Ferdinand Piech, the Porsche family patriarch who transformed Volkswagen from a struggling carmaker into a global powerhouse, has died at the age of 82.
Piech, the grandson of sports car and VW Beetle pioneer Ferdinand Porsche, died on Sunday in Rosenheim, Bavaria, his wife said.
“My husband … died suddenly and unexpectedly on 25 August,” Ursula Piech said, after a life “marked by a passion for cars and the employees who build them”.
A representative for the Piech and Porsche families, who still control a majority stake in Volkswagen through their family holding company Porsche SE, had no immediate comment. Volkswagen could not be reached for comment.
Born in Vienna, Piech was a brilliant engineer who led VW from 1993 to 2002 before becoming head of the supervisory board until 2015.
He left amid the so-called “dieselgate” scandal when it was discovered the company had programmed millions of cars to fool exhaust emissions tests.
Piech began his career at Porsche in the 1960s before moving to VW’s upmarket brand, Audi, in 1972 which he turned into a credible competitor to Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
After becoming boss of VW in 1993 he gambled on a modular construction technique which allowed Audi, Skoda and VW brands to share up to 65% common parts, helping the group to shift from midsized carmaker to an international titan.
“First and foremost I always saw myself as a product person, and relied on gut instinct for market demand. Business and politics never distracted me from the core of our mission: to develop and make attractive cars,” Piech wrote in his autobiography.
During his nine-year tenure Piech turned a loss equivalent of €1bn ($1.11bn) into a €2.6bn profit while spearheading VW’s expansion into a 12-marque empire that includes the Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Audi, Porsche, Bentley and Ducati brands in addition to MAN and Scania trucks.
Piech was known for his ability to outmanoeuvre competitors by stoking internal rivalries to his own advantage, even if it resulted in turning against his own managers, including the VW chief executive Bernd Pischetsrieder, to side with VW’s labour leaders.
While working as a 31-year old development chief at Porsche in 1968, he invested two-thirds of Porsche’s annual racing budget to build 25 Porsche 917 race cars with an untested radical 600 horsepower air-cooled 12-cylinder engine design.
Family members accused Piech of being irresponsible by risking the company’s budget but the Porsche 917 went on to become one of the most successful race cars in history.
“It is not possible to take a company to the top by focusing on the highest level of harmony,” said Piech, who has 12 children with four different women.
While working as development chief at Audi, Piech decided to keep his top engineers in the dark about the aerodynamic qualities of the Audi 100 by using wind tunnels in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Turin to develop the vehicle. That way no single engineer could defect to a rival with crucial know-how.
“I was in the middle of it all, putting together the pieces of the puzzle,” Piech said in his autobiography.
Max Warburton, an analyst at Bernstein Research, described Piech as the architect of VW’s global success.
“His stewardship of VW has been indisputably successful. Piech will go down in history as an automotive legend, in the same class as Gottlieb Daimler, Henry Ford and Kiichiro Toyoda.”
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.