Ferdinand Piech, the man who shaped the modern Volkswagen Group during his tenure as CEO and chairman, has died.
In a statement to the press his wife, Ursula Piech, confirmed the former Volkswagen boss died "suddenly and unexpectedly" on Sunday, European time.
According to Bild and Handelsblatt, Piech and his wife were dining at a restaurant in Bavaria when he collapsed. He was rushed to hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Piech is survived by his 12 children, whom he had with four different women.
Born on April 17, 1937 in Vienna, Piech's father Anton was a lawyer. His mother, Louise, was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the sports car maker and designer of the original Volkswagen Beetle.
After obtaining his engineering degree from the University of Zurich, Piech joined Porsche in 1963. There he ordered the wet-sump flat-six engine being developed for the yet-to-released 901 — later rechristened the 911 — to be redesigned as a dry-sump motor so it could be used for racing.
In his autobiography Piech stated:
“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."
Using his gut instinct, Piech successfully convinced the company to spend two-thirds of its 1968 budget building 25 prototypes of the flat-12 Porsche 917 (above) to make the car compliant with FIA race regulations.
The 917's victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 and 1971 (and later racing success) helped burnish the reputations of both Porsche and Piech.
Due to infighting between members of the Piech and Porsche clans, the company instituted a new corporate structure in 1972, in the process barring family members from holding management positions.
Piech left Porsche and founded his own engineering firm, where he developed a five-cylinder diesel engine for Mercedes-Benz. Later in 1972 he joined Audi, which had been a fully owned subsidiary of Volkswagen for around six years.
He quickly rose through the company's engineering and management ranks to become its head of development and eventually its CEO.
His affinity for five-cylinder engines saw the company adopt the layout for many of its cars, including the second-generation 80 and 100 ranges.
In order to elevate Audi to same plane as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Piech wanted to make the third-generation 100 sedan the world's most aerodynamic production car.
Fearful of leaks and possible defections from the engineering department he ensured the 100 was tested in four different wind tunnels across Europe, with no-one except for himself having all the pieces of the puzzle.
Another vehicle he played a crucial role in bringing about was the original Quattro coupe. One of the first rally cars to benefit from all-wheel drive, it dominated the scene during the early-to-mid 1980s.
Its success led to Audi embracing all-wheel drive as a differentiator for the brand, and marketing its all-wheel drive equipped vehicles as quattro.
Reshaping the Volkswagen Group
Piech took over as Volkswagen Group CEO in 1993. The company was in deep financial trouble, reportedly just months from insolvency, but Piech managed to slash costs without angering the trade unions.
He also launched an aggressive parts and platform sharing exercise. For example, the fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf, launched in 1997, formed the basis of the New Beetle, Seat Leon and Toledo, Skoda Octavia, and Audi A3 and TT.
When Piech took over the firm operated just three cars brands: Volkswagen, Audi and Seat. In the mid-1990s the Volkswagen Group took a majority stake in Skoda, before making it a wholly-owned subsidiary in 2000.
It was in 1998, though, when Piech's ambitions to turn the company into a purveyor of all things automotive became clear, as Volkswagen acquired Lamborghini through Audi, purchased the rights to the Bugatti brand, and bought Rolls-Royce and Bentley from Vickers.
Unfortunately for Piech, BMW supplied engines to Rolls-Royce luxury automaker bought the automotive rights to the Rolls-Royce name from the airplane engine manufacturer.
With BMW threatening to end its engine supply contract over the tangle, the two carmakers finally agreed to a settlement. Volkswagen took ownership of Bentley and its factories, platforms and design facilities from 2003.
In return, BMW would continue to supply engines to Rolls-Royce until the end of 2002, at which point it would take full control of the Rolls-Royce car brand.
Piech later claimed he had only wanted Bentley anyway.
Behind the scenes
Germany's mandatory retirement age of 65 forced Piech to resign as Volkswagen Group CEO in 2002, although he remained chairman of the Volkswagen Group supervisory board – where he continued to wield a lot of influence.
In the middle of 2005 it was revealed Porsche, under profit-first CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, was hoovering up Volkswagen shares.
By 2008 it's clear it's clear Porsche is using a massive pile of debt to fund its 40-plus per cent stake in Volkswagen, in the hopes of eventually owning the 75 per cent required to access Volkswagen's cash pile... and pay off much of its obligation.
With banks refusing to issue more credit during the global financial crisis, Porsche began searching for investors. Although emir of Qatar was interested, the company was instead wooed by Piech and other German leaders to back Volkswagen instead.
In the end, Porsche agreed to be bought up in stages by Volkswagen, while Wiedeking exited stage left with a hefty €50 million ($82 million) golden parachute.
Piech once noted "my desire for harmony is limited", and is said to have fired engineers who could not deliver the results he demanded.
He carried the same philosophy through his dealings with executives, and after reported disagreements with Bernd Pischetsreider, his anointed successor as CEO, Piech forced him out and replaced him with Martin Winterkorn.
By 2015 Winterkorn and Piech had fallen out, but in a rare boardroom defeat Piech was eased out the door.
Legacy and glorious failures
Piech's report card isn't without its share of blemishes. Not long after he was deposed from Volkswagen, the Dieselgate scandal became public knowledge.
Many have argued, including Bob Lutz, Piech's dictatorial management style and low tolerance for missing targets led to a corporate culture where managers and engineers both thought it was acceptable to develop software to help some of the company's diesel engines cheat their way through emissions bench testing.
The gut instinct which compelled him to back winners like the Porsche 917 and Audi Quattro, also led to several cash-burning dead ends, including the effort to turn Volkswagen from a premium mainstream brand into a luxury marque.
This lead to failures such as the Passat W8 and, possibly more significantly, the Phaeton and its glass-clad Transparent Factory in Dresden. With that said, it's possible without the Phaeton the Bentley Continental wouldn't gone into production.
The now-departed former CEO was also a driving force behind the Bugatti Veyron, a car which not only broke records and astounded all and sundry with its W16 engine, but reportedly lost the company seven figures per vehicle.
At the end other end of the scale Piech also used for the force of his personality to bring the aluminium Audi A2 and 1.0L/100km Volkswagen XL1 to market.
While the A2 earned plaudits its striking design, low kerb weight — generally under a tonne — and spacious interior, the high cost of construction and large number of bespoke parts made it both an economic and sales failure.
Although he is no longer around to shape the future of Volkswagen, the Porsche and Piech families, through their holding company, control 52.5 per cent of the automaker's voting stock.