Musings on the Past

Remembering Ferdinand Piëch – the greatest car tsar

Ferdinand Karl Piëch, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, chief architect of Volkswagen’s rise to global domination, and mastermind behind some of the most impressive feats of automotive engineering in history has passed away in Bavaria last Sunday. He was 82-years old. 

The term “industry titan” is often thrown around for any corporate captain, but Piëch’s golden touch in resurrecting the fortunes of several once-ailing companies, coupled with the numerous over-engineered vanity projects he fostered across multiple brands, is proof that if there is one person that is truly deserving of that title, it is him. 

While many will remember him for the scale of his career achievements or the technical merit of his creations, it would be an injustice to not present the man for the ambitious visionary with a core of unrelenting ruthlessness that he was. 

Traits of Piëch’s ambition and ruthlessness were seen from early on in his working life. Driven by a keen interest in engineering, Piëch left his family’s business and joined his uncle, Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, at Porsche in 1963. There the 26-year-old Austrian quickly rose through the ranks thanks to his engineering brilliance, becoming head of R&D in five years and being promoted to technical director three years thereafter. Despite working for the family firm, Piëch would often clash with Ferry’s son, Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, whom Piëch never saw as someone of the same calibre.

It wasn’t just Butzi that got a taste of Piëch’s mercurial nature, from his time in Porsche he gained a reputation for firing staff that he didn’t like, forced Ferry to choose between firing him or Porsche’s technical head over a disagreement pertaining to a choice of shock absorbers, and didn’t think that his cousins were worthy of their lofty positions in the company. Nevermind being a bull in a china shop, Piëch was the literal cuckoo in the nest. 

While he played a key part in the development of the original 911 and conceptualised the stripped-out 911 R that served as the precursor to the 911 GT3, it was the development of the 917 where his megalomania was first made manifest. 

In early-1968 the Commission Sportive Internationale (an independent competition department of the FIA), wanted to attract manufacturers to the World Sportscar Championship for the 1969 season by allowing a Group 4 series with 5-litre engines and a minimum build run of 50 – later reduced to 25. In July that year, Piëch, who was then Porsche’s head of motorsports went ahead with the 917’s development.

Mind you, before the 917 came around Porsche was a relatively small car maker whose racing cars utilised small 2-litre engines that were lifted from its road cars. Needless to say, producing 470kW 4.5-litre horizontally-opposed 12-cylinder engine wrapped in a lightweight body of titanium and magnesium to match Ford’s dominant GT40 at Le Mans, was an audacious moonshot in both ambition, and cost. 

In the book Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry, Piëch called the 917 “the greatest risk he ever took in his life”. Despite the car becoming a massive success on the track, it was said that the cost of development was so substantial – reputed two-thirds of Porsche’s annual budget – that the family accused him of misconduct with Ferry distancing himself from the project.

Unfortunately, Piëch didn’t stay long enough to revel in the 917’s continued success as he left the company in 1972 after the company decreed that family members could not hold management positions within the company. 

As fortune would have it Piëch would join Audi shortly thereafter, however, not before designing a five-cylinder diesel engine for Mercedes as a freelance engineer. Whether it was through an epiphany gained during the development of that engine or the engine was developed based on a deeply-rooted desire for engineering prestige, the five-cylinder engine would go on to become one of Piëch’s longstanding legacy, as he brought the concept over to Audi. 

Like a replay of his time at Porsche, Piëch had a meteoric rise in Audi’s corporate hierarchy, and in 1975 he became the company’s head of engineering, which meant he had to preside over the fate of the NSU Ro 80 and its troublesome Wankel rotary engine. From the outset, Piëch knew that Felix Wankel’s miracle engine was flawed and not just from those damned apex seals. 

“Inside Audi, I was called the ‘Wankel-killer’, Wankel was a genius in mechanical engineering, but he didn’t learn thermodynamics,” said Piëch. “With the Wankel, you lost too much energy on the combustion chamber wall.” 

For the NSU Ro 80’s replacement, the 1983 Audi 100 Piëch returned to his fascination with the five-cylinder engine and stretched a Volkswagen EA827 to become a 2.2-litre five-cylinder unit. Difficult to engineer, a five-cylinder engine nevertheless allowed for better packaging and delivered the power without being encumbered by the size and weight of a traditional inline-six. 

