In Memoriam : Ferdinand Piëch

A giant of the automotive world has departed. His like will not be seen again.


Ferdinand Piëch was not easily satisfied. Anything less than the relentless shedding of blood, sweat and tears he considered insufficient initiative – an approach many found misanthropic, yet from Piëch’s perspective, it was a mere matter of applying a categorical imperative. He would never expect more from anybody else than from himself.

The crushing arrogance of Piëch telling off a rather cocky prosecutor (who had repeatedly mispronounced ‘Lamborghini’) as part of his testimony during the ‘Lustreisen-Affäre’ trial years ago speaks not just of his self-confidence, but, again, his utter disdain for incompetence. The cars from Sant’ Agata aren’t called ‘Lamborjeeny’, after all.

Fathering 13 children in order to hedge his bets – so to speak – insofar as ensuring his engineering genius is passed on to the next generation is another case-in-point of drastic action and decision making that must have appeared utterly and unspectacularly logical from Piëch’s own perspective. As is, allegedly, sleeping on the ground, rather than in bed.

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Piëch’s spirit and work ethic didn’t solely affect the realms of engineering and business, but design as well.

For it was Piëch himself who, when presented with a life-size model of the current Škoda Superb, immediately voiced his approval, with a single caveat: To his eyes, the car needed a clamshell bonnet to achieve true stylistic coherence. With Piëch being Piëch, it was immediately approved.

What he couldn’t have known at that point was that the Superb had originally been designed with the very same clamshell bonnet he’d instinctively requested – only for the design to be changed by management prior to its finalisation, as it was deemed too ‘premium’ for Škoda. It took Piëch’s interference to reinstate the designers’ original vision.

To Piëch, nothing was ever too ‘premium’, ambitious, expensive or exhaustive. He would obviously always strive for what he considered excellence, depending on each context. Hence the VW XL1 and Phaeton, Audi A8 & Quattro, Porsche 917 and Bugatti Veyron.

What seemed excessive to most people was normal to Piëch. What seemed acceptable to most people appeared inadequate to Piëch.

Duality is an inevitable consequence of the kind of single-mindedness Ferdinand Piëch applied throughout his career. It is the consequence of genius.


Ferdinand Karl Piëch: 1937 – 2019 RIP.



Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

10 thoughts on “In Memoriam : Ferdinand Piëch”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and well chosen words, Christopher. Ferdinand Piëch truly was a giant of the automotive industry. His relentless drive for ever higher quality in engineering and design has been beneficial to almost everyone who drives a motor vehicle, such has been the influence of Volkswagen Group throughout the industry.

    1. Thank you.

      The other side of the coin is that his treatment of ‘human resources’ and penchant for diesel eventually resulted in accelerating the demise of the ICE, to which he’d devoted so much of his life. Which constitutes one of car world’s bigger ironies.

    2. A fine eulogy to perhaps the last truly great auto-mogul. Now is probably not the time to talk about the darker side of his personality, although I suspect he could no more help that than he could tolerate a second-best engineering solution, or a shoddy panel gap. Some people are simply wired differently.

      I might suggest that it is the Phaeton, rather than say, the Bugatti Veyron which best exemplifies the Piëch doctrine. The idea of a luxury Volkswagen, engineered to the standards of an S-Class would have been laughable when he arrived at the banks of the Mittelandkanal in the early ’90s. By the time it was introduced, it was no laughing matter. And as much as it may have proven to have been a commercial flop, the platform and hardware within was most likely amortised elsewhere within the empire.

      One might be tempted to wonder where they would be now, had Piëch helmed Mercedes-Benz or indeed, BMW? Heavens above, even FIAT! The industry is a little poorer today, although, in truth, it has been for some time. The current raft of auto-CEOs are children by comparison – a matter I suspect Ferdinand Piëch would have concurred with.

    3. ‘Engineering first – this is sometimes lacking in the car industry today.’

