From the day in 1977, when he decided that his goal in life was to create some of the most radical tuner cars the world had ever seen, Uwe Gemballa had always been newsworthy.
Then in February 2010, car enthusiasts around the globe were stunned to learn the world's most famous Porsche tuner had gone missing on a business trip to South Africa. Rumors online went viral. Much of it was speculation, most of it ill-conceived and unkind.
However, some were closer to the truth than others. Some were suppliers or customers who'd dealt with Uwe for years. They jumped to his defence to counter unfounded allegations.
In an effort to discover the truth, I visited Uwe's wife, Christiane, earlier this year. I'd known Uwe since 1983, long before the couple met, and have been a longtime friend of the family. So she gave me a full account of the events that unfolded after he went missing.
Christiane explained that in early February, Uwe visited his dealer in Dubai: the Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group that spawned the MIG U-1 designation for a Ferrari Enzo that Gemballa built for them.
Just before leaving Germany, Uwe received a call ostensibly from a person in South Africa who had been negotiating to establish a dealership for some time. They promised to order cars and wanted Uwe to see their premises and sign a contract.
Like all manufacturers and tuners, Gemballa had been adversely affected by the financial crisis and, while his order books were full, cash flow was poor. The company needed the money the potential investor was offering.
Traveling to Johannesburg from Dubai, Uwe arrived on February 8, 2010. From here, things get hazy.
Airport CCTV footage shows Uwe was met by a caucasian with white hair, whose face never appeared on the cameras. They shook hands and he left with the man.
Other recorded footage shows them leaving the airport in a VW Golf. However, the number plates couldn't be read.
That is the last known sighting of Uwe Gemballa.
An arrest later that year led to Uwe's body being recovered. The man confessed to his murder and was jailed.
The aftermarket industry had lost one of its pioneers, and the world is definitely a poorer place without Uwe Gemballa's sometimes crazy but inspired creations.
Luckily, this wasn't the end of the Gemballa story. As Gemballa Automobiltechnik GmbH floundered and entered receivership, plans were afoot to resurrect the recognized brand under new management.
In July 2010, Christiane and the receivers sold the company's assets, trademarks and designs to German businessmen Andreas Schwarz and Steffen Korbach, who founded Gemballa GmbH to continue the business.
Lightweight Gemballa wheels and the giant Gemballa/Brembo braking system
The first Mistrale was built for the Geneva Show to demonstrate what's possible
Busy workshops and full order books are a good sign for reborn Gemballa GmbH
As a qualified automotive engineer, Schwarz runs Gemballa GmbH as its CEO on a daily basis, while Monaco-based Korbach is the sleeping partner. Importantly, both are car guys with successful track records. "One of my first tasks was to hire back key people," Schwarz explained. "Some of the old staff had found new jobs despite the recession, but I've been lucky to get a good balance of the people," he said. "Keeping overheads low in hard economic times while we rebuild the company is important."
Engine shop busy building boxers
A major obstacle was winning trust. "Obviously, all the negative things discovered about Uwe as the story unravelled knocked confidence in him, and it created a lot of bad feelings," he said. "He appeared to run the company in an autocratic way and people tolerated it because he was Uwe Gemballa. But it would be fair to say it his way or the highway. Because of this, I wasn't surprised that the staff I hired didn't show much trust initially," Schwarz continued.
Two years down the road, staff old and new have been won over and Gemballa GmbH is a tight, motivated team. "Despite the demise of the old company, the phone never stopped ringing with old and new customers asking for Gemballa conversions for their new Cayenne and Panamera," Andreas said. "About 400 cars based on the old Cayenne were sold during the model's lifetime, and many of the same clients were eager for a Gemballa version of the second generation car."
"Uwe was obsessed with maximising profit by selling complete cars. I think this created problems in the USA," said Andreas. "So I intend to market all the parts separately in addition to complete cars to give customers a wider choice and introduce new clients into the Gemballa fold. To do this, we have to create the image of ultimate exclusivity," Andreas explained. "So I wanted to do something even more radical than even Uwe attempted."
