A legend of the automotive world has died.
Ferdinand Piëch, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and an automotive icon in his own right, has died at age 82.
Born in 1937 in the Austrian capital of Vienna, Piëch always said he had “petrol in his blood.” The scion of an automotive dynasty, Piëch started his career at Volkswagen in 1952 as an apprentice building car engines. In 1963, after completing a master’s degree in engineering, he began working on the 911 road car at Porsche.
In 1966, Piëch was named head of Porsche’s “Experimental Department,” a post he held until 1971. During that time, the company put out several leading race cars, culminating in the Porsche 917, which dominated the global racing circuit in the 1970s.
After a a change in company policy prevented Porsche family members from holding management roles at the venerable automaker, Piëch moved to Audi. There he took a new role as a “technical director” and oversaw the introduction of all-wheel drive, which remains synonymous with the Audi brand to this day. He is also credited with transforming Audi into a luxury competitor of both BMW and Mercedes.
In 1993, Piëch was named Chief Executive Officer of Volkswagen AG, the parent company that already owned VW, Audi, Seat, and Skoda. During his tenure in the top job, Volkswagen added Lamborghini, Bentley, and Bugatti to the list of automotive companies that it owns. For his efforts, Piëch was named Executive of the Century in 1999.
However, Piëch also developed a reputation for pet projects. Sometimes that meant putting engineering ahead of profits. Cars such as the Audi A2, VW Phaeton, Bugatti Veyron, and VW XL1 were each built to satisfy a Piëch whim, and each vehicle ultimately failed financially. Piëch was also known to be a difficult and exacting boss. The German magazine Der Spiegel once described work life at VW under Piëch as “North Korea without the labor camps.”
Never fully retiring, Piëch remained active in the family business in one capacity or another until his death – often behind the scenes. He was accused of masterminding several coups that saw the ousting of head execs at Volkswagen and Porsche, as well as engineering the purchase of Porsche (his family’s business) by Volkswagen in 2012.
Piëch is survived by his wife Ursula, who is 17 years his junior.