Ferdinand Karl Piëch was born in Vienna, Austria, on 17 April 1937, to Louise (daughter to Ferdinand and sister of Ferry Porsche) and Anton Piëch, a lawyer. He was the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, from whom he undoubtedly inherited his love for all things mechanical.
Piëch graduated from the ETH Zurich (university for science and technology) in Switzerland in 1962, with a degree in mechanical engineering. His Master’s thesis was unsurprisingly written on the development of a Formula One engine as the Type 804 F1 race car was being developed at Porsche at that time. From 1963 to 1971, he worked at the family firm in Stuttgart where he introduced many significant changes in the company’s policy. As the head of Research & Development, which included motorsport, he was instrumental in the development of the Porsche 906, 910, 907, 908, 909 and of course the iconic Porsche 917 that ruled the circuits up to 1971.
In order to prevent disagreements among the family members who worked at Porsche, Ferry decreed in early 1972 that all Porsche family members were to withdraw from the management of the company. As a result, Ferdinand Piëch began his career at Audi AG in 1972. In 1988, he became CEO of Audi AG, before taking over the position of CEO of Volkswagen AG in 1993, succeeding Carl Hahn. At that time, Volkswagen was a struggling organisation, but he was central to bringing about the company’s dramatic turnaround. One of the VW Group’s biggest markets was the USA, and here Piëch performed a master stroke by introducing the new Beetle in 1998, widening its product mix and giving the company a timely and much-needed increase in its market presence there.
While at Audi in the late 1970s, Piëch was instrumental in creating the Audi quattro road and rally cars, a model that so totally dominated the international Group B rally scene that it changed rallying forever. The brainchild of Jörg Bensinger, chief chassis engineer for Audi, Piëch agreed to the project on condition that they create a high-performance road car as well, again expanding the product mix. The original Audi quattro concept was famously tested in the frigid conditions on the 23 percent incline of the famed Turracher Höhe pass in Austria in January 1978 before the assembled VW executives. They needed no further convincing, and the rest as they as, is history.
In his quest to broaden the VW Group’s product mix still further, Piëch successfully acquired Lamborghini and brought that brand under the Audi flag. He also established Bugatti Automobiles SAS, adding this famous name to the list of iconic brands under the VW Group banner. He didn’t stop there, as he went after the famous Rolls-Royce and Bentley companies, and although the Rolls-Royce name slipped through his fingers when it was snapped up by BMW, he did secure the Bentley marque. He also integrated Scania and MAN into the Group, laying the foundation for a globally competitive commercial vehicle supplier.
Always with an eye to creating and developing new and innovative products, Piëch influenced the development of numerous significant cars including the Bugatti Veyron, which until 2012 was the fastest, most powerful and most expensive road legal automobile ever built.
In 2002, Piëch was elected Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG. In 2015, he resigned from his positions in the Volkswagen Group.
Ferdinand Piëch contributed significantly to all the companies in which he worked. His visionary approach and engineering brilliance has left its mark for the generations to follow. It comes as no surprise, though, that Piëch’s influence was felt most notably throughout the Porsche company. As a young engineer in the R&D department in Stuttgart, he envisioned the company winning the 24 Heures du Mans. However, Porsche could only compete in the up to 2-litre class in the early ‘60s. Steadily through that decade, Piëch pushed his designers and engineers to develop bigger and better racers until in 1970, he achieved his goal of winning Le Mans with the 917. This achievement opened the floodgates, as Porsche stands today head and shoulders above any other manufacturer with the highest number of overall wins at Le Mans, which currently stands at 19 victories. None of this would have happened had it not been for the bold, sometimes uncompromising approach he adopted, by constantly pushing for greater power, more speed and ultimately records.
Piëch is widely admired by the thousands of loyal Porsche enthusiasts around the world. Disliked by some for his brash attitude, you cannot but admire what a mark this man has left on the automotive world, and it is not for nothing that he was named the Car Executive of the Century in 1999. In 2014, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, taking his rightful place among the motor industry’s greatest influencers.
Ferdinand Karl Piëch passed away on Sunday 25 August 2019 in Rosenheim, Oberbayern, at the age of 82. He will be missed by Porsche’s many motoring and motorsport enthusiasts around the world. On behalf of everyone at Porsche Road & Race, we offer our most sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & Porsche Werkfoto