MUNICH -- Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned his post on Wednesday, taking responsibility for the automaker's rigging of U.S. diesel emissions tests.
"I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group," he said in a statement.
"As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the supervisory board to agree on terminating my function as CEO," the statement said. "I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part," Winterkorn said.
Senior members of Volkswagen's supervisory board said in a separate statement that they expected further heads to roll in the coming days as an internal investigation seeks to identify who was responsible for what has turned into the biggest scandal in Volkswagen's 78-year history. All those involved in the diesel tests manipulation "will be subject to the full consequences," the statement said.
VW said recommendations for new personnel will be presented at the full supervisory board meeting on Friday. Porsche chief Matthias Mueller, Audi chief Rupert Stadler and the head of the VW brand, Herbert Diess, are seen as the front-runners to replace Winterkorn, three people familiar with the matter told Reuters. Mueller is seen as the favorite among the three due to his years of experience within the group, two of the people said. Mueller oversees the brand that is a profit driver for the group. Diess joined VW in July from BMW where he helped to cut billions of euros in purchasing costs during the global financial crisis.
Even with new leadership, it will be extraordinarily difficult for VW to get that fresh start. In the few days since the scandal came to light, the company has been barraged with news of class-action lawsuits, investigations by state, federal and international regulatory bodies, and U.S. congressional hearings that will force it to explain how the cheating came about and how it went undetected for seven years.
It also faces the task of bringing into compliance as many 11 million vehicles worldwide, and mollifying millions of angry customers whose cars may see declines in fuel economy, performance and value.
Winterkorn's resignation capped a dramatic fall from grace that began last Friday with the revelation that the company fitted diesel-powered vehicles with software that circumvented air pollution controls, then lied about it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The 68-year-old CEO, who personally apologized for the affair, was unable to hang on as the stock price plummeted 35 percent over two days and pressure grew from the German government for quick action.
Winterkorn, who took over in 2007, led a turnaround that propelled VW from an also-ran that had cut 20,000 German jobs under his predecessor to a global powerhouse with about 600,000 employees that included a stable of 12 brands from Lamborghini supercars to Scania heavy trucks. He expanded aggressively, boosting the number of production sites around the world to more than 100 locations, with an emphasis on China and North America.
An avid soccer fan, he was accustomed to boardroom brawls and until Wednesday always came out on top. As chief of the luxury Audi division, where he set in motion a doubling of product offerings with models such as the Q7 SUV, he sparred with then-VW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder over the direction of the company, eventually leading to Pischetsrieder’s ouster.
Faced with a takeover attempt from Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, Winterkorn fought off that effort as the global financial crisis undid the suitor’s company, turning the tables on his foe to buy the Porsche sports-car brand instead. His spending spree also included adding the MAN and Scania commercial-vehicle nameplates, as well as Ducati motorbikes.