Ferdinand Piech: the life and legacy of ‘Mr Volkswagen’

Ferdinand Piech

Ferdinand Piech, one of the most influential figures in the global car industry, has died at the age of 82.

The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, his notable achievements included transforming Audi into a premium marque and introducing platform-sharing to the Volkswagen Group – creating the 12-brand powerhouse we know today.

Piech also oversaw some of the greatest cars ever made, from the Porsche 917 to the Bugatti Veyron. We look back on his remarkable career, highlighting the hits – and misses – of his time in office.

More great Volkswagens on Motoring Research:

Porsche 917 – 1969

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Before we celebrate his work at Volkswagen, it’s important to rewind the clock to the 1960s, when Piech was employed at Porsche in Stuttgart.

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

He worked on the development of the Porsche 906, before moving on to other models, culminating in the hugely successful Porsche 917. The car raced to overall wins at Le Mans in 1970 and 1971.

Mercedes-Benz OM617 engine

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In 1972, Piech moved to Audi, but that wasn’t before he had started his own engineering consultancy firm. It was during this time that he worked with Mercedes–Benz on development work that led to the delivery of the company’s first premium five-cylinder diesel engine designed for a passenger car. As history will recall, five-cylinder engines would become central to his time at Audi.

Audi ur-Quattro – 1980

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

What a legacy! When Piech arrived at Audi, the German company appeared to be in decline. It sat way behind BMW and Mercedes-Benz and was suffocating under Volkswagen’s control. Remarkably, Piech transformed the relatively humble Audi Coupe into the all-conquering Quattro. In a stroke, Piech had laid the foundations for a brand built on all-wheel-drive technology and – thanks to a domination of world rallying – put the Audi brand on the map.

Audi Quattro Spyder – 1991

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Goodness, how fresh does this thing look? It’s remarkable to think that Audi unveiled the Quattro Spyder at the 1991 Frankfurt Motor Show. At the time, it was more a demonstration of Audi’s thinking than an actual concept car, but it certainly helped to invigorate the brand. Highlights included the extensive use of aluminium (a key part of Audi’s future) and a suspension set-up that would be used in the forthcoming A4.

Audi Avus – 1991

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Audi was on a roll. Weeks after the launch of the Quattro Spyder came this – the Avus. It’s no coincidence that it looks like an early version of a certain Bugatti, because it was. Nearly 15 years prior to the launch of the Veyron, the Avus featured a W12 engine and four-wheel drive, with Audi claiming a top speed of 200mph.

Volkswagen Passat

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In 1993, Ferdinand Piech was made CEO of the Volkswagen Group. One of his first roles in office was the development of the new Passat. Piech saw an opportunity to push the Passat upmarket, something that is immediately obvious with the B5 model of 1996.

Audi V8 – 1993

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The Audi V8 represented a warning shot across the bows of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Here was Ferdinand Piech telling his fellow Germans he wanted a slice of the premium pie. It was the first Audi to use a V8 engine and, although it wasn’t a commercial success, what came next would be…

Audi A8 – 1994

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

We’re talking about the Audi A8. Launched at the 1994 Geneva Motor Show, the A8 can trace its roots as far back as 1982, when Ferdinand Piech signed an agreement with the Aluminium Company of America to develop a lightweight premium vehicle. The Audi Space Frame concept was unveiled at the 1993 Frankfurt Motor Show and the rest is history.

Audi A4 – 1994

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Over 20 years after the launch of the Audi A4, we can see what a remarkable success the compact executive car has been. Its predecessor, the Audi 80, was perhaps a better engineered product, but the A4 would develop a wider-reaching appeal. Audi could now sit at the top table and play with the 3 Series and C-Class.

Audi RS2 – 1994

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Talk about keeping it in the family. The Audi RS2 of 1994 was essentially part-Porsche, part-Audi, featuring the wonderful 2.2-litre five-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive, Porsche brakes and a Porsche suspension system. It was even assembled in Zuffenhausen.

Audi A3 – 1996

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In an effort to cut costs and return Volkswagen to profit, Ferdinand Piech immediately started work on a platform-sharing strategy. The Audi A3 of 1996 was the first car to utilise the PQ34 platform, which would also see work as the basis for – among others – the TT, Golf, Beetle, Leon and Octavia. The A3 would become a top choice for image-conscious buyers, even sneaking into the top 10 European sales chart.

Volkswagen Golf Mk4 – 1997

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The fourth generation Golf may not be the most illustrious vehicle on this list, but it’s certainly one of the most significant. Put aside the platform-sharing aspect for a moment, because the Mk4 represented a turning point for the Golf. Piech pushed it further upmarket, helping it to become the default choice in the sector.

Audi TT – 1998

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

As if to prove the flexibility of the PQ34 platform, Audi launched the TT in 1998. What it lacked in razor-sharp dynamics, it more than made up for in terms of design, style and showroom appeal. A star was born.

Audi A2 – 1999

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

It seems unfair to call the A2 an unmitigated disaster for the Audi, but given the Volkswagen Group lost £4,000 for every car sold and that it was completely trounced by the Mercedes A-Class in the sales chart, we probably have to say it was. In reality, it was way ahead of its time, featuring an aluminium construction and advanced aerodynamics. History will no doubt be kind to the A2.

