German Porsche tuner Uwe Gemballa disappeared last week, and his whereabouts are still unknown. The exotic-car world is in an uproar — kidnapping! aliens! Butzi! — but we keep returning to one question: Why don't we know anything about him?
Spend an hour or so Googling the phrase "Uwe Gemballa" and you come up with remarkably little. He runs a German tuning firm that was founded in 1981. His name is attached to a marque known for questionably restyled sports and exotic cars. And he . . . well, he's gone. That's about it.
Old-school methods also come up short. The traditional tack of the fact-seeking journalist — pick up the phone; harass everyone you can think of; lather, rinse, repeat — has revealed details of the police investigation of his disappearance but little about the man himself.
Surprising, no? A man spends three decades selling outlandishly expensive German speed machines to sheiks, princes, and the supercar-crashing elite; he drops off the face of the earth; and there's little published evidence that hints at his background or personal character? If we can spend fifteen minutes on the phone and discover what Alois Ruf or Steve Saleen had for breakfast, why is Gemballa such an enigma? Who is — or was — he? And if his friends and associates really want him to be found, why have so few people made a fuss? Does any of this seem shady to anyone else?
Here's what we know: Gemballa is a 54-year-old German. He lives in the town of Leonberg, near Stuttgart, and he is the founder of Gemballa Automobiltechnik GmbH & Co.
Like Ruf, Gemballa specializes in the "remanufacturing" of high-end sports cars, most of which are Porsches. His company employs about 50 people, has nine sales offices scattered around the globe (the American outpost is in Malibu), and exports 95 percent of its products. Uwe has claimed to not view his company as a tuning house; he sees it more as a place where Porsches and Ferraris are prepared a' la carte for the whims of exclusive customers. (Frankly, we fail to see the difference.)
Gemballa's PR representatives were not available for comment, but according to the company's German Wikipedia entry (it has no English counterpart), it was founded in 1981 under the name G-Topline Automobiletechnik GmbH & Co. The page claims that the firm's early years were spent devoted to the mild modification of Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche automobiles, and that most of that work consisted of the installation of high-quality stereo systems. Later on, Gemballa focused on substantial interior and drivetrain upgrades, eventually attaining the same manufacturer status as rival tuner Ruf. In other words, the cars that Gemballa sells are legally required to be badged as Gemballas, not Porsches or Ferraris.
Wikipedia is by no means a primary source, but as far as we can tell, that's the extent of the available public information. Car magazines have avoided details like the plague, and Gemballa's consumer sites are dead ends. An interview in the December 2007 issue of the Porsche enthusiast magazine Excellence comes as close as anything to offering a reliable character sketch: Gemballa began his career on motorcycles, racing on the weekends in the 1970s while still in school. Safety concerns prompted a switch to cars shortly thereafter, and he was drawn to Porsches because they offered a bike-esque mechanical connection. He bought a 911 while still in school and started a tuning business to pay for it.
You now know what we do. Got anything better? Lay it on us in the comments — we're all ears. Uwe Gemballa is gone, and we have an odd feeling that things are not what they seem.
Gemballa's U.S. office could not be reached for comment. Naturally.
Photo Credits: Autobild.de, Carnews.com, Gemballa