The Highs and Lows of Gemballa

The Highs and Lows of Gemballa

If you were a self-respecting businessman in the 1980s and you wanted a fast and flashy car, the options were plenty. But if you wanted this car, full of the latest technology, there was really just one company to turn to. Founded in the early ‘80s, by a man who bought a Porsche 911 because it was safer than riding a motorcycle, a man who was still a student, yet, he decided to start a car tuning company to fund his new found hobby. This man was Uwe Gemballa.

Gemballa Automobil Interieur certainly didn’t start by modifying the most exclusive Mercedes-Benzes or the latest Ferraris; it started modestly, with regular VWs, but Uwe’s dreams were big. After he sold a couple of modified VW Jetta’s for the nice sum of DM52.000, he immediately moved on to one-off Porsche and Mercedes models for wealthy and maybe a little eccentric clients. At the time, the interiors produced by Gemballa were second to none. The quality of the leather, the attention to detail, and, most importantly, the technology added were what distinguished these interiors. Digital instrument clusters, the latest audio and TV systems, fax machines and telephones, AC and refrigeration systems—they were even the first company to install rearview cameras in a car. Those did cost DM30.000, which was about the price of a standard W201 Mercedes at the time. But with the clientele Uwe had, all that didn’t matter.

In 1984, Gemballa presented their version of the C126 500SEC. Everyone was doing them at the time, from AMG to Koenig. No one did it like Gemballa; however, this was the widest of them all. The body panels were obviously made of sheet metal because fiberglass would be too mundane; the standard seats in the front and back wouldn’t do, so they were replaced by Recaro CSE seats. The car got the Gemballa treatment which included: the entertainment system and the choices of leather, custom bumpers, side skirts and wing. The same happened for the rims; there weren’t any standard rims available to suit the width of this monster.

I say monster, but even with all of its bells and whistles, it was still a standard M117 5.0 engine, which was by no means a bad engine but nothing like the 6.0 AMG was putting in its widebodies. A limited run of these cars was done, but the exact numbers got lost in history. Gemballa produced numerous variants of the C126, some of which featured electronic Gullwing doors or a W126 front. The opposite also happened, where they put the front of a C126 on their version of the W126 1000SEL.

In 1985, Uwe presented two more iconic cars to the world, one of which was a widebody canary yellow BMW 635CSI that went to a client in the UAE and was later discovered in one of the palaces of Uday Hussein. The other car solidified Uwe Gemballa’s position at the top of the tuning world; this car was called the Gemballa Avalanche and was based on the Porsche 930 Flachbau, which was itself a variation of the legendary 911 Turbo.

Gemballa had manufacturing status in Germany, which meant their cars would be rebadged under Uwe’s last name. Other German companies with a similar status are BRABUS and renowned Porsche tuner, Ruff. The latter did most of the mechanical work on the Avalanche, raising the horsepower from an already respectable 300HP to a, for the time, astonishing 375HP. There was a non-turbo convertible version available called the Cyrrus, but the 15 Avalanches were the cars that skyrocketed Uwe Gemballa to world fame. From this point on, they were also tuning Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and other high-end cars. Gemballa’s cars were adored by all, from the very wealthy to those who could only dream of owning one of Gemballa’s prized cars.

Uwe’s life was going great for a while, until his company’s decline due to what seems like a multitude of reasons, including the 2008 financial crash. This then led him to get involved in some questionable business dealings, which later resulted in his untimely death at the age of 55 in 2010. Gemballa went missing during a business trip to South Africa in February 2010, never to be seen again until his body was found in October of that year. Conflicting reports tell different stories of what exactly happened that ultimately led to his death, all the way down to the method of murder, with some sources claiming suffocation and some claiming that he was shot to death, execution style; however, all of them link to illegal activity. Unfortunately, nobody has been prosecuted for his murder. Nonetheless, Gemballa’s impact on the car industry is irreplaceable. From humble beginnings to unimaginable success, Gemballa’s legacy will continue to live on.

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