One of the world's most respected car industry leaders, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, aged 63, was killed yesterday while practising for a classic bike race at Brands Hatch. Reports say Kalbfell ran wide while exiting a corner, fell, and was struck by another competitor. He was taken by ambulance to nearby Darenth Valley hospital but died of his injuries.
Kalbfell is best known for a long and all-encompassing career at BMW. On the engineering side he was responsible for the development of the M-series cars, led the team that developed BMW's F1 engines, was one of the instigators of both the Rolls-Royce and Mini projects and was instrumental in setting up the deals that put BMW V12 engines into the McLaren F1 and BMW V8s into the current Morgan Aero and Plus Eight models. He also had various senior marketing roles, and had an abiding sense that customers needed to be attracted to cars by their aura and reputation, not just their engineering.
In the mid-2000s he ran both Alfa Romeo and Maserati, before taking up wider-ranging consultancy roles in Russia and the UK that included a period as an advisor to Lotus. He had a considerable collection of British classic bikes, and raced them regularly, regarding his regular appearances at the Goodwood Revival as the pinnacle of his season.
I knew Kalbfell well, and had enormous regard not only for his engineering skills but for his human qualities, which included an abiding love of the cars and competition, a rare sense of humour, great skills as a negotiator and an all-encompassing optimism about the progress he was helping to bring to the automotive industry.
While a BMW director Kalbfell won considerable respect with his defence of the beleaguered design director, Chris Bangle, who he (accurately) believed was lifting the company out of a "stuck" design phase. It was Kalbfell who smuggled me into the FIZ, BMW's inner design sanctum, to see the Rolls-Royce Phantom many months ahead of its first official appearance, because his nose for such things told him it was time an accurate and influential story was written - in Autocar - about a car that had generated too much airy speculation.
Kalbfell was great company, and a great man. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him, and all at Autocar send condolences to his widow and children, who live in Italy.