Herr Bitter looks for the sweet taste of success

The brand is little known here, the latest model a throwback in style, but Richard Lofthouse finds a man who's determined to make his own marque
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The car universe has readily absorbed new stars over the past few years, in particular moribund brands that have been picked up and brushed off by wealthy foster parents -- Maybach by DaimlerChrysler, Bugatti and Lamborghini by VW.

There has also been a renaissance in backstreet heroes like Noble, Radical, Ariel, Pagani, Westfield, TVR, Bristol and Morgan. They have all found a role selling niche cars with thrilling performance. Even the BMW-built Mini is its own brand these days.

We may assume that the UK is the hub of this universe yet there are brands with followings elsewhere that I had never even heard of,. There are slightly ropey-looking supercars from Morocco by a company called Laraki, and odd sports cars by Dutch manufacturers Spyker, and then a wonderful clutch of concepts from Giugiaro, Zagato and Castagna. But what about Bitter? I had never heard of this tiny German car manufacturer, and neither, I suspect, have you.

I found Herr Bitter on his stand at the Geneva Motorshow, busying himself at 7.30am on the basis that the early bird gets the worm. I introduced myself and tried to translate this saying into German but stopped at Vogel. Then I recalled a German saying, aus der Froschperspektive sehen, which roughly translates "to get a worm's eye view of something", which was entirely appropriate for a company that makes 150 cars a year, tops. But it didn't seem polite and Herr Bitter, whose proper name is Erich, was so friendly that I decided to stop and chat.

The Bitter Coupe is actually a re-skinned General Motors model sold in the US as the Pontiac GTO and in Australia as the Holden Monaro, and which will come to the UK later this year as the Vauxhall Monaro. Bitter buys the chassis, engines and parts but dresses them up in fresh sheet metal at a factory in Braunschweig, 40km east of Düsseldorf. This practice is not nearly as fashionable these days as it was in 1971 when Bitter started car building. In other respects, however, it is merely a fuller interpretation of the Morgan and Lotus approach.

Actually, Bitter's main operation is consultancy and prototype development for GM, VW, and several Japanese manufacturers. He explained: "The closest we got to high volume production was the Opel Kadett Convertible, called the Aero. hey produced it as a limited edition in 1974-5. We made about 2,500, a very high number for a company as small as us."

His central ambition has always been to promote his personal brand, he explained, but "the only way to stay in the car-building business is to have a second business to fund it through the inevitable ups and downs".

It all began with the Bitter CD, a wedge-shaped V8 unveiled to great acclaim at the September 1973 Frankfurt Motorshow. Shortly after came the oil price shock--not the context for a big, thirsty V8 -- and Bitter lost most of the 176 orders he had taken at the show.

Now 71 years old and still running marathons, Bitter has returned with a model he regards as the spiritual successor to the original CD, with a huge, front engined 5.7-litre V8.

It is a strange creature, the 2004 Bitter CD2 Coupe. To the outside it looks like a GM. From behind it looks like the late-Nineties Fiat Coupe except that the lights are the same ones fitted to a Lotus Elise. Apart from these idiosyncrasies, the car is pretty much what it looks like, a large, heavy, thirsty, American coupe with a six-speed automatic transmission. The interior is a mixture of real wood and Italian leatherwork, bizarrely punctuated by a bog-standard GM dashboard made out of hard, cheap plastic. Bitter apologises: "Too much of the switchgear depends on it. It would be fantastically expensive to re-design it."

Black leather is everywhere yet fails to be anything more than expensively dull. Car interiors have moved on: although leather is as popular as ever, it is allied with pale, matte timber and bare metal. The Bitter interior is at least 10 or 20 years out of date.

Apart from this bad lederhosen moment, I liked Erich very much. He began life in his parents' bicycle shop and became a professional racing cyclist after the war, progressing to car racing in the Sixties . From there it was a natural ambition to want to build his own cars, and he sought a mechanical donor and outsourced much of the construction work to Baur of Stuttgart.

He is a competitive man and insists: "When you're a winner, it's nice!" He is completely open, describing himself as a businessman not an engineer. Next year he will return to Geneva with a four-door variant of the Coupe.

Most of the original CDs are still cherished and roadworthy, Bitter claims. Asked who his typical customer is, he says: "There is no typical customer! We have dentists, lawyers, movie stars, businessmen and women -- it doesn't matter who they are!"

The price of the Coupe, at €108,000 (£76,600), is steep, yet Bitter expects to sell 150 cars this year. Bitter lacks a UK distributor and the model is strictly left-hand drive, but this hasn't held back British aficionados in the past. You might see one of these creatures one day. Bitte schön, Herr Bitter.

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