"Vorsprung durch Technik" - the life of Ferdinand Piëch

Filed under:
News, Volkswagen
on 04/17/2007

Source: Volkswagen

Prof. Dr. h.c. Ferdinand K. Piëch celebrates his 70th birthday on April 17, but his passion for cars rules out any thought of retirement. Following his career as a manager at Porsche, Audi and VW, the Vienna-born grandson of the world-famous automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche is today still active as chairman of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG and a member of the Supervisory Board of Porsche AG. In the words of the laudation at his induction into the “Manager-Magazin” Hall of Fame in 2002: “What singles him out is competence, genius, devotion, persistence and passion.”

Piëch was practically born into the world of cars in Vienna in 1937, and grew up in the Porsche-Piëch-family. The family not only owns the Stuttgart-based sports car maker Porsche and Porsche Holding, a vehicle distribution company based in Salzburg, but also recently became the owner of almost one third of the shares in the Volkswagen Group through Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG.

As a child, Ferdinand Piëch was already a frequent visitor to present-day Wolfsburg during his holidays, as both his father and grandfather were managers at the "Volkswagen-Werk". Ferdinand Porsche, who long ago entered the annals of automotive history as the inventor of the legendary "VW Beetle" and the creator of the Auto Union racing cars, was always a role model for his grandson. Cars therefore had a formative influence on Ferdinand Piëch from an early age.

Today, the Austrian is for many the "Car Executive of the Century". Piëch’s success rests on two pillars: the first is his performance as Audi chairman from 1988 to 1993 and as VW chairman between 1993 and 2002. The second is his technical talent, which gave him his worldwide reputation as an outstanding car developer and visionary. His name is associated with many pioneering innovations, from the Porsche 917 racing car through the Audi Quattroquattro drive to the Audi A8 with its lightweight aluminum body; from the 1001 bhp Bugatti Veyron to Volkswagen’s one-liter car, still the unrivalled embodiment of economical driving.

Tinkering with technology to bring new advances was, and still is, Ferdinand Piëch’s overriding passion. Once he had left boarding school in Zuoz, Switzerland, and graduated with a degree in engineering from Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, he felt very much at home in his first job at Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche KG in Stuttgart. One of the responsibilities of the young engineer, who later became head of testing (1966), head of development (1968) and technical general manager (1971), was motor sport. And once Piëch had fine tuned the air-cooled six-cylinder Porsche 911 engine, he devoted most of his attention to designing racing cars, often pushing to the technical and financial limit. His legacy from this period – Porsche has been firmly anchored in motor sport ever since.

Everything that has characterized Ferdinand Piëch throughout his career as a manager can be traced back to his first job at Porsche. First, he always set his sights high and never failed to see things through. Second, everything revolved around the car. And third, he always attached great importance to the smallest details of every new development. His goal at Porsche soon became clear: he wanted to develop the lightest racing cars in the world. He successfully proved his point for the first time with the speed hill climb cars which took the competition by storm: thanks to technical refinements such as beryllium brake disks and titanium parts, these cars weighed as little as 430 kilos and dominated speed hill climbing for years. He enjoyed similar success with the Porsche 917, which was launched with a 560 bhp twelve-cylinder engine in 1969 and became one of the world’s most successful racing cars. One small detail of the 917 highlights Piëch’s approach: the gear knob was worked in balsa – to keep the weight down.

Porsche convincingly won the World Sports Car Championship in 1970 and 1971 and recorded two successive overall victories with the 917 at the 24 hours of Le Mans. And the Porsche 917 still holds the record for the 24 hours of Le Mans with an average speed of 222 km/h over the full distance. When production of the five-cylinder sports car ceased at the end of the 1971 season, Piëch sent the turbo-charged 917/10 to the starting grid in the 1972 North American CanAm race series, having first tested a 16-cylinder naturally aspirated engine. With a power output of 1,000 bhp, the Porsche 917/10 won the CanAm and Interserie championships right off. The Porsche 917/30, which developed a maximum 1,100 bhp, repeated this success one year later, and only a change in rules put a stop to Porsche’s winning streak.

