Of all the backdrops befitting a historic event for Germany’s auto industry, the least likely would have to be an insignificant airport in the city of Brunswick, a tiny satellite that orbits the massive VW factory in nearby Wolfsburg.
On Saturday, however, it served as the meeting place where Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech, outnumbered five to one during a meeting of the board’s most important directors, met the ignominious end of his storied career.
The stunning resignation of Piech, hitherto a consummate tactician, from all his posts within VW’s sprawling empire after he failed to oust CEO Martin Winterkorn robs the industry of perhaps its most fascinating figure.
Not only is he a successful manager who served as CEO of both Audi and Volkswagen and shaped the course of the VW Group for more than 20 years, Piech is also a gifted engineer who graduated from the world-renowned ETH Zurich polytechnic institute where Albert Einstein once taught.
Moreover Piech is a scion of the dynasty that founded Volkswagen and the only third-generation member of the Porsche-Piech clan to display the same extraordinary talent as his grandfather, Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche, and uncle Ferry Porsche, who laid the foundations for the iconic sports car brand.
Piech was responsible for the developing the 917 race car that brought home Porsche’s first victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and later developed Audi’s signature permanent all-wheel-drive Quattro system. He also introduced the famed platform strategy in the early 1990s shared by brands across the Volkswagen Group to cut development costs.
He acquired brands such as Bentley and Lamborghini and launched the development of the 1,000-hp, 16-cylinder Bugatti Veyron supercar on the one hand and the slender 1.0-liter ecocar on the other (so-called because it uses one liter of fuel per 100km), which he drove to his last annual shareholder meeting as CEO of Volkswagen.
“It is no exaggeration to say that [Piech] is one of the most significant personalities in postwar German economic history,” said fellow board member and premier of VW’s home state of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil. He said Piech's departure was “regrettable but unavoidable.”
Piech was often ruthless and unwilling to tolerate dissent in his ranks. Among those who fell victim to his Machiavellian intrigues were ex-VW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder and former Porsche boss Wendelin Wiedeking, once one of the most admired managers in Germany.
Were he to be likened to fictional characters he might come closest to a mixture of nuclear power plant owner Charles Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons television show and James Bond’s fearsome archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
One auto analyst believes Piech's advanced age eventually became his Achilles' heel as opponents, including some members of the Porsche clan, began plotting for the post-Piech era, a timeline that was due to begin at the latest when his board term ended in 2017.
“Piech was long the alpha wolf that no one in the pack dared to confront. I don’t think his rivals would have risked facing him a few years ago, but he’s 78 and his health has been fading,” said the analyst, who declined to be named. “It was only a matter of time before Winterkorn became stronger than Piech and might always triumphs in a wolf pack."