Ferdinand Piëch, whose two-decade career at the top of Volkswagen was marked by rapid international expansion but also by scandal, has died aged 82.
Mr Piëch’s wife, Ursula Piëch, said in a statement he died “suddenly and unexpectedly” on Sunday but did not give a cause. German news media reported Mr Piëch collapsed in a restaurant in Rosenheim, a city in Bavaria.
Along with his grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, Mr Piëch ranked among the most influential car executives of the last century. Under his leadership Volkswagen became the largest car company in Europe by a wide margin and rivalled Toyota for the title of largest automaker in the world.
Mr Piëch was also a notoriously demanding boss who ran Volkswagen like a personal fief. His record of firing or demoting executives who failed to meet his goals, and his apparent tolerance for questionable behaviour, led to criticism he created the authoritarian company culture that bred a costly emissions-cheating scandal.
Mr Piëch was born in Vienna on 17 April, 1937. Both his parents were Nazis. His father, Anton, was a lawyer; his mother, Louise, was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, the self-taught engineer whom Adolf Hitler had hired to design a “people’s car”. It was the same vehicle that, after World War II, became known as the Beetle.
During the Second World War, Anton Piëch managed the vast Volkswagen factory in the newly built city now known as Wolfsburg. Mr Piëch later recalled one of his earliest memories was of riding a train that delivered fuel and raw materials to the production lines at the factory, which during the war was used to repair bombers and to make anti-tank weapons, mines and other munitions.
Fascinated, young Ferdinand told his parents he wanted to work at the factory someday. Not in an office like his father, he wrote in his autobiography, “but for real, down there, where the workers repaired the airplanes and rode the trains, for real, with my hands”.
Still not old enough to go to school, Ferdinand was apparently oblivious to the slave labourers, including inmates from Auschwitz, who made up most of Volkswagen’s wartime workforce.
After the war Mr Piëch (pronounced pyecch) earned an engineering degree at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, a famed technology university in Zurich. He went to work at the fledgling sports car company that his uncle, who also was named Ferdinand Porsche but known as Ferry, had created after the war.
At Porsche, Mr Piëch oversaw the racing programme. He earned a reputation for pushing technical boundaries, sometimes with fatal consequences for drivers.
Mr Piëch left Porsche after he and other family members quarrelled so intensely that Ferry Porsche banned them from the company. In 1972 he got a job at Audi, a Volkswagen subsidiary then known for stodgy middle-class sedans. It was the first time anyone from the Porsche and Piëch clan had played an official role in Volkswagen management since the end of the war.
While at Audi, Mr Piëch also acquired a reputation as a ruthless corporate infighter and dictatorial manager with no patience for underlings he regarded as incompetent. But his success there outweighed any reservations that Volkswagen’s supervisory board might have had when, in 1992, they named him to lead the parent company out of an existential crisis.
“Only when a company is in severe difficulty does it let in someone like me,” Mr Piëch wrote in his autobiography, with startling frankness. “In normal, calm times, I never would have gotten a chance.”
When Mr Piëch took over Volkswagen, the heyday of the Beetle was long over and the company struggled to develop new products with as much appeal. Car parks around the factory overflowed with unsold vehicles. In America, where Volkswagen had once been the best-selling import, the company was reduced to a niche brand. There was talk of bankruptcy.
Within months Mr Piëch replaced almost the entire Volkswagen management board, cut costs by persuading labour leaders to accept a shortened work week and set about renewing the product line-up.
He was obsessive about quality, insisting that his engineers narrow the so-called body gaps, the spaces between the car doors and car bodies. He once boasted that he fired any assembly-line managers whose body gaps were too wide.
One of Mr Piëch’s most significant innovations, which would later have fateful consequences, was to combine engine computers and fuel injection to make diesel technology practical for passenger cars. Volkswagen diesels offered superior fuel efficiency but were quieter than other diesels of the period. They also did not smell as bad.
But Mr Piëch’s commercial success was shadowed by scandal.
During his tenure, Volkswagen was accused of stealing corporate information from General Motors and of supplying prostitutes to Volkswagen labour representatives to secure their cooperation. Mr Piëch was never charged with a crime, though people who reported to him were.
Mr Piëch retired as chief executive in 2002, but retained substantial influence as chairman of the supervisory board, including the power to hire and fire top managers. In 2007 he named Martin Winterkorn, a long-time protégé with an equally demanding and authoritarian management style, chief executive.
With Mr Piëch’s encouragement, Mr Winterkorn announced that Volkswagen would aim to surpass Toyota as the largest carmaker in the world. As part of that ambitious plan, Volkswagen would try to restore past glory in the US by selling Americans on the supposed virtues of “clean diesel”. The stage was set for the scandal that would later cost Volkswagen tens of billions of dollars.
Mr Piëch’s domination of Volkswagen was so complete that he was able to install his second wife, Ursula, better known as Uschi, on the supervisory board. A former governess who had cared for the Piëch children, she had never worked in the auto industry.
But Mr Piech’s sway over Volkswagen came to an end in April 2015 after he became disenchanted with Mr Winterkorn’s performance and criticised him in public, igniting a power struggle. Other members of the Porsche family, with whom Mr Piëch had long bickered, backed Mr Winterkorn. Mr Piëch resigned as supervisory board chairman. Ursula Piëch resigned her seat on the board.
Mr Piëch’s departure may have been, for him, a blessing in disguise. He was no longer in the line of fire in September 2015, when Volkswagen admitted that its so-called clean diesels were fitted with illegal software that hid impermissibly high emissions from regulators.
By 2019 the scandal had cost Volkswagen more than $30bn (£24.5bn) in fines and civil settlements, and largely killed sales of diesel passenger cars in Europe.
There has never been any evidence that Mr Piëch was aware of the illegal software. But he is often blamed for creating the company culture that drove employees to cheat rather than risk their jobs by admitting they could not achieve a technological target.
Little was heard publicly from Mr Piëch after his departure. He sold his shares in the family holding company, which were valued at more than $1bn (£810m), in 2017.
In her statement on Monday, Mr Piëch’s wife said that in addition to her, he is survived by 13 children and more than twice that many grandchildren. In his autobiography, Mr Piëch wrote that the mothers of the children included his first wife, Corina; Marlene Porsche, with whom he had a relationship while she was still married to a cousin of his; a woman he declined to identify; and Ursula.
Mr Piëch’s name lives on in the auto industry. At the Geneva Motor Show in 2019 a son, Anton Piëch, displayed a prototype of a high-performance electric car. Its name: the Piëch.
New York Times