Ferdinand Piech, who celebrates his 80th birthday Monday, can look back at a lifetime of accomplishments that put Volkswagen Group on the path to becoming the world’s largest automaker.
Piech's relationship with VW Group is ending bitterly after he lost influence and power. During his career, Piech was regarded as ruthless and uncompromising, an image he did nothing to counter, but his achievements are indisputable.
An engineer by training, Piech rose to become VW Group's CEO and later chairman. Along the way he turned VW's Audi brand into a true rival to Mercedes-Benz and BMW, rescued VW from the threat of bankruptcy and added brands such as Bentley and Bugatti.
Piech began his career with Porsche, the sports car company founded by his grandfather Ferdinand Porsche, where as chief engineer he developed its first Le Mans winning car, the Porsche 917. He nearly bankrupted the company in the process, leading to the Porsche-Piech clan banning family members from operational roles in the automaker.
Looking for a new start, Piech arrived at Audi in 1972 as an engineer for special projects. At the time Audi had a conservative image and was regarded as a mass-market automaker on the same level as Opel. Piech, who rose to become Audi CEO, took the brand upmarket by focusing on technological innovation.
Piech engineered the first five-cylinder gasoline engine and later the first permanent all-wheel drive for road-going cars in the Audi Quattro, which debuted at the 1980 Geneva auto show. In 1989 Audi unveiled at the Frankfurt show the world's first production TDI (turbocharged direct injection) five-cylinder diesel engine in the Audi 100.
Piech also moved the brand into lightweight construction very early on, developing Audi's A8 flagship sedan to be the first car to use an all-aluminum body frame in 1993. Audi today continues to be a leader in lightweight construction and its aluminum A2, which was axed in 2005 because of poor sales, is seeing a renaissance in the used-vehicle market.
When he was appointed Volkswagen CEO in January 1993, Piech inherited a company in crisis. That year VW posted what was its heaviest loss until its diesel emissions scandal plunged it to a 4.1-billion-euro deficit for 2015.
Under his leadership, VW introduced a then-revolutionary platform sharing strategy, in which various cars competing in the same segment under different brands were built off the same architecture to save costs.
Toyota won a reputation for green cars with the Prius hybrid but Piech was one of the first to experiment on ultra-low consumption cars earlier. In 1999, VW introduced a Lupo minicar with pioneering technologies to reduce fuel consumption to 3 liters per 100km (78 mpg U.S.; 94 mpg Imperial). Piech developed its successor, the experimental “1-Liter-Auto," which used just under 1 liter of diesel per 100km. He drove one to his final annual meeting as VW's CEO in 2002. More than ten years later the idea was made reality in a small series production vehicle called the XL1.