A towering figure in the global automotive business has passed. Ferdinand Karl Piëch died on Sunday, in Bavaria.
Although his name might not be top of mind to many, his influence of the global automotive industry and cars we drive, was immense. A decedent of the legendary Porsche family, Piëch was a reclusive mechanical engineering prodigy and detail obsessed.
His formative years were spent at Porsche, perfecting the brand’s legendary racing cars which dominated Le Mans in the 1960s. Disagreements within the Porsche family forced Piëch to vacate his position at Stuttgart company. He moved to Audi in 1972 and revolutionised it from a peripheral brand to a German automotive company of world renown.
Amongst Piëch’s visionary technical innovations was recognising that all-wheel drive would become a crucial passenger car drivetrain configuration. Piëch also mastered balancing the five-cylinder engine configuration – which became an Audi marketing anchor in the 1980s. Inarguably ambitious, Piëch eventually came to control the VW group and expanded its influence globally.
When he was appointed VW chairman in the early 1990s, at a time when the German car company was near bankruptcy. His forceful personality and technical acumen completely recognised VW and saw its fortunes reverse dramatically into the new millennium.
Although he officially retired in 2002, his influence remained enormous. Piëch championed efficient methods of production and scalable components, but he remained a dedicated car enthusiast above all else.
The Bugatti Veyron is perhaps his signature project, with Piëch desiring to prove what could be done within the automotive realm. It was very reminiscent of his work on the Porsche 917 racer of the 1960s – establishing new boundaries for performance.
Despite being dyslexic and having virtually no spoken command of English, Piëch was a powerful acquirer of struggling brands for VW – turning them all into sources of profit.
Under his direction VW bought Bentley, Lamborghini and revived Bugatti – creating a tremendous automotive empire. Beyond his huge contribution to the technical excellence of many German cars in the current market, Piëch was also incredibly wealthy. Money might never have been his primary motivation, but his personal worth was estimated in excess of R1bn, thanks to a 10% shareholding in Porsche.
Piëch’s impressive career was clouded towards the end, as he finally retired from all involvement with VW after the 2015 American emissions scandal. He could be cruelly political too, often conspiring against his senior staff – yet he was obsessively concerned about the welfare of lower ranking workers.
Whatever his ultimate legacy comes to be, there is absolutely no doubt that Piëch’s management insight and sheer engineering genius, will likely never be equalled.