Actively tuning for over three decades

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Actively tuning for over three decades

By Rory Daley
Observer writer

Friday, March 13, 2020

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They say you can find a Jamaican anywhere. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the top BMW performance parts producers is Jamaican-owned and operated Active Autowerke, based in South Florida.

“My two brothers — Karl and Michael — started the business. My father Fredrick is also an integral part of Active Autowerke because he's the one that invested in the business,” Robert Hugh, sales director, Active Autowerke, told the Jamaica Observer's weekly Auto magazine.

Originally from Kingston, the family moved to the United States during the political turmoil of the 1970s.

“We grew up in Kingston and came to the US with the mass exodus in 1977. We attended high school, university, and just eventually stayed. Never went back,” Hugh explained.

Fredrick Hugh had bought the property on which Active Autowerke has stood for 39 years, and counting, as an investment. At the time it contained only a body shop that remains to this day.

“My two older brothers had just graduated from the University of Miami. My second brother, Karl, was very mechanically inclined and actually studied for his degree in mechanical engineering specialising in combustion engines. So he always tinkered around cars and his first car was a BMW 2002,” Hugh said.

That spark was enough to set things in motion. As Karl Hugh's BMW expertise grew, he found himself with an informal clientèle built from friends and word-of-mouth. His father then realised what was happening and offered up the property as a location for a proper business. In 1981, Active Autowerke was born.

“My father recognised that the mechanical side of the business was more feasible financially.”

They phased out the body shop, expanded the facilities to their current size, and focused on being a BMW-only service centre. This eventually made them the largest independent BMW service facility in Florida for a time. Fortunately the tale didn't stop there as Karl's need for speed progressed to him turbo charging his own car, creating a knowledge base that would come into play when the E36 BMW M3 was introduced to the American market. Up until then, Active Autowerke had been playing in the performance upgrade market with six-cylinder engine swaps into the four-cylinder 3 series.

“The big step was when the M3 came out in 1995. The E36 3 series had been out from 1992. We developed a turbo-kit for both and then it exploded in the high-performance market,” Robert Hugh said.

This kit moved Active Autowerke into the rarefied air of companies like Dinan, Hartge, AC Schnitzer, and BMW's own M Division, performance parts producers, rather than just being a standard garage bolting on equipment from other companies. Magazines praised the kits for their high quality, bolt-on engineering and affordability. Success continued as the company made the controversial decision to move to supercharging unlike many of its peers.

“We grew from there and then eventually we switched over to supercharging for the mere fact that it was more economically feasible to do. You buy one supercharger and develop the brackets that allow you to pretty much put it in most cars,” he said.

There was, too, another significant reason — reliability.

“With the supercharger you could control the boost and power levels. Guys who had the turbos would just turn up the boost on their own, blow their engines, giving us too many problems in that aspect,” he said.

The unconventional method of forced induction worked, catapulting Active Autowerke to even more worldwide fame for their supercharger kits. They then branched out even further, creating hard performance parts like air intakes and their much awarded exhaust systems. Using the company's expertise and resources they test and build their own systems, not buying and rebranding generic exhausts from external sources.

As most modern BMWs are turbocharged from factory, the need for a supercharger would appear useless, but as life would have it, things simply fell right back into the company's wheelhouse, returning to the forefront Karl's original expertise in turbo charging and combining it with their exhaust system knowledge.

“Now we're doing a lot of exhausts, downpipes which go with the turbo charging because pretty much every BMW has a turbo now. This fell into our niche because we're very familiar with turbo charging, which is actually what we started on,” he said.

So significant is their knowledge in the area of turbo charging and BMWs that the Active Autowerke exhaust system for the F8X model M3/4 not only increases horsepower but features specific tuning to produce a more pleasing sound. Exhaust flow is one key to increasing the power output on a turbocharged car, but modern BMWs have become more sophisticated, pushing Active Autowerke into the digital realm.

Over the years, not only has BMW's North American models increased, but so has the complexity of their vehicles, many having multiple electronic control units (ECUs) to run everything from the engine to indicator lights.

“Karl started to develop his own software, and from that we can expand on a lot of modifications because today's car cannot run with software. You can have all the hardware you want,” Robert Hugh said.

He explained that the future of the company is to continue supporting BMW vehicles with world-class high-performance products and, by extension, MINI and the new A90 generation Toyota Supra, which shares its drivetrain with the BMW Z4. They've also recently dipped their toes in tuning another famous German sports car brand — Porsche.


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