BERLIN – Former Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech, who has died at 82, was the autocratic heir of a storied motoring dynasty who drove VW from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming a global empire.
He was celebrated as a visionary corporate leader and brilliant engineer who knew every model leaving the production line down to the last bolt.
But the man with the steel-blue eyes was also feared as a ruthless manager and master of intrigue who used his connections to fight his many battles.
During his over half-century career he turned VW into a 13-brand empire and pillar of the German economy with now 660,000 employees.
But in the end he left it in anger shortly before the company faced its worst-ever crisis with the “dieselgate” scandal.
“Piech wasn’t just any car boss,” judged top-selling Bild daily. “With him, a piece of German economic history dies. He was the last auto manager to build his own cars.”
News weekly Der Spiegel dubbed him the “Engineer of Power … a brilliant technician and Machiavellian master.”
Ferdinand Karl Piech was born in Vienna on April 17, 1937.
His father Anton ran the VW plant founded by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler during World War II.
His mother Louise was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, inventor of the iconic Beetle and founder of the luxury brand.
As a child, Ferdinand battled dyslexia and brought home poor grades. He was sent off to a tough boarding school — a “dark time” which hardened his character, as he later recalled.
He studied mechanical engineering and wrote his master’s thesis on Formula One engines, then started at Stuttgart-based Porsche.
There Piech oversaw the design of the iconic Porsche 917, sales of which took off after it won races including the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Two years later, he switched to Audi, turning the VW subsidiary into a premium carmaker that could compete with BMW and Daimler’s Mercedes, and became its chairman in 1988.
Piech then applied his magic to Wolfsburg-based VW, taking over in 1993 when it suffered massive losses. He fired managers, streamlined production and rapidly boosted sales and profits.
He ran it until 2002 when, under company policy, he had to retire at age 65, but remained on its supervisory board until 2015 — having grown VW into a conglomerate that now includes brands Bentley, SEAT, Skoda, Bugatti and Lamborghini.
Perhaps his toughest battle had come in 2009 when the Porsche family tried to take over Volkswagen in a clash of dynasties.
In the end, the opposite happened and, in a triumph for “Mr. Volkswagen,” Porsche became one of the brands in the VW stable.
Piech pushed VW on to become the world leader, selling over 10 million vehicles a year, and battling Toyota for global dominance.
His reign ended when he went to war in 2015 with his long-time confidant, CEO Martin Winterkorn, and lost support of key players on the supervisory board.
He had to admit defeat and left the company in anger — arguably just in time.
Months later the dieselgate scandal broke when U.S. regulators discovered VW had fitted millions of cars with devices allowing them to cheat exhaust emissions tests.
The corporate disaster has so far cost the group more than €30 billion (¥3.5 trillion) and greatly damaged the image of the German automotive sector.
In 2017, Piech sold off most of his stake, worth about €1 billion, to other members of the Porsche-Piech family.
On Sunday evening Piech, who had 12 children from different relationships, collapsed in a restaurant in Rosenheim, Bavaria, in front of his wife Ursula, 63, and died that night in hospital.
Auto industry expert Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer was among many who honored his legacy, saying that “without Piech, the automotive world would look very different today.”