A career at the top of a car company often can be measured in eye blinks. Most car CEOs rise to the crest of a brand, hold onto the desk for a few years, and then retire or get forced out.
And then there’s Ferdinand Piëch.
Piëch, 77, is the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. He’s currently the chairman of the supervisory board of the Volkswagen Group, the world’s third-largest automaker. He is ferociously cunning with a reputation for making crazy calls, and he has been at the top of VW or one of its brands since the late 1970s. (VW also owns Bugatti, Lamborghini, Bentley, Ducati, Audi, and Porsche, among others.) And while there are larger corporations in this business, no one else seems to hold, or as boldly exercise, such autocratic control. This is, after all, the man who pushed—some say steamrolled—the 1,000-hp Bugatti Veyron to production, a move that reportedly produced a whopping seven-figure loss per car.
Consider that for a moment. Long past the average retirement age, this gent greenlit one of the largest automotive losses in history and managed to keep his job. Moreover, he was hailed as a hero. Rare stuff.
On April 10th, Piëch was quoted as being “at a distance” from VW’s current CEO, Martin Winterkorn. The breathless media rumbling that ensued culminated last week with a rare Piëch defeat, but it also served as a healthy reminder of the man’s power and influence: The idea that Piëch’s dissatisfaction could mean the end of Winterkorn was not a crazy one.
For a better sense of the man, here’s a look at some of his wilder decisions—nearly all of which worked out shockingly well.Bugatti Veyron. VW
Bugatti Veyron (2005–2015)
For 10 years, the Veyron was the world’s most powerful series-production automobile. The Bugatti Veyron was commissioned by Germans, assembled in France, and slapped with a badge started by an Italian-born Francophile. It sported 16 cylinders, four turbochargers, and in final form, a top speed of 254 mph. Just 450 were built. Each owes its existence directly to Piëch.
In 1998, as chairman of VW’s board of management, Piëch spearheaded the acquisition of Bugatti. He also pushed the Veyron into development and essentially dictated its target metrics and styling. Late in R&D, when Bugatti engineers asked for design changes to help make the Bugatti more stable at speed, Piëch insisted the bodywork stay unaltered. Wendelin Wiedeking, once the CEO of Porsche, called this and similar Piëch moves “vanity projects.”
One of those two men is still with the company. No points for guessing which.Volkswagen Phaeton. VW
Volkswagen Phaeton (2003–Present)
VW got its start producing the ubiquitous Beetle, an air-cooled wonder that helped put postwar Europe on wheels. The Phaeton, first sold as a 2003 model and still in production in Europe (it was discontinued here in 2006), did nothing of the sort. For one thing, the Phaeton is a range-topping luxury car, and the Beetle was . . . a Beetle. For another, the Phaeton offered an optional 6.0-liter, 420-hp W-12 that was effectively three-fourths of a Veyron engine sans turbochargers. And finally, when the car arrived here in 2004, it cost a whopping $73,365. There was a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax on the base V8. The W-12 more than doubled that. And the badge on the hood was still . . . Volkswagen.
Piëch pushed the Phaeton into production despite internal protest. (Spotting a trend?) According to Top Gear, Piëch, a former engineer, gave the car’s engineers a host of metrics to meet, one of which was that the car be able to sustain 186 mph all day, in 122-degree weather, with an interior temperature of 72 degrees.
The car flopped in America, largely due to this country’s refusal to spend Mercedes money on a Beetle brand. But the engineering was sound, and the model’s core base was vehement. (My friend Jack Baruth, for example, owned two Phaetons simultaneously. He claims to have bought the second car because his wife borrowed the first and refused to give it back.)
VW has long toyed with the idea of bringing the car back to America. Maybe it’ll happen, maybe not. Either way, ballsy.Porsche 917. VW
Porsche 917 (1969–1973)
Piëch’s ties to Porsche cannot be overstated. In the early 1960s, he dove into the company’s competition department, helping give life and wins to cars like the 906 and the 904 GTS 6. But above all, he is known for the 220-mph 917.
The 917 has been called the most influential race car of its era, and it was certainly one of the most dominant. This quasi-production, 12-cylinder, 500-plus-horsepower sports-racer was the culmination of Porsche’s early efforts to tackle the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. It remains the brand’s most evocative car and the subject of A-list adoration. Jerry Seinfeld has owned at least one, and Steve McQueen drove one on film.
The 917 won Le Mans in 1970 and 1971—the first in a trail of astonishing success at the French classic that stretches to the modern era. Piech led the project, spearheading everything from design, with legendary engineer Hans Mezger, to tricking French motorsport officials into believing Porsche had built the minimum number of 917s required for competition.