Skoda Superb – 2001

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Another example of canny platform-sharing, the original Skoda Superb of 2001 was essentially a long-wheelbase Passat B5. Since then, the Superb has gone from strength to strength and is now on to its third generation. A premium car delivered by the value-led arm of Volkswagen; it shouldn’t work, but it does.

Lamborghini Murciélago – 2001

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In 1998, Audi took over the reigns at Lamborghini and three years later the first car of the new regime was delivered. And what a way to make an introduction. The Murciélago would enjoy a near 10-year production life, selling over 4,000 units and spawning a number of special editions. A V12 legend.

Volkswagen Touareg – 2002

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The Touareg of 2002 heralded Volkswagen’s debut in the burgeoning SUV sector. Volkswagen turned to Porsche for help, as it wanted to deliver an off-road vehicle with the performance of a sports car. More platform sharing was in evidence, as underneath you’ll find the same underpinnings as the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7.

Volkswagen Phaeton – 2002

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Ferdinand Piech has gone on record as saying the Phaeton is one of his greatest achievements. Many would disagree, arguing that such an expensive vehicle is a stretch too far for a brand like Volkswagen. The disappointing sales figures would certainly give credibility to this claim. Only a strong performance in China has stopped the Phaeton from being a total disaster.

Volkswagen 1-Litre Concept – 2002

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Ferdinand Piech liked the 1-litre concept car so much, he drove the car from Wolfsburg to Hamburg to attend a meeting of stockholders. It was the forerunner to the XL1, where two people sat in tandem in a car weighing just 300kg. Its name stemmed from an ability to sip fuel at a rate of one litre per 100 kilometres, or 282mpg.

Bentley Continental GT – 2003

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

It might be easy to mock Piech for the perceived failure of the Phaeton, but the success of the Bentley Continental GT proves that his platform-sharing strategy was paying dividends. Sure, it’s a Phaeton underneath, but the Continental GT somehow manages to retain the unique essence of Bentley.

Lamborghini Gallardo – 2003

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The Lamborghini Gallardo of 2003 represented a massive shift for the Italian firm. Put aside the platform-sharing for a moment (more on that later), because the Gallardo propelled Lamborghini into the sales big league. Over 14,000 were built, an astonishing figure for a company more experienced with sales figures in the hundreds.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5 – 2004

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Why is the Mk5 Golf GTI particularly significant? Because it recaptured the magic of the early cars. The Golf GTI hasn’t looked back since.

Bugatti Veyron – 2005

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Ah yes, the Bugatti Veyron. Volkswagen purchased Bugatti in 1998 and immediately set to work developing a range of concept cars that would culminate in the 1000hp Veyron. In 2005, the 16.4 became the world’s fastest car, clocking 253.81mph. In 2010, the Super Sport eclipsed that by traveling at 267.857mph. It remains the world’s fastest road-legal production car.

Audi R8 – 2007

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Four years after the launch of the Gallardo, Audi unveiled the R8. The transformation from German also-rans to big league player was pretty much complete. Everyone from football players to rappers and lottery winners to film stars wanted to be seen in an R8. And they still do today.

Volkswagen Group 7-speed DSG – 2007

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In 2007, Volkswagen claimed a world-first with the launch of the 7-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox. The smooth-shifting transmission would go on to be used in cars across the Volkswagen Group.

Skoda Yeti – 2009

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The 20-minute feature on Top Gear may have helped, but the success of the Skoda Yeti couldn’t have been predicted. It somehow manages to pack more character than the Volkswagen Tiguan it is based on and at one point there was a nine-month waiting list for the quirky SUV.

Volkswagen Up – 2011

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

In 2011, Volkswagen delivered the world’s best city car. The Up is the benchmark all other city cars must beat, although you could opt for the Skoda Citigo or slow-selling Seat Mii versions if you fancied something slightly different.

Porsche 918 Spyder – 2013

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

The Porsche 918 Spyder creates a unique halo above the entire range of Porsche cars, most notably its plug-in hybrid cars, such as the Panamera and Cayenne. It’s a hypercar in a very modern sense, siting alongside the LaFerrari and McLaren P1.

Ducati 899 Panigale – 2013

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

Cars, trucks and – in 2012 – motorcycles. Ferdinand Piech is a keen biker and a long-time admirer of Ducati. Indeed, he tried to buy the company from the Italian government in 1984. The realisation of a dream came true in 2012 when Ducati became a subsidiary of Lamborghini. The Ducati 899 Panigale – launched in 2013 – is one of the company’s best-ever bikes.

SEAT Leon Cupra 280 – 2014

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

You could buy a Volkswagen Golf GTI, or you could buy something with a uniquely Spanish flavour. That’s the benefit of platform-sharing, because the Volkswagen Group is able to appeal to a far wider range of buyers. The 280hp Leon Cupra was a brilliant hot hatch – and was even available in estate form.

Volkswagen Golf R Estate – 2015

The life and legacy of Ferdinand Piech

We end with the last Volkswagen we drove when Ferdinand Piech was still in residence at Volkswagen HQ. The Golf R Estate remains all the car you’ll ever need: a fitting end to a remarkable career. Dr Piech may be gone, but he won’t be forgotten.

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