Winterkorn first announced his grand plan to topple Toyota a few months after becoming VW CEO in 2007.
At the time his goal met with a lot of skepticism within the industry. And Winterkorn was vague about exactly how VW would overtake Toyota. Was it by measuring vehicle sales, productivity, profitability, quality or all of these?
On Feb. 3., Winterkorn was quite clear, telling attendees at a Volkswagen investors day in London's Royal Opera House of a "target of becoming the world's largest and most profitable automaker by 2018."
VW is still behind its archrival Toyota, which will be hit by the repercussions of the accelerator pedal recall this year. But Toyota will bounce back when car buyers have forgotten about the issue.
Toyota is forecasting global group sales of 7.18 million vehicles for this financial year, based on an expected hit of 100,000 unit sales from the recall. VW sold 6.3 million vehicles last year. In the mid-term, the German company aims to sell 8 million vehicles, rising to more than 10 million in 2018.
Setting an ambitious target years ahead is, as one reader commented online on Automotive News, "like saying the sun is going to supernova in three to five billion years and they need a plan to get to that date as well."
But back in 2007, when Winterkorn first put Toyota in his sights, he faced many daunting challenges. A physicist from a small town near Stuttgart, he had just been promoted from heading Audi to leading a global giant with nine brands, a sprawling corporate structure and history of vicious internal power struggles.
One of his biggest issues was how to motivate 370,000 workers across the globe in countries as diverse as China, Russia, the United States and Germany. Winterkorn had a simple solution: Give them an external enemy and point them in its direction.
Winterkorn will turn 71 in 2018 and likely will be enjoying his retirement. Even if VW is only the world's No. 2 or No. 3 automaker, he should be able to look back on a job well done.