Ferdinand Piech was featured in The Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry by Richard Johnson, the now-retired print editor of Automotive News. Here are excerpts from the 2005 book.
Automotive royalty and a world-class eccentric
Ferdinand Piech was not the usual 26-year-old engineering graduate when he began working at his family's sports-car company in April 1963. He was the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and a member of the European auto industry's royal family. The Porsches and the Piechs were automotive nobility of the highest order. Besides the Stuttgart car manufacturer, they also owned Porsche Holdings, one of Europe's largest car distributors.
Piech was also a world-class eccentric. His inscrutability generated fear, which he used to powerful effect throughout his career. When he looked at subordinates their eyes would widen, as if they were antelopes just noticing that they had fallen under the gaze of a lion. But Piech's rough style and idiosyncrasies tended to mask the giant contributions he made to the global auto industry in the second half of the twentieth century.
As a teenager, Piech spent summer vacations helping his uncle Ferry Porsche build the first Porsche 356 sports cars. Ferry's son Ferdinand Alexander "Butzi" Porsche was there, too, but while Butzi was playful and friendly, the family began to notice that Piech, the son of Ferry's sister Louise and her lawyer husband Anton Piech, was astonishingly intense and single-minded. He also seemed blindingly talented. Young Ferdinand absorbed the fine points of a motor so fast that the older engineers at the company's shops in Gmund, Austria, and Stuttgart- Zuffenhausen were in awe. Many of them had worked with Ferdinand Porsche before the war and would shake their heads in wonder as Piech peppered them with questions and challenged everything they said and did.
The youthful Piech's self-confidence was boundless. Yet life was not perfect. As the son of Louise rather than Ferry Porsche, he had the wrong parent if he wanted to inherit real power in the Porsche sports-car company. Louise had agreed to let Ferry run Porsche, but she insisted that her own children be given as much chance as Ferry's sons to take the helm when the time came for him to step down.
Piech's rival would always be Butzi, a happy-go-lucky young man who loved cars as much as his grim cousin, but seemed to have far less of the burning personal ambition and almost no taste for the business politics that went with it. It was 28-year-old Butzi who, in 1961, put pen to paper and wound up with the design for the successor to the Porsche 956, the 901 road car. It would eventually be called the 911 and be forever known as Butzi's handiwork.
Butzi's design became a defining moment in Piech's life. It was the achievement he was obligated to match and exceed.
Piech didn't begin full-time work in Zuffenhausen until after the car was nearly ready for production, but when he came out of the Zurich Technical University he was like a race car exploding out of a slipstream. He showed up at Porsche in the spring of 1963 and threw himself into his work with a ferocity that stunned the older men at Porsche.
Piech quickly made his mark on the design of the 911 race engine. Rather than spending his first year deferring to his elders, he demanded changes even if it meant delaying the completion of the project. Six months before the car went on sale, Piech insisted on switching from a wet-sump to the dry-sump lubrication used in one of Porsche's race cars. Against all odds, he reengineered the part and got it replaced.
The 26-year-old instantly built a power base inside the company. He assembled a small team of young and dedicated engineers. It was a tight-knit, highly efficient unit with no regard for rigid departmental boundaries. It included men like development engineer Hans Metzger and test driver Peter Falk. Some in Porsche's engineering department realized they couldn't work with the iron-willed young man and soon left; Piech pushed some others out. They would either rise to his level of intensity or would have to leave.
Of all the great leaders of the modern automotive industry, Piech was the most difficult to work for.
"It's not so good if a person comes twice telling me they couldn't do a job. One time it could happen Second time. ..."
Piech says his own style came mainly from his mother, Louise Piech.
"She always looked after the money. I could not have worked for her. She had a typically feminine decision making style — waiting, because half of the problem disappeared by itself. She never fired any person, but she found a way for the man or woman to be hired by somebody else.
"If I see that somebody is not right in his place in the company, I get nervous because the money you lose in a company with the wrong man in the wrong position is much more than if you give him a good handshake and money and a good recommendation for the competition. A big company takes a long time to find out if somebody is good or bad."
Piech did follow his grandfather's credo of surrounding himself with talented colleagues.
"My grandfather had five important people around him. At Audi I had about 60 people, important people. I made sure they never had to come to me to ask for more money or for a better position. I thought if somebody deserved to be in a better position or receive better pay, they should get it without asking. This is how to do it.
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