Besides changing the engine, Piëch wanted to ensure that development of the Audi 100’s slippery aerodynamics wouldn’t be carried over to rivals from any defectors within the development team. To that end, he hid its development from his top staff by conducting wind tunnel testing in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, and Turin, while being “in the middle of it all, putting together the pieces of the puzzle”. A strategy that he will use time and time again.

That being said, neither the five-banger nor the revolutionary Audi 100 was what Piëch was known for at Audi. That honour goes to Audi’s hallmark quattro all-wheel-drive system, which was borne from a suggestion made by Audi’s head road tester, Jörg Bensinger, who was impressed by a Volkswagen Iltis military vehicle’s ability to plough effortlessly through snowy conditions.

Bensinger suggested to Piëch to adapt the Iltis’ all-wheel-drive system for use in a car as a way to improve its performance. Piëch saw the idea as an opportunity to give the Audi the much needed technical USP to move the brand upmarket and mount a challenge to Mercedes-Benz and BMW. To ensure the idea was kept exclusively for Audi, Piëch swiftly assembled a secret crack team of engineers to work on it and away from the prying eyes of Volkswagen’s management and engineers. 

Piëch’s mastery of working in the shadows where it mattered meant that the Quattro took the rallying world by storm in the early-1980s as the car won nearly every major competition, changing rallying forever. It wasn’t just rallying where the quattro system made an impact, Audi also brought the technology to the track with the game-changing Audi 90 quattro IMSA GTO.

At a time when performance was still largely dictated by engine displacement, Piëch idea of adapting off-road truck technology to better utilise the engine’s power was just visionary for its time. What was power without control after all? Piëch of all people knew that by heart.

The success of using all-wheel-drive would not only become emblematic of Audi’s performance division, quattro GmBH but would also point the way forward for its supercar brands in Volkswagen’s portfolio, an eclectic collection of the world’s most desirable brands that Piëch would be instrumental in assembling. 

In 1993, Piëch was tasked with rescuing the ailing Volkswagen Group, and as its chief executive, he promptly enacted a turnaround plan that transformed the company from a basket case into one of the biggest car makers in the world. His secret was to apply the platform sharing lessons he learnt at Audi across the company’s brands, with Audi, Skoda, and Volkswagen being able to achieve up to 65 per cent parts commonality. 

Of course, this path to glory wasn’t without its casualties. Piëch applied his trademark ruthlessness for anybody who wasn’t up to the task of bringing Volkswagen where he wanted it to be. It was said that within the first two weeks of his tenure he had fired most of the company’s vice presidents. He then set about renewing the model line-up, focused his intense demands on build quality – once unabashedly talked about firing line-managers who couldn’t meet his strict standard for panel gaps – and lured over a top procurement team of GM Europe that caused a fair amount of controversy. 

It wasn’t as though Piëch was completely oblivious to the effects of his ruthlessness. In his autobiography, Piëch admitted that he was given the job “only when a company is in severe difficulty”, and in normal times he would have never have gotten a chance. Despite overturning the company, Piëch delivered stunning results. Within nine years, Piëch turned the company’s 1 billion euro loss into a 2.6 billion euro profit and grew the parent company into a 12-brand juggernaut.

With the company’s future secured, Piëch retired from his role as chief executive in 2002 but continued as chairman of the supervisory board. Though away from the limelight, Piëch’s vanity project creations began to emerge, starting with the Phaeton in 2003. 

Nobody knew what the goal of the over-engineered Phaeton – and its fabulously indulgent and expensive wood-panelled Dresden production line – really was. Allegedly it was created as Piëch’s S-Class sized response to Mercedes-Benz treading on the Volkswagen Golf’s hold on the compact car segment with the A-Class. Though it is far more likely that, in Piëch’s own words, “there are not enough good big cars”, even if it was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from the “People Car” brand and would mean treading into the territory of the Group’s own Audi A8.

Not that this was seen as odd to Piëch, who had a seemingly wanton disregard for brand lines within the Volkswagen Group. Piëch believed that he could grow the Group by letting its brands compete even while stepping on each other’s toes, oftentimes with the same shared platform.  As he was quoted as saying, “many rods catch more fish”.

Despite achieving success in China, the Phaeton stratospheric pricing and modest brand image meant few were sold in Europe and the United States. However, Piëch would garner critical praise with the debut of his next vanity project, the Bugatti Veyron.

