Ferdinand Piëch (above right with his grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche) has died at the age of 82. Justly famous for many successes across a glittering automotive career, Piëch was a polarising character. I can’t think of one other person – certainly not in the world of engineering – who provokes such extremes of delight and derision.
The French writer, André Gide (1869-1951) wrote: “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, Gide lived this idea to its absolute maximum and Piëch was also in tune.
Born in Vienna in 1937 to Louise (Porsche) and Anton Piëch, Ferdinand graduated from the ETH Zurich in 1962 with a degree in mechanical engineering. His thesis was on the subject of developing a Formula 1 engine. That same year, Porsche built an F1 engine (designed by Hans Mezger) and put it in the 804, the body of which was designed by Piëch’s cousin, Butzi Porsche. The car won the 1962 French Grand Prix.
After joining Porsche in 1963 – the year Butzi was feted as the designer of the Porsche 911 – Piëch was appointed Head of R&D in 1968 and became Porsche’s Technical Director in 1971. This did not sit well in some quarters. A year later, the infighting at Porsche became so overwhelming that Ferry passed a boardroom resolution stating no family member should be involved with day-to-day Porsche operations. The second generation was exiled.
Though Piëch is best known for post-Porsche achievements at Audi and Volkswagen, his first freelance engineering assignment kept him in Stuttgart. Mercedes-Benz chief, Joachim Zahn, brought Piëch in to work on the 3-litre five-cylinder OM-600 diesel engine that debuted in the 1975 W115 240D. The oil burner earned a reputation as one of the greatest engines ever developed. Stock OM 5-cylinders have covered over 1 million kilometres without major repair and tuned OMs can make more than 1,000 horsepower.
After Mercedes, Piëch took the pivotal decision to join Audi as a special projects engineer in 1972. My best friend at school was the son of a Volkswagen/Audi dealer and I vividly remember early-seventies Audis being notably run-of-the-mill. Piëch would change all that.
Turning his gift for technical innovation up to eleven, Piëch personified what was later trademarked as Audi’s brand motto: “Vorsprung durch Technik” (advancement through technology). He led development of the first-ever five-cylinder petrol engine, before adding a turbocharger and building the perfect platform for it: the all-conquering Audi Quattro.
Few products can match the Quattro’s effect on the meaning of cars: the ones that come close usually had Piëch’s involvement (hello Veyron). Launched in 1977, the Quattro was the equivalent of a punk rock band hijacking a bus full of car engineers. For rally fans like me, the greatest motorsport moments of the late 1970s and early 1980s are photos like this:
Piëch’s hits kept coming, with the first turbodiesel engine. TDI became the power of choice for decades. He repeated the Quattro effect by building the perfect home for the TDI engine: the C3 Audi 100. Keeping the car’s innovative aerodynamics a secret by developing the styling away from Audi HQ, Piëch’s slippery 100 set new benchmarks, including a drag coefficient of just 0.30. Completely out of character for a three-box saloon, everything about the car – from the door handles, to the seats, to the feel of the switches – turned Audi’s brand image on its head. I had a much-loved 100 Avant and the 200 Turbo Avant of that era remains one of the most exciting cars I have driven. The later Audi 80 TDI was also fantastic to drive.
In 1993, Piëch joined Volkswagen. The carmaker had just posted the greatest loss in its history, but Piëch had a plan. He introduced single platforms to underpin models across individual brands that could be restyled or redeveloped to suit individual brand characters. The concept brought incredible economies of scale: two-thirds of the parts in each platform-based model were shared across brands. This revolutionised profit margins. During his nine years as CEO (before a further fifteen years as VW Chairman), Volkswagen went from losses of €1 billion to profits of €2.6 billion and became an automotive empire of twelve brands including Scania, Bentley and, most controversially, Porsche.
“Of course I am proud of my grandfather (Ferdinand Porsche),” said Piëch in his autobiography. “But I never felt it my mission to uphold his greatness, nor could I do anything about media suggestions that I suffered from an inferiority complex.”
An inferiority complex would have been fairly low maintenance compared to what actually happened. Piëch’s engineering prowess was matched by an appetite for political intrigue and dramatic events. “It is not possible to take a company to the top by focusing on the highest level of harmony,” is how he put it.
Father to thirteen children by four different women, including Marlene Porsche (his cousin Gerard’s wife of the time), if Ferdinand wanted something to happen, it got done, regardless of consequences. “First and foremost, I always saw myself as a product person, and relied on gut instinct for market demand. Business and politics never distracted me from the core of our mission: to develop and make attractive cars.”
Porsche and VW Tributes
Even those Piëch battled appreciate his achievements. “A gifted car and engine developer whose attention to detail is limitless,” said former Porsche CEO, Wendelin Weideking. “Nothing left the production line that Piëch had not personally closely inspected. However, Piëch was not consistent: it was always a high risk gamble to guess if you had his support.”
“There is not enough time here to sufficiently pay homage to him,” said Hans Dieter Pötsch, Piech’s successor as VW chairman. “The short version is personally I think Ferdinand Piëch set unforgettable milestones in automotive industry and he played a material role in the existence of the Volkswagen Group in its current state.”
“The life’s work of my brother goes above and beyond the companies he worked for,” said Dr. Hans Michel Piëch, Deputy Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Porsche SE. “He shaped the German car industry more than any other. And he was closely related to the employees of the Volkswagen Group, in both good times and in bad. Our thoughts are with his wife Ursula and his children. We mourn with them as we mourn with the employees of the Volkswagen Group and all car-enthusiasts, whose lives Ferdinand K. Piëch enriched with his passion.”
RIP Ferdinand Piëch
This morning’s papers all carry obituaries for Ferdinand Piëch and the usual perspectives are present: genius engineer, egomaniacal oligarch, destructive drama queen and the rest. I never met the man, so can only go by what I know: his products. From the air-cooled racing spaceship: the Porsche 917, to the five-cylinder Audi engines, Quattro, the Audi 100 and the Volkswagen XL-1, which was inspired by his 1-Litre-Auto, the products of Ferdinand Piëch are an eternal delight. I will continue to enjoy them and the connection they afford to one of the great minds in automotive history.
Ferdinand Piëch’s talent for technical innovation was fuelled directly by his grandfather’s legacy. The ideas that flowed into production as a result brought twentieth century automotive engineering to an entirely new level. The passing of Ferdinand Piëch is literally the end of an era: our collective futures will miss his unique contribution.