Under all that carbon, Gemballa releases 44% more power from the engine with turbo, exhaust and software upgrades
Under all that carbon, Gemballa releases 44% more power from the engine with turbo, exhaus
"Modern cars are larger and heavier despite high tech materials," he continued. "A power increase is good, but the ultimate solution is more power and less weight. My concept for our Panamera-based Mistrale and Cayenne-based Tornado models was to replace most all the body panels with carbon fiber parts, incorporating wider arches and functional styling motifs."
The first car out-the-gate was the spectacular Gemballa Mistrale. Limited to just 30 units, it celebrated 30 years of the Gemballa brand in 2011.
Like the Mediterranean wind of the same name, the Mistrale creates a storm under the carbon hood. Gemballa's engineers cracked the encryption of the Siemens ECU, allowing new software to accommodate larger turbochargers and mechanical modifications.
The two bespoke turbochargers were built in-house and move enough air to produce 721hp and 700 lb-ft of torque - 44% more power than the stock Panamera Turbo the Mistrale is based upon; a number guaranteed by the dyno curve provided with every car.
The late Uwe Gemballa who created one of the biggest names in the business
The raw performance is breathtaking. The AWD system catapults the 4300 lb Mistrale to 62mph in a conservative 3.6sec, and doesn't stop accelerating until the speedometer is showing 211mph.
Enthusiasts will ask if this car sounds as good as it looks, and the answer is an unequivocal yes. With the stainless steel exhaust system tuned for power and sound, the car plays a tune that's ear-candy to red-blooded enthusiasts.
Andreas suggested the engine could make more power, but longevity and the Porsche PDK gearbox put the cap on it. However, it's more than enough to humiliate anything short of a Bugatti Veyron, and most of the wealthy owners will probably need a change of underwear after they open the taps for the first time.
The hugely powerful brake system, developed exclusively by Brembo, hauls the Mistrale to a halt. It has massive 16.2" front rotors and six-piston calipers, with 15" and four-piston calipers on the rear. All four rotors are vented, drilled and grooved, while the calipers are milled from a solid alloy block, F1-style. A supplementary ram-air vent system enhances cooling.
The Gemballa Avalanche: One of the special cars that created the company's early reputation for both power and style
The Gemballa Avalanche: One of the special cars that created the company's early reputatio
By using carbon fiber, the weight of the hood, front and rear aprons, side skirts, doors and outer skin of the tailgate is reduced by 70kg without compromising safety.
The latent power of the Mistrale is clearly expressed when the car is at rest. A rigorous series of modifications have transformed the Panamera Turbo into a moving business card for multi-millionaires. This expression of power starts at the front, where three massive intakes display the engine's hunger for air.
Big power means big heat, so the carbon hood has a long cooling slot on either side of the power bulge. The brakes are cooled by channels around the LED lights either side of the radiator, which is then exhausted through vents in the fenders aft of the wheel arches.
The carbon-fest continues with the door panels that feature deep sculpting. The rear fenders incorporate wider arches for those big tires.
The Mistrale's rear, with its wide, recessed element in naked carbon fiber and the underbody diffuser flanking four exhaust pipes accentuates the width, making it look even lower. The rear is styled after the Gemballa Mirage GT, with each tailpipe milled from stainless steel billet.
Andreas Schwarz, cofounder of Gemballa GmbH, responsible for getting it back in business
Attention to detail borders on the fanatical, with even the 'Gemballa' moniker precision-cut with a high-pressure water jet into the client's choice of either an anodized aluminium, stainless steel or carbon-fiber plate on the rear.
Gemballa's ultra-light, one-piece, forged 22" wheels feature narrow spokes to create the illusion of being even larger. Significantly, they weigh the same as the 20" factory equivalents. However, these are shod with 265/30, and 305/25 ZR22, Continental SportContact 3s: the only tires approved for this car up to 211mph.
The luxurious interior is best described as sporty. Finished to the highest standards, it uses the finest leather and Alcantara. The quilted dashboard is a little extreme but this particular car was in the original Geneva Auto Show display, designed to illustrate the wide range of possibilities.
The result is a vehicle we feel Uwe Gemballa would approve of. Something that captures his wild imagination, and represents the spirit of Gemballa, offering it to a new audience in a manner existing customers can also embrace.