Ferdinand Piëch, who led Volkswagen from 1993 to 2002 and remained as chairman of its supervisory board from 2002 to 2015 before he quit (or was ousted) amid the company’s giant diesel cheating scandal, has died, according to German media and Automotive News. He was 82.
Handelsblatt reports Piëch is said to have collapsed at a Bavarian restaurant and was later taken to a hospital, where he died.
Piëch, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, was one of the most hugely influential figures in international carmaking and, without a doubt, heavily responsible for modern Volkswagen as we know it today. At least, before the diesel cheating forced an ongoing pivot to electric vehicles, as well as his own departure from his family’s company.
An engineer by training, Piëch started his career at Porsche back in 1963, before moving on to Audi, where he eventually became CEO. During his tenure at both companies, he not only helped modernize production and technology but gave the world some of the most famous race cars it has ever seen, including the Porsche 917 and Audi Quattro that dominated at Le Mans and in rally racing, respectively.
He became chairman of Volkswagen in the early 1990s and helped save that company from financial turmoil. From Automotive News’ obit:
Plagued with quality problems and high costs, Volkswagen became profitable, producing better vehicles without large-scale job cuts, while Piech won the allegiance of unions and shareholders alike. He continued to guide strategy after becoming supervisory board chairman in 2002.
When Piëch took over at Volkswagen, he grew impossibly hungry for prestige brands, adding Lamborghini, Bentley, Ducati and Bugatti to the stable. He turned VW upmarket and also, importantly, grew VW’s North American business when most anyone remembered of Volkswagens here were loud old Beetles and wheezy diesel Rabbit pickups.
But as that story notes, his crowning achievement, so to speak, was integrating Porsche fully into the Volkswagen Group in 2012. For decades before that, intermingling between the two familially connected companies was common (and Porsche even tried to acquire the much larger Volkswagen in 2008.)
He was known to be a hardcharger, in a business with a lot of folks who consider themselves hardchargers. Piëch was in a class of his own though, with Bob Lutz even calling him an “autocrat’s autocrat.”
He was accused of having an affair with the wife of his cousin in order to alter the delicate balance of family shares in the company, as Der Speigel once reported. His fierce, direct control over his family’s business was legendary, as was his iron fist.
Here’s what Handelsblatt wrote about him in 2017:
Fitting to his pugnacious attitude, the word “war” appears surprisingly often in Mr. Piëch’s interviews and speeches. Some say he lived his life in a constant state of battle, while others speak more lightly of competition. This certainly applies to the way he exchanged blows with the Americans and with the Japanese. Early on, Mr. Piëch concluded that only five to 10 large automotive groups could consistently remain on the global market. Which is why he eventually decided that VW needed “sharpshooters to lead them.”
Specifically, he saw this as the job of product development and marketing, which must operate like “an air force and an army.” It soon became clear that, with this military logic, Mr. Piëch was not looking to be fourth in Europe, but first in the world. “Piëch was dyslexic and never learned how to express himself in a politically correct way,” said a long-time associate. His messages were essentially war reports and recognition of achievement.
Under Piëch, Volkswagen became a massive conglomerate that made tiny diesel microcars to $2 million hypercars and literally everything in between. We often said Piëch’s vision was one where VW didn’t just make cars, but made all the cars.
Indeed, VW’s gigantic push for diesel to go mainstream in the U.S. probably would not have happened under his leadership and company culture. (He later claimed he brought word of the diesel cheating to the board of directors in 2015, something they disputed.) But it’s no secret that aggressive push got the company into trouble, and problems it still faces today.
Ruthless, brilliant and some would even say megalomaniacal, Piëch’s contributions to the modern automotive industry cannot be ignored. And even if it’s not fondly, he will be remembered.
Additional material from Raphael Orlove