Automotive Purchasing Weekly 27 April 2015 - page 18

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Piëchgetshiscoat - changea long
timecomingatVW?
27 April 2015 | People
In a well-overdue power shift at the top of
Europe’s largest OEM, Ferdinand Piëch has
bowed to the inevitable - or has he? Simon
Duval Smith reviews an extraordinary
career.
The role of chairman in a global giant
like Volkswagen could be seen as a pivotal
final decision-making kingship. But in reality
it has become a lonely seat where the king
has sat long after democracy has taken over
and the former royal state has long been
more of a republic.
So when we learned of the forced
resignation of Ferdinand Piëch last weekend,
it did not come as a great surprise. Piëch
has sat back for a long time, busying himself
with expensive and time-consuming flagship
projects such as the Bugatti Veyron and
the Phaeton. Projects that went completely
against the original remit of the company;
after all the clue should be in the name:
Volks-wagen - the people’s car...?
That’s the easy view, the opinion of many
industry commentators who are mainly too
young to remember what extraordinary
projects Piëch managed to push through
while juggling power in a German industrial
giant.
Take the Veyron. With Piëch’s insistence
on 1,000 horse-power and no changes to
the car’s bodywork, even when experienced
engineers insisted it could be made more
stable with aerodynamic additions, he
moved the sportscar world on radically,
and brought in a new era of performance.
Wendelin Wiedeking, once the CEO of
Porsche, called this and similar Piëch moves
“vanity projects.” Wiedeking is no longer
with Porsche.
Win on Sunday sell on Monday
When Porsche’s grip on endurance sports
car racing started to falter, as it’s 906 and
908 were outclassed by Lola and Ford,
many executives would have looked at the
success of the 911 and decided that a ‘win
on Sunday, sell on Monday’ programme was
not justified. Not Piëch. He commissioned
the 917, the car that won Le Mans in 1970
and 1971 and went on to become the
definitive endurance racer of all time. Piëch
led the project, in every area 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
homologation. And with sales to privateer
teams and substantial sponsorship deals
he turned racing, usually seen as a hole to
throw money in, into a profitable enterprise.
Quattro master
Piëch was Chairman of Audi’s board of
management from 1988 to 1992, a time
when the brand was struggling to create
an identity distinct from VW. Many people
forget that he joined Audi in 1972, after
leaving Porsche and was head of technical
development from 1974 to 1988. While he
may have been miffed at being pushed out
of the family business, he threw himself into
turning Audi around, cleverly spotting that
technology (vorsprung durch technik) was
the right character to instil into the brand.
He pushed to produce Audi’s first
successful V-8, its pioneering work with
five-cylinder
engines,
turbocharging
and aluminium construction. But his real
masterstroke was the quattro, the car that
gave its name to Audi’s four-wheel-drive
system, a feature which still defines the
brand. It was the first practical all-wheel-
drive sports car, a rally-winning champion,
and the first machine to bring turbocharged,
all-weather performance to the masses.
Not a popular move in the conservative
boardrooms at VW-Audi at the time no
doubt; Piëch fought hard to make his vision
a reality. And again changed the face of cars
as we know them.
The real power
The official line from Wolfsburg is that
Piëch has resigned after a power struggle
with Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn. And
yes, Winterkorn has overseen an incredible
eight years at the helmof the company during
its most explosive growth. But look carefully
at the nature of the expansion. It has come
through globalisation and fairly conservative
technical and quality management, not
through the daring and exciting moves that
men like Piëch have stuck their necks out to
pioneer.
It has been reported that Piëch had
criticised Winterkorn in an interview recently.
I would expect nothing less from the man
who brought us the such modern exciting
motor cars.
Piëch won the power struggle a long time
ago - with horsepower not boardroom horse
feathers. And I don’t mean feathers.
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