Ferdinand Piech, Volkswagen AG’s former chairman and chief executive, died on Sunday night. He was 82.
Piech passed away in Rosenheim in the southern German state of Bavaria after collapsing in a restaurant in front of his wife Ursula Piech and being taken by ambulance to hospital, according to media reports.
The cause of death was not immediately clear.
Neither a representative for the family nor a Volkswagen representative could not be reached for comment.
Read more: Former VW patriarch Piëch in talks to sell his shares
Piech was the patriarch of the billionaire family behind the Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony-based Volkswagen AG. In his time as CEO from 1993 to 2002, Piech transformed the German carmaker from a regional manufacturer into a global automotive conglomerate. Piech was credited with setting the company up to become Europe’s largest carmaker.
Following his stint as CEO, Piech became chair of VW’s supervisory board, a role he occupied until 2015 when he resigned following a bitter power struggle with then-CEO Martin Winterkorn.
Six months later, Winterkorn would resign over the emissions scandal that shook the carmaker.
At the height of the emissions scandal, Piech angered some of his relatives when he claimed that he had informed key Volkswagen directors of the affair in February 2015.
Ferdinand Porsche’s family tree probably sucks petrol, not water, out of the soil for sustenance. The empire that Porsche’s grandson Piëch helped forge was based around two classic designs. The Beetle (Käfer) was Porsche’s own. Another grandson, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche – Piëch’s cousin – penned the best-selling 911, the Beetle’s big, boisterous brother. It’s a family business after all.
In recent months, before his 80th birthday on April 17, Piëch sold the majority of his remaining stock and took a back seat. Despite having stepped back from the board, Piëch retained a 14.7 percent stake in Porsche SE – worth around 1.1 billion euros on the markets. But don’t think for a moment that the sale dilutes the family influence – Piëch’s younger brother Hans Michel was the buyer.
Shareholder Piëch’s real ejection dates back to 2015. Piëch suddenly tired of VW CEO Martin Winterkorn and sought to oust him. To the surprise of observers who had seen Piëch hire and fire a number of top execs down the years, Winterkorn emerged from the standoff, retaining his post as Piëch quit the boardroom. He got out just in time to dodge “Dieselgate,” as it transpired.
At sports car specialists Porsche, Piëch took keen interest in the racetrack, launching one of the most dominant, memorable Le Mans racers of the 20th century. The Porsche 917, the fastest car ever made in Germany at its 1969 launch, won Le Mans in 1970 and 1971. Its successors – the 936, 956 and 962 – all came back for more, but this was after Piëch and cousin Wolfgang Porsche fell out…
Audi was a drab fleck on the German automotive landscape when VW bought it out in 1969, lacking Porsche’s power, Mercedes’ class and BMW’s chic designs. Perhaps that’s also why Piëch was sent to cut his engineering teeth as head of development in the 1970s. He presided over several key developments, turbocharging a diesel engine for a family car; Audi won awards for its 80 and 100 models.
Piëch didn’t invent four-wheel drive – that has an 1893 patent. But almost a century later, he brought it into the mainstream. The Audi quattro dominated the field, often with Finn Hannu Mikkola. Propelled by its reputation at rallies, Audi sold over 10,000 road-legal models and many more posters for kids’ walls. And the in-line five-cylinder engine? Unlike “quattro,” that was an Audi world first.
Piëch got precious little support from Lower Saxony’s government during his downfall, but his ties to the 20-percent-owners of VW ran deep. And plenty of influential politicians have made their way out of Hanover’s parliament. Not least future German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – by the time he gave Piëch the state’s medal in 1997, it was clear they’d be seeing more of each other further afield.
Here, Piëch and Schröder are reunited in the Czech Republic, at the 2001 factory opening of a new Skoda plant. At the end of the Cold War Skoda was the butt of scores of automotive jokes. (How do you double a Skoda’s value? Fill the tank.) Now it’s a VW subsidiary based on VW counterparts, embracing modern automotive “synergies.” Some say it’s even becoming a VW competitor.
This three-way handshake turned one of Piëch’s more bitter defeats back around. Having lost British luxury brand Rolls Royce to domestic rivals BMW, Piëch and BMW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder – together with Ralph Robins of Rolls – struck an accord allowing sister company Bentley to continue to use Rolls Royce powerplants. Thus Bentley became viable for VW, and Pischetsrieder, well, he became…
…Pischetsrieder became Piëch’s successor as the CEO of Volkswagen – but not for quite as long as everybody expected. A year after the three-way handshake, the ex-BMW boss was with VW subsidiary Seat. By 2002, he was at VW’s head. But in 2006, Piëch became dissatisfied – and before very long, the rising star had to go. A decade later, the same trick dramatically backfired with Martin Winterkorn.
Another ambitious purchase under Piëch’s stewardship was long-dead brand Bugatti. Resurrected with 16-cylinders, a top speed of 407km/h (253mph), and a $2-million pricetag, there were no half measures in this Lazarus Project. For years, the Veyron was the world’s fastest road car – a symbol of Piëch’s bold style. He left the VW Group as a 12-brand behemoth spitting out 10 million vehicles a year.
Wolfsburg even managed the improbable during Piech’s tenure, winning the Bundesliga league title so often earmarked for Bayern Munich in 2009. Goals from Brazilian striker Grafite, playing club ambassador in this image, propelled Felix Magath’s side to the championship. Some Bundesliga purists might have sighed, however, as VW’s factory team is often critically dubbed a “plastic club.”
Audi returned to Le Mans later in Piech’s tenure. He might have been in Wolfsburg, not Ingolstadt, but the Le Mans chariot carried hallmarks of the boss’ engineering days. Turbo diesel? Check. Quattro? Oh yes, that’s basically a must nowadays for endurance racers. Audi’s relaunch was even hybrid powered and claimed 13 Le Mans wins over 15 years starting in 2000.
At least part of the reasoning behind Audi’s 2016 withdrawal was surely Porsche’s return to the fastest class of endurance racing, LMP1. The automotive cousins were therefore competing directly on the track – making each other’s lives harder. Porsche has taken over Audi’s mantle since coming back, winning the 2015 and 2016 round-the-clock race at Le Mans.
mmc/aw (dpa, AFP)