In his five-decade career it would be fair to say that the engineer and industrialist Ferdinand Piëch, who has died aged 82, was far more interested in getting results than making friends. A technically brilliant but socially awkward man, Piëch was admired for his bullish achievements at Porsche, Audi and VW, but not widely loved, certainly not by the 40 or so executives he is thought to have sacked during his career when they failed to match his exacting standards.
Nobody was permitted to make the same mistake twice. He ousted board members without blinking and eliminated whole layers of executives if he thought they were not performing. An engineer by training, Piëch could not be blinded by science or excuses from his underlings. Obsessed with build quality, he once promised to sack a whole room full of engineers if they did not get the tight panel gaps he wanted on the latest Golf.
His rule at VW engendered a climate of fear famously compared in the German press to North Korea, yet the results he achieved were there for all to see: as chief executive of the VW Group from 1993 to 2002, Piëch grew it from a middling European car maker to a global mobility group building 10m cars per year and accruing $11bn dollars in profits.
His contemporary Bob Lutz called him a “brilliant despot”. Piëch would not have been upset by that description and was well aware of his reputation. “Only when a company is in severe difficulties does it let in someone like me,” he said in his autobiography. Shop floor workers may not take such a negative view of a boss who saved jobs by cutting the working week from five to four days and made VW Europe’s largest car maker for the last 20 years and largest in the world, by sales, between 2016 and 2019.
Piëch was born in Vienna, into one of the great automotive dynasties, and grew up on a family estate near the city. He was the son of Louise (nee Porsche), the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, designer of Hitler’s Volkswagen, and Anton Piëch. Anton, originally a lawyer, was manager of the new Wolfsburg factory in northern Germany where the “people’s car” was built: one of Ferdinand’s earliest memories was of riding on a train supplying Wolfsburg with raw materials and knowing instantly that he wanted to be an engineer working with cars.
As a young child he could not have known the factory was mostly run on slave labour and, 50 years later, was sensitive to criticism of his family’s complicity in Hitler’s war machine, although both his parents were card-carrying Nazi party members.
Ferdinand was 15 when his father died. His mother responded by packing the boy off to school in Switzerland. For his engineering degree at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Piëch wrote a paper on the development of the Formula 1 engine and in 1963 went to work for his uncle Ferry at the Porsche factory in Stuttgart in its engine-testing department. The now famous 911 was about to be introduced and it was Piëch who developed its air-cooled flat six engine to maturity.
By 1968 he was head of development and oversaw the creation of the 917 sports racing car, famously investing two thirds of the company budget in 25 of the 600bhp machines. These cars won virtually every event they entered and in many ways relaunched Porsche as a make that could go head to head with the most exotic Italian marques rather than being thought of as a niche oddity developed from the Beetle.
His 1972 move to Audi was a result of internecine boardroom squabbles at Porsche that resulted in the company being launched on the German stock market with the proviso that no members of the battling Porsche family could hold management posts.
Piëch saw his departure from Stuttgart as a way of proving his talents outside the Porsche family. At Audi he became chief executive and went on to transform a range of worthy middle-class vehicles into a premium marque the equal of BMW and Mercedes Benz, mostly through technical innovations such as the Quattro four-wheel drive system, five-cylinder engines and fuel saving aerodynamic styling. He was closely involved at a technical level in all these developments.
VW is said to have been three months from filing for bankruptcy when Piëch joined it in 1993 with US annual sales down to just 62,000 cars; this in a territory where the firm had once been the leading import. His answer was to slash costs and then expand the range, the masterstroke being the implementation of a platform sharing modular strategy that reduced the number of common VW floor pans from 19 to four.
His reinvented 1998 Beetle, based on the Golf, was a huge sales success and the following year Piëch was voted “car executive of the century” as he forged ahead, expanding the VW group into a 12-brand empire that embraced everything from Seat and Škoda to Bentley and Lamborghini – and a rebooted version of the Bugatti, the Veyron.
Designed to his specific brief, this 1,000 horsepower super car will perhaps be seen as the pinnacle of his achievements by enthusiasts: Piëch owned, and regularly used, two of them in a huge personal collection of cars. However, it was his preoccupation with ousting Toyota from the top of the world sales spot – with cars powered by “clean” turbo diesel technology – that had wider implications.
The cars were fast, thrifty and bought in their millions but not quite as clean as they seemed. The “dieselgate” scandal unfolded with the revelation that VW engineers had been skewing emissions results with engine-management software on 11m cars in a scam deliberately designed to trick the American emissions tests. This could have sowed the seeds of Piëch’s downfall, or at least left a stain on his legacy.
Yet, as in all the other scandals VW faced during his tenure, Piëch managed to sidestep any implication of personal involvement. Be it accusations of industrial espionage by General Motors or the 2005 story that VW was paying for “lust tours” to sex clubs for its executives, none of the dirt stuck to Piëch.
At the last count dieselgate had cost VW $30bn yet Piëch’s departure from the board only months before the scandal broke has led some to speculate that he engineered his own demise by publicly distancing himself from his protege the chief executive Martin Winterkorn while he was chair of the VW supervisory board, thus prompting them to vote him out in 2015. Even if Piëch really did not know anything about the emissions fraud, it is widely believed that the high-pressure, failure-is-not-an-option environment he cultivated at VW laid the groundwork for the deception.
Perhaps more than any other single individual, Piëch maintained Europe’s automotive technical leadership. He was not infallible, however, as the failure of his 2002 VW Phaeton, a curious overstatement of technical supremacy, seemed to prove. It was a swansong luxury saloon – almost a limousine – far removed from VW’s everyman image, created at the behest of Piëch to mark his departure as chief executive at the legally required aged of 65. Utterly competent, the car had a complete lack of charm, despite its technical superiority, and buyers were not persuaded: in the trade it was renamed the VW Fatal.
Piëch is survived by his second wife, Ursula (nee Plasser), whom he married in 1984, and their three children; by five children from his first marriage, to Corina von Planta, which ended in divorce; by two children from a relationship with Marlene Porsche (formerly married to his cousin); and by two children from another relationship.
• Ferdinand Karl Piëch, engineer and businessman, born 17 April 1937; died 25 August 2019