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The Consummate Automotive Engineer: Remembering Porsche-Audi-Volkswagen’s Ferdinand Piech, 1937-2019

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Images are courtesy of Volkswagen and Audi

Volkswagen Type 1 designer and founder of the eponymous sports car company, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche would have been very proud of the accomplishments of his grandson, Ferdinand Karl Piëch, who died on Sunday, August 25, at age 82.

Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Piëch was the son of Louise Porsche Piëch and nephew of Ferry Porsche, and in a storied career that spanned six decades, he made indelible marks on his family’s firm, as well as on the related automakers Audi and Volkswagen.

Piëch earned his mechanical engineering degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich before taking a job in 1963 as a test engine specialist at Dr. Ing. h. c. F Porsche. After becoming the head of technical development five years later, he contributed to the evolution of the 911 and led development of the 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning 917.

Pushed out of Porsche by family decree in 1971, Piëch went to work at Audi NSU Auto Union AG, leading Audi technical development in Ingolstadt. He established this Volkswagen subsidiary’s focus on advanced technology, setting it on the course to become a respected premium luxury brand and embodying the its longtime tagline, Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology). Under his watch, Audi engineers developed the five-cylinder gasoline engine, the Quattro full-time four-wheel-drive systemindustry-leading aerodynamic designs, and aluminum space frame body construction. Piëch was appointed chairman of Audi AG’s board of management in 1988.

 

Volkswagen was in dire trouble by the early 1990s, and this talented executive was tapped to take over as the automaker’s CEO and management board chair in 1993. He encouraged a renewed focus on quality and design, and green-lighted headline-grabbing models like the iconic New Beetle and Mercedes S-class competitor Phaeton.

A major aspect of Piëch’s legacy at Volkswagen was the company’s expansion, when VW purchased prestigious brands like Italy’s Lamborghini, Britain’s Bentley, and France’s Bugatti. Those traditional companies were injected with cash and modern engineering expertise, and would develop powerful and sophisticated engines (naturally aspirated V-10, twin-turbo W-12, and quad-turbo W-16, respectively) to motivate all-wheel-drive image-makers like the Gallardo, Continental GT, and Veyron 16.4. In 2018, the Volkswagen Group was the best-selling automaker in the world.

This 2014 Automotive Hall of Fame inductee was impacted by the “Dieselgate” controversy and ongoing power struggles at Volkswagen and Porsche SE, leading to his resignation from VW’s supervisory board in 2015, but Dr. Piëch’s legacy touches every part of today’s automotive industry.

Dr. Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen AG, offered this tribute: “Ferdinand Piëch was bold, entrepreneurially consistent, and technically brilliant… Technologically, he and his development teams have repeatedly gone beyond the limits of the feasible: from the first one-liter car in the world to the Bugatti Veyron with 1,001 hp. Above all, Ferdinand Piëch brought quality and perfection down to the last detail in the automotive industry, deeply anchoring it in the Volkswagen DNA. I look with gratitude and great respect at his life’s work.”