Ferdinand Piëch enjoys the challenge of creating something new. When, in 1972, the Piëch and Porsche families unanimously decided that all family members should withdraw from operative business at Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch moved to Audi on August 1, 1972. He initially held responsibility for special projects, subsequently becoming the board member for development in 1975, and finally chairman in 1988. During the years spent in Ingolstadt, he and his team completely transformed the Audi image. Audi models, once labeled as "homespun", suddenly acquired a reputation as high-quality and innovative premium class vehicles. "Vorsprung durch Technik" (advancement through technology) was Piëch’s motto – and the brand with the four rings became a premium automaker and a serious competitor for BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

And Piëch made sure that the "Vorsprung durch Technik" motto was actually practiced at Audi. After all, he was not just adept at number crunching, he also knew how to deploy his technical experience to forge ahead with innovation. The "Quattroquattro" all-wheel drive was developed, the first all-aluminum body introduced for a series vehicle (the Audi A8), and the Audi 100 "Streamline" (Cd value of 0.29), the five-cylinder engine, the fully galvanized body, the TDI direct injection diesel engine, together with various extremely attractive studies such as the Audi Spyder Quattroquattro Spyder, all made an appearance.

Ferdinand Piëch also nurtured his love of motor sport at Audi – thus providing perfect support for the brand’s transformation. The entrance of the Quattroquattro models on the rally sport scene in 1981 brought four world championship titles and spectacular victories – plus racing drivers whose names are intrinsically linked with Audi: Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Walter Röhrl or Michelle Mouton and Walter Röhrl. The winning streak continued later in other racing championships (DTM title in 1990/1991) – and motor sport success is today still closely associated with the name of Ferdinand Piëch.

Describing Ferdinand Piëch, "Manager Magazin" wrote: "He is the kingmaker among German car manufacturers". He probably faced his biggest baptism of fire as a manager when he became chairman of Volkswagen AG on January 1, 1993. When Piëch took the helm, the group was in bad shape: high costs, low sales, overcapacities. Nine years later, he presented shareholders with an outstanding performance: sales had doubled, profit had been maximized. The figures for 2001 read as follows: 5.11 million vehicles built, sales of 173.2 billion Deutschmarks, profit before tax of 8.62 billion Deutschmarks and a five percent return on sales. Ferdinand Piëch had turned an ailing group into a global player – as well as setting new trends in Germany: Wolfsburg became the "Autostadt", the world of mobility, pulling in the crowds; the "Gläserne Manufaktur" in Dresden attracted visitors from all over the world; with VW’s support, VfL Wolfsburg was promoted to Germany’s soccer Premiership. And both the city and the club enjoy the benefits of an exceptional stadium, the Volkswagen-Arena.

VW’s success story is, once again, chiefly attributable to the technical know-how of Ferdinand Piëch. When he arrived in Wolfsburg, Volkswagen had 28 models. Nine years later, the number was 65. This model fireworks was in essence the symbol of the Piëch era. Volkswagen entered the top class with the Phaeton and the Touareg, the New Beetle triggered new emotions from the Beetle’s legendary past and Wolfsburg’s engineers were able to demonstrate the highest technical competence in the form of 12-cylinder and 16-cylinder engines. At the same time, the traditional brands of Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini joined the group, and new shareholding networks for future truck business (Scania/MAN) were mapped out.

Ferdinand Piëch’s achievements in Wolfsburg are tremendous. He won particular acclaim for two milestones in automotive development. The first is the 3-liter car which uses 2.9 liters of regular gas per 100 kilometers. and the second is the 1-liter car, which he took on a spectacular solo drive from Wolfsburg to the Volkswagen Annual General Meeting in Hamburg on his last day as chairman of the board of management. For the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ), that was even worthy of an editorial bearing the headline: "A magnificent departure".

The FAZ 2002 editorial was a little premature. Today, on the eve of his 70th birthday, Piëch’s word still carries great weight in the automotive world – not only as chairman of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG and Supervisory Board member of Porsche AG.

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