Ferdinand Karl Piëch, the gifted however ruthless engineer who constructed Volkswagen right into a 12-brand empire that overtook GM and Toyota by gross sales, has died aged 82.
Mr Piëch, grandson of Beetle designer Ferdinand Porsche, was in 1999 named automobile government of the century for his quite a few exploits, which included main motor racing competitors at Porsche within the 1960s, growing luxurious vehicles at Audi within the 1970s, after which turning the VW Group from a lossmaking carmaker within the 1990s to being the world’s largest in 2016.
His dying, first reported by Bild in Germany, was confirmed by his widow Ursula, who advised the DPA information company that he died “abruptly and unexpectedly”. Volkswagen declined to remark.
Bob Lutz, former vice-president of GM, advised the Monetary Instances that Mr Piëch was “one of many greats within the automotive business,” alongside Sergio Marchionne, the Fiat-Chrysler CEO who died final yr, and Lee Iacocca, the previous head of Chrysler who died in July.
“There’s no query Ferdinand was a superb particular person, a superb engineer, and an ideal chief,” he mentioned. “I didn’t at all times agree along with his dictatorial model of management, however he was actually results-driven and accepted no excuses for failure.”
Richard A Johnston, in his 2005 guide Six Males Who Constructed the Fashionable Auto Business, mentioned that Mr Piëch “greater than any single particular person, promoted and maintained Europe’s technical benefit over the remainder of the automotive world within the second half of the 20th century”.
Ferdinand Piëch (far left) scrutinising the Porsche 917 forward of the 1969 motor racing season © VW Handout
However the tradition of concern Mr Piëch generated was well-known. The German weekly Der Spiegel as soon as described worklife at VW as “North Korea with out the labour camps”.
His well being had been in decline for a while, although he denied it. When rumours emerged in 2013 that Mr Piëch may step down for well being causes, he needed to know who began the rumours and infamously responded on the Frankfurt motor present: “First, I should be positive who it’s. Then I’ll ship him to the guillotine.”
The Austrian was born in Vienna in 1937 to Anton Piëch and Louise Porsche, daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Beetle on the behest of Hitler.
There’s no query Ferdinand was a superb particular person, a superb engineer, and an ideal chief. I didn’t at all times agree along with his dictatorial model of management, however he was actually results-driven and accepted no excuses for failure
Mr Piëch first constructed his popularity at Porsche within the 1960s, when he got down to dominate Le Mans, the 24-hour motor race, as head of the competitors unit. Towards the board’s advice he invested massively in a undertaking to create the Porsche 917, culminating in two massive wins that remodeled the corporate — however within the course of practically bankrupted it.
In 1972, he moved to Audi the place, as head of technical growth, he launched the Quattro and engineered a sequence of improvements that turned a lacklustre model right into a viable competitor with BMW and Mercedes.
After rising to function Audi’s high government, in 1993 he took the chief government job at Volkswagen, the place he’s credited with saving the corporate from sliding out of business after which launching an empire-building part to accumulate luxurious manufacturers Bugatti, Bentley and Lamborghini. He grew to become chairman in 2002, extending his affect additional and taking part in a central function in swallowing Porsche into VW Group.
However not all of his schemes labored — an excessively costly VW Phaeton and the lossmaking Bugatti Veyron are among the many flops. And alongside the way in which, Mr Piëch’s eccentric, ruthless method created enemies and generated controversy.
He had a behavior of dislodging rivals publicly utilizing just some selection phrases, most famously in 2006 when he undermined his successor as chief government, Bernd Pischetsrieder, by telling a reporter that an extension of his contract was “an open subject”. The story broke throughout the Geneva motor present, enabling Mr Piëch to observe as Mr Pischetsrieder struggled to reply questions on his destiny. The chief was dismissed a couple of months later.
Ferdinand Piëch launched the Audi Quattro, seen right here in its Spyder model in 1991 © VW Handout
In his closing years Mr Piëch continued to have a testy relationship with Volkswagen, leading to his isolation and a scarcity of affect on the firm.
In April 2015, half a yr earlier than the diesel scandal was uncovered, sending VW right into a disaster that has to date value it greater than $30bn, Mr Piëch was ousted as chairman in a boardroom wrestle with then-CEO Martin Winterkorn.
It has by no means been totally defined what occurred. The paranoia on the time in Wolfsburg, VW headquarters, was that Mr Piëch had leaked the scandal to convey down his adversary. A day later, Mr Piëch arrived in Wolfsburg triumphantly in a crimson Bentley. In accordance with two individuals, his spouse Ursula had pushed the couple however they switched seats simply earlier than arrival so photographers might seize the second.
Months after the scandal, leaked testimony brought about uproar in Germany when it emerged that Mr Piëch had advised prosecutors that sure VW board members had early information of the dishonest. No proof backed the claims, which have been by no means acknowledged straight. Nonetheless, it had prompted some individuals who have labored with the Machiavellian character to take a position whether or not he intentionally masterminded his personal demise earlier than the scandal went public — in impact taking part in the function of a captain who renounces management of the ship, and letting his first mate go down with the sinking vessel.
In early 2017, Volkswagen threatened authorized motion towards Mr Piëch. Its 20-member supervisory board launched an announcement saying that it “emphatically repudiates” any assertion that administrators knew of the dishonest and added that it might “fastidiously weigh the potential of measures and claims towards Mr Piëch”.
Ferdinand Piëch (centre) celebrating VW’s manufacturing of 100m vehicles at a ceremony in 1999
The Porsche household patriarch ended up promoting his 14.7 per cent stake in Porsche SE, the family-owned mother or father firm that owns a controlling stake in Volkswagen, in April 2017. His final public look was the next month, when he attended Porsche’s annual shareholders assembly, sitting silently after arriving in a sky blue Porsche Panamera pushed by Ursula, who was additionally a former Volkswagen board member.
Requested for a private anecdote, Mr Lutz recalled a second when he as soon as complimented Mr Piëch on “the suits and finishes on the brand new Golf”, notably how small the gaps have been between the doorways and body, whose high quality went “method past the norm for the auto business”.
Mr Piëch’s response, he mentioned, shocked him. The Volkswagen CEO advised him he had cobbled collectively all his physique engineers and manufacturing crew in a single room and mentioned: “In six weeks I would like Three-4mm gaps on all the pieces. If I don’t have it, everybody on this room can be fired.”
Years later, Mr Lutz mentioned he shamed his personal engineers into attaining the same high quality. “I didn’t should threaten anybody with their job, however for him that was routine.”
He reportedly had 12 youngsters from a number of marriages. His widow Ursula advised the DPA: “Ferdinand Piëch’s life was marked by his ardour for the car and for the employees who constructed them. He was an enthusiastic engineer and automobile lover till the tip.”