This was Piëch at his most passionate, a man in his prime. It’s no coincidence that his efforts helped define a company he later came to control.Volkswagen XL1. VW
Volkswagen XL1 (2014)
It is a two-cylinder, turbodiesel plug-in hybrid made of carbon fiber, aluminum, and plastic. It looks like an 1800-pound suppository. There is no sound deadening, and the windows raise with cranks, to save weight. Those windows are made of plastic for the same reason. As with the original Beetle, the engine lives in the rear and drives the rear wheels.
VW says that, with proper attention to battery charge, the car will get 261 miles per gallon. If you never plug it in, that figure drops to 140. Each of these numbers is astonishing. And yes, this is a real car. It is not sold in America, only in Europe. It costs around $145,000, which, if you’ve ever seen an XL1, seems like a bargain. This is in many ways our automotive future, a pioneering thing, and it was pushed into production by you-know-who.
If we have to tell you why this car is fantastic, you’re on the wrong site.Audi Quattro. Audi
Audi Quattro (1980–1991)
Piëch was chairman of Audi’s board of management from 1988 to 1992—smack in the middle of the company’s most trying time. But from 1974 to 1988, he was the marque’s head of technical development. He arrived at the brand in 1972, leaving a position at Porsche following infighting and a landmark ruling that kept family members from being executives.
Suitably pissed at being ejected from the family business, Piëch took on Audi. He helped give the wandering company direction, cementing its focus on technology. Among other things, he led the push that produced Audi’s first successful V-8 and its pioneering work with five-cylinder engines. Also turbocharging and aluminum construction.
But chiefly, he spearheaded the Audi Quattro. The car that gave its name to Audi’s epochal four-wheel-drive system—the latter still defines the brand—was nothing less than a landmark. It was the first practical all-wheel-drive sports car, a rally-racing monster, and the first machine to bring turbocharged, all-weather performance to the masses. At the time, it must’ve seemed insane: All-wheel-drive was reserved for trucks and heavy, expensive performance cars. Turbocharging was seen as costly, unreliable technology. And then . . . Piëch. The industry followed his lead, and the Quattro’s blueprint is now the majority rule in showrooms.The Wolfsburg Autostadt. VW
The Wolfsburg Autostadt
The city of Wolfsburg, Germany houses Volkswagen’s main production plant. For years, it was a gray, uninspiring place. In the 1990s, Piëch decided to build a new car delivery center there. It would, he said, double as an amusement park and museum. Hundreds of people would pick up their cars every day, have a fun family outing, and go home happy. People insisted it was a terrible idea, that no one would come to dreary Germany just to pick up a car. That you couldn’t possibly deliver that many vehicles without making a mess of things. The media mocked Piëch directly, calling the place made-up names.
Turns out they were all wrong. The Autostadt (“Car City”) that Piëch ordered was built in 2000. It’s cool, genuinely fun, and astonishing to behold. Around 500 people take delivery of a new Volkswagen there every single day, aided by two gigantic, 157-foot-tall automated parking garages. Each one can hold up to 400 vehicles. You look at them, and you think, “Only a madman could have built this.”
Massive, high-tech delivery centers for new cars are now big business. Go figure.Lamborghini Aventador. VW
Luxury Consumption En Masse
In 1998, Audi bought Lamborghini. The same year, VW acquired Rolls-Royce and Bentley (Rolls was later sold to BMW). The company has since absorbed Porsche and Ducati. As with Bugatti, all of these brands are known for amazing products and financial instability. Piëch was a driving force in the purchase of each.
Some claim his moves have overloaded VW’s plate, and that the German company should focus solely on making great Volkswagens. And on paper, it sounds crazy—–it would seem that no one company could effectively manage so many different products.
Here’s the thing, though: New Volkswagens have never been better. The bright lights, like the current GTI or Audi A3, are some of the best cars you can buy. And every single brand the company has acquired is legitimately healthier and producing better machinery than ever before.
Lamborghinis use Audi components but still feel special. The Bentley Continental GT has roots in the Phaeton and less expensive Audi products, but sales are strong and customers don’t seem to care. Porsche has managed to spread its brand to encompass SUVs and sedans without losing its focus on motorsport. There are even signs of life (and smart business sense) at perpetually troubled Ducati.
Much of this came about because Piëch pushed for smart expansion. Each brand in the VW Group helps out the others. Granted, there are hitches. Porsche’s development engineers are reportedly stretched razor-thin, because they’re good, and everyone wants their help. And Bentleys probably shouldn’t feel like their navigation systems were lifted from an Audi that costs a third as much. But the core idea is revolutionary.
Proof? In the past decade, more than a few other car companies have moved toward Piëch’s model.