He was among the last of a breed, a lifelong car guy for whom the word “auto” was short for “autocratic” as much as “automotive.” Ferdinand Piech, the grandson of the fabled Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche who ran Volkswagen with an iron fist for close to 20 years, died this week at the age of 82. According to news reports in Germany, Piech collapsed and died while visiting a restaurant.
Piech was literally bred from birth to be a car executive. He was rivaled only by his grandfather when it came to being influential in the global auto industry. While he ran Volkswagen – the company his grandfather had created by designing the first Beetle at the behest of Adolf Hitler – it became the largest builder of cars in Europe, and banged elbows with Toyota for a time for the status of the world’s largest automaker. His father, a German attorney, ran the main Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg during World War II. After the war, Piech earned an engineering degree in Switzerland and went to work for Porsche’s new company, where he ran the racing program during the glory days of the 908, 917 and early 911 competition. In a harbinger of things to come, Piech quarreled bitterly with members of the Porsche family and was sent packing, In 1972, he landed at Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, where he rose to the board of directors in just three years. His efforts were the impetus that got Audi to adopt the quattro all-wheel-drive system in the late 1970s, a technology that still defines its cars to this day. Still in its post-Beetle doldrums and largely starved of fresh products, Volkswagen took Piech aboard in 1992 with carte blanche to transform the company. He started out by replacing almost the entire Volkswagen board and set about revamping its lineup, with an emphasis on diesel power that later went badly awry in the emissions cheating scandal. Besides that contretemps, Volkswagen executives were also accused of stealing corporate secrets from General Motors. Piech had long since acquired a reputation as a tyrant, treating Volkswagen as his personal property, firing employees he deemed disloyal or incompetent at will, and having an often adversarial relationship with the press. He retired from Volkswagen in 2002, before the diesel scandal erupted and cost the company tens of billions of dollars in fines and litigation, but still remained active on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, to which he named his wife. He sold his shares in Volkwagen in 2017. The Audi photo came to me courtesy of my friend Mark McCourt at Hemmings Motor News.