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Car man: Ferdinand Piech (left) was first and foremost a car guy who influenced some of best vehicles ever built.

Volkswagen and Porsche mourn European auto industry giant Ferdinand Piech

28 Aug 2019

ONE of the most influential motor company engineers and executives of the 20th century, Ferdinand Piech, has died suddenly in Germany. He was 82.


Austrian-born Mr Piech, who resigned as Volkswagen Group supervisory board chairman in 2015 after a showdown with now-disgraced chief executive Martin Winterkorn, collapsed while having dinner with his wife in Bavaria and could not be revived.


The grandson of Volkwagen Beetle inventor Ferdinand Porsche and 10 per cent stockholder of Porsche, Mr Piech overcame dyslexia to reshape Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen Group in a career spanning more than five decades.


The legendary boxer six-cylinder Porsche 911, Audi quattro and Bugatti Veyron were just some of the products he directly influenced.


Mr Piech also established Porsche as a motorsport leviathan by leading the team that developed the 917 racecar that smashed its rivals at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hour race.


But one of his greatest achievements was, as chief executive officer of the Volkswagen Group, saving the company from bankruptcy and rebuilding it with a ladder-type structure that integrated affordable brands such as SEAT and Skoda at the cheap end of the scale, below VW, Audi and Porsche, and adding new high-end brands such as Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti at the top.


The move is credited with turning VW Group into one of the biggest and most successful motor companies of the 21st century.


VW AG supervisory board chairman Hans-Dieter Potsch said Mr Piech had written automotive history as a passionate manager, ingenious engineer and a visionary entrepreneur.


“Since the 1960s, he has significantly shaped the development of the automobile, pushing forward the entire industry and above all Volkswagen, transforming the company into a global mobility group,” he said.


Mr Piech studied mechanical engineering before joining the engine testing department of Porsche in Stuttgart in 1963 when the company was run by his uncle, Ferry Porsche.


As head of the department later in the 1960s, the six-cylinder boxer engine was brought to series production under his watch, enabling the Porsche 911 – regarded by many as the preeminent sports coupe of the motoring age.


When Porsche was listed as a public company in 1972 and it was decided that no member of the Porsche family could serve in Porsche management, he joined Audi where he was responsible for the introduction of the quattro all-wheel-drive system – still one of the brand’s defining technologies – and TDI diesel engines.


However, he came back to serve as a member of the Porsche supervisory board from 1982 until he retired in 2015.


In 1993, Mr Piech rode to the rescue of the VW Group when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, joining as chairman of the board of management to oversee a dramatic turnaround.


His decision to introduce a new Beetle helped to reverse the brand’s fortunes in North America, while his aggressive pursuit of other brands to add to the VW stable mostly paid dividends.


One of his failures was the purchase of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. He discovered only after the event that the purchase did not include the rights to the Roll-Royce brand, meaning VW Group was left only with Bentley.


After his run-in with Mr Winterkorn over management issues at VW Group, Mr Piech left the board in disgust, only to watch from the sidelines as VW became enveloped in the dieselgate affair.


Porsche AG executive board chairman Oliver Blume said Mr Piech’s love of cars and his constant desire to drive technological progress will never be forgotten.


“Piech was an automotive man through and through,” he said. “We thank him for his passion and the courage with which he led Porsche to outstanding engineering achievements. Through strategic decisions, he laid the foundations for successful development of our company.” 


In 1999, 132 motoring journalists and industry experts from 33 countries named him Car Manager of the Century.

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