Despite arguably being the most gifted automotive engineer and manager of his generation, Prof Dr Wolfgang Reitzle would only ever enter the captain’s chair once he left the car industry for good.
It is one of automotive history’s more baffling paradoxes that a man of such undisputed talents as Wolfgang Reitzle never reached the post of chief executive at an automotive business. But as with a great many other high achievers, it actually was the same traits that had brought Reitzle so close to the apex that ultimately prevented him from arriving there.
Even if one chooses to ignore his academic accolades, Prof Dr Wolfgang Reitzle’s intellectual abilities are beyond questioning. To this day, he remains a legend among engineering students at his alma mater, the prestigious Technische Universität München, for having graduated in record time (and at the youthful age of 22).
After having earned two masters and a doctor’s degree, Reitzle eventually became head of BMW’s R&D department in 1983, before being appointed chief engineer in 1987.
At BMW, Reitzle was working alongside fellow engineers who were also on the cusp of great careers, such as future Porsche chief engineer and Aston Martin CEO, Ulrich Bez – as well as a manufacturing engineer by the name of Dr Bernd Pischetsrieder. Even in such illustrious company, it was always Reitzle who was deemed to be the primus. Hence there was no question that he’d be first in line to take over the post of Vorstandsvorsitzender once the man by then known as ‘Mister BMW’, Eberhard von Kuenheim, would retire. It would have to be the smartest guy in the room. Reitzle.
One of Reitzle’s pet cars at BMW was project E31, the car we know as the BMW 8 series today. With its advanced electronics, V12 engine and highly sophisticated chassis, the Eight was supposed to dethrone Mercedes’ SL roadster in the same fashion as the E32 generation 7 series saloon had posed the first serious threat to the Swabians’ S-class.
In a documentary feature on the 8 series’ development process, Reitzle can be seen test driving a prototype E31 on the track, before explaining in stern terms to an underling that the car’s rear lights weren’t quite the proper shade of red yet.
Once it was put into production, the 8 series turned out to be a car that was respected, rather than loved. Despite featuring attractive exterior lines and the prerequisite cachet of a proper high tech product, BMW’s Gran Turismo was criticised for being too large, too heavy and too clinical by some.
More successful was the rest of the BMW range of the ’90s, as developed under Reitzle’s watch. Incorporating many components the 8 series had championed, the E38/E39 Seven and Five series models could only ever be criticised for being too civilised, too sophisticated for a brand that some believed to require at least a faint whiff of hooliganism. What these cars did achieve though was hardly a mean feat in itself: with their advanced, sophisticated engineering and perceivable high quality aura, they not merely threatened, but in some ways superseded the three-pointed star of Stuttgart Untertürkheim. This was, above all, Reitzle’s handiwork.
Given the age restriction for members of BMW’s board of directors, it was understood that a successor to the company’s legendary Vorstandsvorsitzender, Eberhard von Kuenheim, would need to be identified by 1993. First in line was, obviously, the brightest and most ambitious among the Bavarian brand’s many talented executives.
What was less obvious to industry insiders back in the day though was that Reitzle had been approached to lead another German prestige car company. With mounting losses and no clear rescue strategy in sight, Porsche had turned to the industry’s Wunderkind in the hope of securing the services of one of the few men believed to be capable of saving the ailing company’s independence. Reitzle – a Swabian native, incidentally – eventually turned down the very generous deal that was supposed to lure him towards Zuffenhausen. But before that, if industry mumblings of the time are to be believed, he’d taken too much time before he rejected the sports car makers’ advances – at least as far as Eberhard von Kuenheim was concerned. So, to the great surprise of most, the name of von Kuenheim’s successor turned out to be not Reitzle, but Pischetsrieder.
More genial a man than Reitzle – who, despite a slight speech disorder, exudes an air of pronounced aloofness in person -, Pischetsrieder’s appointment was interpreted by some as more of a reprimand aimed at Reitzle (who kept his powerful post as powerful r&d director/chief engineer) than a straightforward commendation of Pischetsrieder’s.
