Class of distinction
The Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit last week inducted four new members: from left, former General Motors design chief Ed Welburn, Brembo Chairman Alberto Bombassei, racing mogul Jack Roush and the late trucking pioneer August Fruehauf, represented by his granddaughter, Ruth Fruehauf. Photo credit: JASON LOUDERMILK PHOTOGRAPHY
DETROIT -- Very few auto parts have enough cachet that customers recognize and covet them by name.
Recaro seats, Pirelli tires and Bose speakers come to mind -- but Brembo brakes might have the most star power of all. Anytime a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini pulls into view, the brightly painted Brembo calipers shine from the wheels like a billboard.
The Italian brake manufacturer has maintained an aura of exclusivity even as it expanded into more-affordable cars. Now, Brembo S.p.A. Chairman Alberto Bombassei is positioning his company for the future with cutting-edge technologies such as carbon ceramic rotors and brake-by-wire.
Bombassei, 76, is still on the cutting edge. Photo credit: JASON LOUDERMILK PHOTOGRAPHY
"Sixty percent of the technologies we introduce in racing moves to cars," Bombassei told Automotive News this week during a visit to Brembo's U.S. offices in suburban Detroit. "We like racing because it is extreme — everything is tested to the limit."
Bombassei's involvement with Brembo stretches back to 1961, when his father, Emilio, launched a machine shop. Alberto, who was 20, worked for his father as they manufactured metal components for customers such as Alfa Romeo and Pirelli.
In 1964, Brembo introduced its own line of brake rotors, and in 1975 it started producing aluminum calipers for Ferrari's Formula One cars.
Brembo was well established in racing when Alberto had his "eureka" moment in 1987. That's when he began painting Brembo calipers in bright colors — red, yellow, orange, blue — any shade its customers desired.
Welburn cited the designers who entered the Hall of Fame before him: "They are my heroes and have been my whole life." Photo credit: JASON LOUDERMILK PHOTOGRAPHY
Among automotive cognoscenti, colorful Brembo brakes became an indicator of status. A Porsche with red calipers was a very nice car, but yellow calipers signified carbon ceramic brakes -- the very best.
That gave Porsche owners something to yearn for, Bombassei said with a chuckle.
At 76, Bombassei is in no particular hurry to retire, although he branched out into politics when he won a seat in Italy's parliament. But he remains actively engaged with Brembo as the company plots its global expansion.
The company has built new foundries in Poland, Mexico, China and Michigan, and it supplies brakes for affordable performance cars such as the Honda Civic Type R, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, and the Ford Mustang.
Brembo also is eyeing the commercial-truck market, now that North American truckmakers are starting to switch from drum brakes to discs.
What's next after that? "Better ask my customers," Bombassei replied. "I will do what they want."