMG expanded and moved into the new plant in Affalterbach. Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher both came from the Mercedes-Benz development department, and they were free to pursue their research drive for more power and better performance in their own company. Melcher, who made a name for himself primarily as a camshaft specialist, developed a completely independent cylinder head with modern four-valve technology in 1984.

The innovative unit was first used as a 5.0-litre V8 in the Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC. The engine caused a sensation above all in the saloon and coupé of the then E-Class W 124 series. The 360 hp output was one of the reasons for its nickname “The Hammer”. Incidentally, all the cars built were subject to the “One Man, One Engine” principle from the very beginning, which meant that each engine was accompanied by a designer from the start to the end of the production process. A plaque with the designer’s signature is always affixed to the engine as a final official act.

The entry into the German Touring Car Championship in 1986 marked the start of a racing success story. In its debut season, the AMG team scored individual victories, for example at Berlin’s AVUS. This first respectable success with the Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16 led to a cooperation agreement with Mercedes-Benz in the field of motorsport in 1988.

The first vehicle from the direct cooperation was the Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.5-16 EVO, with which numerous race victories were achieved. At the end of the 1992 season, Klaus Ludwig was the first DTM champion with a Mercedes-AMG.


While still studying law and business administration, Bodo Buschmann founded BRABUS GmbH in his home town of Bottrop. The name Brabus is a combination of the name Buschmann and that of co-founder Klaus Brackmann. From the very beginning until today, the company has been involved in the exclusive and uncompromising tuning of Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the company was in tune with the spirit of the times, tuning was in high demand and Buschmann, who had dedicated himself to the subject from scratch, recognised the wishes and visions of the scene. While other specialised Mercedes tuners tended to concentrate on “sporty understatement”, Brabus was always one of the most consistent representatives. For example, in the 190 E (W 201), nicknamed the “Baby Benz”, a very grown-up V8 engine with a capacity of five litres and 213 kW/290 hp was installed.

Subsequently, Brabus developed its own brand of uncompromising sports cars from what had previously been rather staid Mercedes-Benz saloons. The Brabus E V12, for example, based on the Mercedes-Benz W 210, was the fastest series-produced saloon in the world at the time, with a speed of 330 km/h. The successor, based on the W 211, was the Brabus E V12. Its successor based on the W 211 raised the bar by 20 km/h a few years later.

Even today, extremes are pushed to the limit and records are broken; just think of the Rocket models or the potent and extravagant versions of the G-Class, especially for customers in the Middle East. In the classic car segment, on the other hand, Brabus focuses entirely on originality. A vehicle restored by Brabus Classic is characterised by the highest degree of care; every screw is exactly as the manufacturer imagined it decades ago. Or even a little better than it was at the time.



The air is thin at the top. Tuning a sports car is, in a sense, pushing the limits. If, for example, you coax a few extra horsepower out of a Porsche, reduce the weight or improve the aerodynamics, it is sometimes only a few percent more. For the sports freaks, however, it is precisely these milliseconds that make you faster on the Nordschleife. From this point of view, Ruf Automobile in Pfaffenhausen is in the air when it comes to tuning.

Alois Ruf Sr. founded a car repair shop as early as 1936. A petrol station and a bus company followed. In the 1960s, the company began to deal with Porsche vehicles. In 1975, the first prototype of a Ruf Turbo was developed. Subsequently, high-performance Porsche Turbo models were already being improved in Pfaffenhausen, from 1981 also as a registered car manufacturer.

Two models immediately spring to mind when the name Ruf is mentioned: BTR and CTR. From 1983, the BTR (Group B Turbo Ruf) was available. If a Porsche 930 Turbo was not enough for you, the engine, which had been enlarged to 3.4 litres, with 275 kW/374 hp was probably powerful enough. In competition with other super sports cars, the BTR was voted World’s Fastest Car by Road & Track magazine in 1984. Whoever says B must also say C, they thought in Pfaffenhausen and did not rest on their laurels.

So they developed the CTR (Group C Twin-Turbo Ruf), an evolution based on the Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2. Everything was subordinated to the race for top speed: The narrow version was chosen for the body because the thick cheeks would have increased air resistance; in addition, the Ruf lost almost 200 kilograms compared to its Porsche brother. Thus steeled, it is not surprising that the 345 kW/469 hp had no trouble with the 1.15 tonnes even in the new edition of World’s Fastest Cars.

The CTR, painted bright yellow and then christened Yellowbird, stole the show from all its competitors, including the Porsche 959, and set a new record with a top speed of 339 km/h. Even today, the CTR can still compete with super sports cars.

Even from today’s point of view, the CTR can still keep up with super sports cars. With this significance in the company’s history, it comes as no surprise that Ruf presented a homage to its forefather at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show with the CTR 2017.

Photos ALPINA Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH + Co. KG, BRABUS GmbH, Daimler AG

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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