Much has already been talked about the seminal Veyron’s incredible performance figures and ground-breaking engineering, but as expected, Piëch didn’t make its development easy. After acquiring the rights to the Bugatti brand in 1998, Piëch wasted no time in bringing it back from the dead by commissioning a number of concepts between 1998 and 1999, which were penned by Piëch’s good friend Giogetto Giugario. 

It was said that Piëch liked the final EB16.4 concept so much that he froze the design well before engineers could get to work sorting out how to get it slippery enough to hit his targeted top speed of 400km/h, while delivering adequate cooling to ensure that the targeted 1000hp powerplant won’t meltdown faster than Chernobyl’s. It was one of the many challenges that engineers were forced to swallow, as Piëch was not one who wouldn’t take “it’s too difficult” as an answer, not when he was fostering a corporate culture with a mantra of “you will get it done, and if you can’t, you’ll be replaced by someone who can”

For all the incredible numbers the Veyron had collected, there are no accurate figures to the amount of money Volkswagen burned to develop it, nor the number of development engineers who couldn’t deliver and were abruptly fired from the project. It wasn’t just nameless engineers who fell foul of Piëch’s ambitious goals. Some of the most respected industry executives met an inglorious end to their promising Volkswagen careers with the utterance of careful but pointed words from the Austrian despot. 

Some of these high profile ones were the likes of Herbert Demel, the man behind the Audi A3 and A4, who was effectively put into “cold storage” in Brazil. Franz-Josef Paefgen was said to have been punted off to Bentley and later Bugatti right before his expected nomination to Volkswagen’s board. Former BMW supremo and Piëch’s replacement as Volkswagen’s chairman, Bernd Pischetsrieder, was shown the door months after renewing his five-year contract. Former Bentley boss, Wolfgang Durheimer, barely warmed his seat as Audi’s R&D head before being given the boot – rumours have it that he was unable to deliver on Piëch’s demands for an electric R8 e-tron.

Piëch once wrote that “It’s not so good if a person comes twice telling me they couldn’t do a job. One time it could happen, second time…”. It was clear that so long as Piëch was in charge, no one was safe. It was the spat with his successor and longtime protege, Martin Winterkorn, in 2015 when the Austrian finally made a rare misstep in wanting to shoehorn his choice replacement, which saw him being famously ousted by the board. It was clear that Piëch’s machiavellian ways had worn thin on a now prosperous and stable company. He had effectively overstayed his 1993 welcome. 

His departure from one of the largest car makers in the world he built, and as one of the most feared and respected industry leaders sent shockwaves around the world. Though 78 years of age then, many thought that it wasn’t the last the world would hear of him. Sadly, as the world learned this week, that wasn’t to be the case. 

It is hard to believe that Ferdinand Karl Piëch is no more. The spectre of his reign was so indelible that many found it hard to disregard the rumour that he had a hand to play in the Dieselgate scandal that coincidentally broke five months after his departure. Such was the gravity of his legacy and influence. 

Yet he was an enigma, a man who rarely spoke openly or casually to anyone outside his sphere of influence, instead tightly controlling the strings of his company’s PR apparatus to speak in his stead. But to those within that sphere, he was a man to be revered and to be feared, oftentimes one more than the other, depending on who and when you ask. 

Many on the outside criticise his methods, singling him out during the height of the Dieselgate debacle as the cause of Volkswagen’s structural problems and its veil of secrecy and fear. Piëch was well aware that nobody would take kindly to his methods. He wrote as much in his book that he was a product person first and foremost, that “business and politics never distracted me from the core of our mission – to develop and make attractive cars”, and that it was “not possible to take a company to the top by focusing on the highest level of harmony”. Like the God-appointed King David whose war-like ways built-up a prosperous nation, his role was never a fit into a peaceable one.

Despite all his achievements Piëch was a flawed man. One whose singular uncompromising drive and engineering ambition redefined much of the world he worked in even at the expense of the dreams of lesser men. Truth be told, Piëch couldn’t have achieved what he did if he wasn’t of such character. History itself is often written by people of strife rather than virtue, greats who were the least agreeable of sorts and struck fear and respect into their contemporaries, and nobody embodies this quality quite like Ferdinand Karl Piëch.  

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