In an industry where there is no dearth of alpha males, no one could inspire fear and awe in equal measure quite like Ferdinand Piech, the patriarch of the Volkswagen Group.
Through a combination of engineering genius and sheer force of will, he shaped the destiny of Europe’s largest automaker to a greater extent than even his role model and grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche.
Piech saved Volkswagen in the early 1990s with a platform strategy that revolutionized industry practices. He was the driving force behind the acquisition of ultra-premium brands Bentley and Lamborghini, truck makers Scania and MAN as well as Ducati, the Italian motorcycle manufacturer he had coveted for years.
He brought us cars that pushed the envelope of the technologically possible. The original Audi Quattro with its revolutionary permanent all-wheel drive that propelled it up a Finnish ski jump, the 1,000 metric horsepower Bugatti Veyron and everyone’s favorite Le Mans-crushing icon, the Porsche 917.
In his quest for technological superiority, he was willing to risk it all. The 917 nearly bankrupted Porsche, eventually leading to his departure. The expensive multilink rear suspension standard on Piech’s Golf V hobbled the brand for years. And the VW Phaeton upper premium sedan that was his baby ranks as the biggest commercial flop in the brand’s history.
His demanding nature, however, meant that anyone who failed to meet his expectations or crossed him would invariably fall victim to his wrath. The list of Piech casualties is long and illustrious, and all he often needed to do was utter a thinly veiled criticism in that characteristically taciturn speech of his, and it was only a matter of time before they were gone.
Piech’s management style also fostered a corporate culture that brought VW not one but two earth-shattering scandals. First came systemic corruption among senior labor union officials enabled by off-book corporate money, and then the diesel-emissions cheating scandal that to date has cost it roughly 30 billion euros ($33 billion).
Nonetheless, when the history books are written, Piech will rightfully take his place beside the industry giants. He may not have invented the modern car like Carl Benz, but he certainly helped reinvent it.