If Reitzle had been appointed CEO, the fate of the Bayerische Motorenwerke would arguably have taken a rather different tack. He was said to have been far from a champion of Pischetsrieder’s strategy to ensure BMW’s independence by buying the Rover group and establishing its main brand as a volume maker to challenge VW et al. Whether BMW under Reitzle would have taken over the British company in the first place is therefore questionable. But under the given circumstances, he did what he was best at and helped push ahead with products such as the pivotal L322 Range Rover, which would ultimately redefine the luxury utility vehicle sector in its entirety.
Of course, once Rover’s losses had become utterly unsustainable and started to threaten BMW’s independence, the time seemed ripe for the model executive to finally take over. But Reitzle’s insistence that Rover should be shut down and any future investment redirected towards the group’s fringe brands (which included Mini, Land Rover and a great many dormant British marques) instead rendered him a persona non grata in the eyes of those members of the board representing the workers. As he wouldn’t be denied the post he appeared to have been born for a second time, Reitzle instead left his office at the Vierzylinder headquarters for good.
Given his cachet, it wasn’t surprising that Reitzle didn’t have to wait for long until an appropriate job offer arrived. For all his bad decisions, then-Ford Motor Company CEO, Jac(ques) Nasser, fully understood Reitzle’s talents and how to put them to use best.
‘If Wolfgang Reitzle didn’t exist, we would’ve had to invent him’, Nasser was quoted in 1999. Moreover, he put (Ford’s) money where his mouth was and established a bespoke company for Reitzle: the Premier Automotive Group (PAG), a holding for Ford’s premium brands. This did appear like a match made in heaven indeed, as it took full advantage of both Reitzle’s engineering nous and his understanding of the finer things. The latter point was a bit overstated though when Reitzle published a book entitled Luxus schafft Wohlstand (‘Luxury creates wealth’), which, together with his high-profile second marriage with German TV presenter, Nina Ruge, did little to enamour him to the intelligentsia and made him the subject of the tabloid press instead.
In his core line of business, Reitzle appeared to thrive at Ford. He may have failed at buying Alpina – the small, but highly sophisticated Bavarian manufacturer producing specialised BMWs – to act as a performance engineering branch on behalf of Jaguar, but his work was certainly felt elsewhere. Thanks to Reitzle’s contacts, PAG got hold of ZF’s then new six-speed automatic gearbox ahead of most competitors; crucially, it was under Reitzle that the Jaguar S-type (X200) received a heavily overhauled chassis, which would end up being used in some form or another for more than a decade by the brand.
But it wasn’t to last. The combination of heavy losses, which led to Jac Nasser being ousted, and the looming crisis of the US car makers in general at the very least created an atmosphere that suggested Reitzle wouldn’t be able to continue at the Blue Oval as he pleased. Rather than having to report to Ford’s newly-appointed COO, Nick Scheele, Reitzle went for pastures new.
Rather than waiting for an offer to arrive from, say, 100 Renaissance Center, Detroit or Epplestraße 225, Stuttgart, Reitzle left the car manufacturing industry for good. And if that wasn’t eyebrow-raising enough, he chose to join Linde AG, an utterly unglamorous company producing forklifts and industrial gas. Of course, he soon pressed ahead with moving the company’s headquarters from pretty, but provincial Wiesbaden to Munich, which certainly was in keeping with his image – just like his company car, incidentally.
Rather than going for a product of his old love, a BMW 7 series, or alienating his former comrades at either Munich or Gaydon by choosing an S-class or an Audi A8, Reitzle ultimately elected to be chauffeured about in a Maserati Quattroporte. A logical, but also very flamboyant choice for certain.
His moves at the helm of Linde were at least as bold. He sold off any non-gas-related parts of the business and focused on taking over the considerably larger BOC group, thus forming the market leader in the field of industry gas. To this day, this acquisition is one of the few textbook examples of a prolific takeover that actually resulted in a larger, more successful enterprise (which Reitzle had renamed The Linde Group in the marketing speak popular at that time).
Despite (The) Linde (Group) currently struggling to plough ahead with yet another merger, its chairman can be very pleased with the company he has formed.
As a selfmade man, Wolfgang Reitzle has nobody else to thank for his stellar career, his considerable personal wealth or his picturesque winery (Villa Santo Stefano in Tuscany) other than himself. And he probably doesn’t. Which may also explain why he was denied the title of Mister BMW.
The author of this piece is running an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com