      Michael Freitag’s excellent obituary (for German readers: mentions this crucial point, which very much sums up what Piëch was all about: Engineering. All the Machiavellian scheming and power play always served the purpose of allowing him to have his technological ideas implemented. I honestly don’t think he cared nearly as much about his (enormous) personal fortune as he did about having his way, in terms of engineering and product planning.

      Speaking of which: According to the MM obituary, it was Piëch who instigated the car we now know as the Taycan, in the wake of having test driven a Tesla Model S in 2013. The first drive reports about the Porsche were published today, incidentally.

  2. Thank you for an insightful read. I love the idea of hypothetically putting Piëch in charge of a different car company, Fantasy Football style, and seeing what changed. Of course, there are a couple of things which allowed him to achieve what he did at VAG. Firstly, the family name to uphold, and no doubt a burning desire to leave a lasting legacy. But secondly, it must be remembered that he was sitting on an absolute mountain of cash at the turn of the century, one that would seemingly never be exhausted – no matter what kind of wild ideas it was thrown at. That must’ve helped.

    1. Personally, I’d argue Piëch’s talents played a far greater role in his career than his family. Just look at the achievements (0r lack thereof) of his Porsche clan counterpart, Wolfgang – here you have someone whose career was defined by his family name.

      If you take a look at the situation Piëch found himself in after he was ousted from Porsche, his ascent to the status of a car design titan was far from certain. There was enough opposition to him within Audi (at least initially) that he seriously pondered emigrating to Japan at some point. He didn’t gain the upper hand eventually because someone in Ingolstadt suddenly realised he’s Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, but because of his special set of skills.

      Later on, upon his arrival at Volkswagen, he was in charge of a company burning stashes of money each and every day, on the brink of collapse. The Golf IV/Passat B5 et al were no mere exercises in engineering and design vanity – they were part of a plan to ensure VW’s survival.

      (Here’s another worthwhile obituary, courtesy of Jens Meiners:

  3. Very impressed by Meiners’s obituary, thank you Herr Butt for pointing it out!
    The anecdote stories included make for a penetrating illustration on his character!
    I especially liked the 2 minutes VS 2 years design approval!

    1. A close relative worked at Audi suspension development during the Piech era in Ingolstadt. He told me that Piech was quite farouche but not nearly as frightening as often told. He just could not bear people not doing their job properly or not having an answer to his questions. The only thing everybody knew was that Piech was able to do every single engineering task he delegated to somebody to the same or (mostly) better standards. As long as you respected this you could get along with him.

      A nice anecdote about Piech is told by Christian Geistdörfer, Walter Röhrl’s co-driver for many years in rally sports. Röhrl had gotten an unjustified six minute time penalty and Geistdörfer was tasked with eliminating this penalty. The Audi people told him that Röhrl was leading by more than an hour and he should not care about those six minutes (Geistdörfer told them that they did this on their own risk, knowing Röhrl). The next morning in their hotel everybody sat at the breakfast table and Röhrl arrived and asked the board member sitting at the table about this time penalty and he said that he would not drive without those six minutes eliminated. The board member told him that it was his (the board member’s) decision if and when Röhrl would drive. Röhrl’s reply was “Christian, we’ll drive back home in thirty minutes.” The result was a personal audience with Piech. Piech simply told Röhrl that if he needed to embarrass a board member he should not do this with twenty people in the same room but otherwise everything was ok for him.

  4. I suspect that the internal market of VW meant that Bentley would subsidise the Phaeton by sourcing common components/platform for their cars from Dresden. The other car, the Audi A2 , was a fantastic product theoretically as a Ford aerodynamicist explained to me by writing some numbers down for the frontal area by the Cd. Only the 3L/ 100km really achieved the target set by Piech. Other normal models without magnesium seatframes etc were introduced to mix to give what was basically a prototype into a car with some economies of scale according to a marketing guy I spoke to at Ford.

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