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ALPLA founder Alwin Lehner turns his vintage vehicle hobby into his new life’s work

Different machines, same passion

Otto Appel, Chief editor

ALPLA founder Alwin Lehner turns his vintage vehicle hobby into his new life’s work.

Vintage cars are just more hands-on.

He purchases them from around the globe, sometimes in good condition and sometimes no more than heaps of scrap: vintage vehicles – motorcycles, cars and tractors. Around ten years ago, Alwin Lehner, the founder of ALPLA, placed his extremely successful company in the hands of his son Günther and started looking for a new calling. Although he is still very interested in the extrusion and stretch-blow moulding machines, “there’s not as much to tinker with on the new models”. The same cannot be said for vintage vehicles. That’s why he opened a vintage vehicle workshop and museum. His “hallowed halls” already hold more than 120 different treasures. With no plans to stop, the nearly 84-year-old business man is on the lookout for more. “I have been fascinated with machines that move since I was a little boy”, Lehner shared with me during our conversation at the company headquarters in Hard, Austria.

early Tractors

It all began when a former employee and part-time farmer gave him an old tractor that was no longer needed. “I was immediately fired up and headed straight to the workshop, where I used every trick in the book to restore the tractor”, Lehner begins. The project only increased his enthusiasm. Luck was on his side when the halls of an old bus workshop went up for sale nearby: “It has large doors so that all of the vehicles can fit into the halls.” Then he started searching. In terms of tractors, he is most excited about early Lanz Bulldogs, which he considers the “best invention” of their time. Lanz Bulldogs replaced horses in pulling ploughs and harrows over the fields. Initially they did not have seats, which means that the farmers actually walked alongside these early tractors to guide them, just as they did with the horses. “Lanz Bulldogs have their own very simple technology. Nothing complicated. They don’t have a carburettor or an ignition, and they run on just a hot bulb engine”, Lehner enthuses.

65 Tractors

His vintage vehicle museum now includes more than 65 tractors, including brands such as Steyr, Deutz, Schlüter, Hannomag and, of course, many Lanz Bulldogs. And all of them look as good as new. “We only buy original parts, and we restore all of the machines that we have here to their original condition.” Although Lehner is still in good health, the work is too much and too difficult for him to do alone, and he has enlisted support. The three mechanics employed by his workshop perform restorations with the same passion and attention to detail as Lehner himself, while Lehner continues do most of the searching for replacement parts and new classics. “When he was active at ALPLA, my father was not particularly computer savvy”, Lehner’s son Günter notes with a grin. “Now he can spend hours on the computer looking for the parts he needs. If there’s an amazing vintage vehicle up for sale somewhere, he’s the first to know.”

30 awesome rides

Motorcycles soon followed the tractors. Here, Lehner has an amusing story to share: “At some point I got started with an old Horex – the same type of motorcycle that I rode as a young man. Once I had restored the Horex, I bought a sidecar and two helmets. Then I drove over to my wife and invited her to come for a ride. She politely declined, insisting, “Alwin, we’re a bit too old for that.” So instead Lehner has kept to buying, restoring and exhibiting the motorbikes. “With around 30 exhibits, the motorcycle division is the smallest.” Nevertheless, the visitor will find all of the big names represented here, including, of course, a Harley Davidson. While Lehner may be a technology buff, he also wants to learn about the history and the companies that built the individual vehicles. He knows the complete history of each of his exhibits and can talk about them for hours. Listening to him is a great joy, as many visitors can also attest. “It’s primarily men who stop by to take a look at everything. Once I even had an entire bus tour from Scandinavia here.”

the treasure trove

Along with tractors and motorcycles, the halls of the vintage vehicle museum now also house many cars. Lehner is particularly proud of two Mercedes that are part of the Adenauer Mercedes series. After the German Chancellor had selected the Mercedes 300 as his official car four times, the entire series was named after him. The collection in Hard, Austria also includes a black convertible and a burgundy-coloured limousine. Among the real gems are a Rolls Royce wedding car and several Porsche models. Anyone who thinks that vintage cars drive just like the cars of today is completely mistaken. As Günther Lehner, who occasionally has the pleasure of driving one of these classics, explains, “First I need instructions on how to drive this type of car.” 

One of the halls houses a particularly exotic specimen – a brand new car, only two years old. The car in question is a hybrid vehicle which can run on either electricity or petrol, allowing it to easily achieve a range of 400 km and a top speed of 200 km/h. Not well known in Germany, the car is an American model produced by Fisker Automotive. “I bought this car because I am convinced that it will be valuable someday”, Lehner explains. Of course, he is also interested in the model’s special technology. 

Günther Lehner: Sometimes when he’s found something new, my father will ask, “What do you think of this car?” If I suggest that he already has so many and he decides not to buy it, he’ll sometimes kick himself for weeks afterwards. And occasionally he’ll tell me later: “Günther, I should have bought that car.”

A passion for flying

An airplane – also a classic – hangs above all of the splendid old vehicles in the large hall, but that alone isn’t what makes it special. What makes it special is that it was built by ALPLA. A jack of all trades, Lehner has a pilot’s licence and used to fly himself. What could be more natural than to build a plane? Lehner is well-versed in mechanical engineering – after all, ALPLA also built its own blow moulding machines. “From 1972 to 1978, we built and sold a total of 26 motorgliders under the name Samburo.”

The alplamat

Speaking of blow moulding machines – in the hall, we stumble across an old blow moulding machine that Lehner built himself. “It remained in full operation until a few years ago.” The reason that Lehner built the legendary Alplamat was that the stretch-blow moulding machines available for purchase in the late 1950s could not achieve the desired results. Although Lehner, who often tinkered and experimented until late at night, optimized the production of the first PET bottles with his own tools, he was not satisfied. So he developed a semiautomatic machine that could initially produce 0.5, 2, and 10 L bottles using single-cavity moulds and a pneumatic control. In the 1960s, he continued to develop the Alplamat, equipping it with a hydraulic control. “This machine put us far ahead of other machinery manufacturers.” The ground-breaking nature of this development is evident in the fact that Alplamats remained in operation until well into the 1990s and other machinery manufacturers copied the technology bit by bit.

Our tour is nearing an end. We are very impressed and offer our heartfelt thanks for the privilege of this experience: “Mr. Lehner, what you have accomplished in your lifetime is amazing. Thank you, for allowing us to peek behind the scenes and giving us a glimpse of your life.” Alwin Lehner: “And now let’s head to my place for coffee or a schnapps from our distillery. That will do us good in this cold weather.”

 It was a warm ending to an exciting day. And we can easily imagine that the third generation of Lehners are delighted when they say: “Grandpa, tell us a story...”