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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Dr. Piëch's Legacy: Hits and Misses from a Distinguished Career

Dr. Ferdinand Karl Piëch, the architect of the VW Group—an entity that makes hyper-fuel-efficient cars, the fastest car in the world, and everything in between—

died on Sunday, August 25, at age 82.

His detractors may have called him megalomaniacal, but that’s because none of them could outsmart him. And Piëch did not come by automotive domination accidentally. His grandfather was Ferdinand Porsche, whose portfolio includes the Auto Union 16-cylinder GP racers, the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Porsche brand. Piëch got his start there after graduating from school in 1962. At Porsche, the young Piëch worked on the 911 and the audacious, Le Mans–winning 917.

Piëch then helped take Audi from the maker of the stodgy 100 and Fox to a plucky, tech-pioneering winner in rally racing.

Then there’s the little matter of Piëch’s resurrection of Volkswagen itself in the early ’90s. In 1993, the year that Piëch became VW CEO, the company lost $1.1 billion and sold just 62,061 cars in the U.S. When Piëch retired as CEO in 2002, VW sold 355,648 cars here.

He also engineered the ouster of Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking and finagled the absorption of Porsche as VW’s 10th brand.

This is a man who has touched more important cars in the last half-century  than has any other single human being—for good and ill. What follows is a survey of the man’s hits and misses.


When Piëch arrived at Audi in 1972, the brand was the stodgy and neglected child of Volkswagen, building uninspired cars like the 100 and the Fox. Under Piëch, the company would turn out a succession of technologically advanced and sophisticated cars such as the 1981 Quattro. Based on the relatively pedestrian Audi Coupe, the Quattro fused turbocharging and all-wheel drive to create a practical supercar. Even though it sold in small numbers, the Quattro is credited with establishing the brand’s sportiness and technological proficiency almost overnight. The Quattro dominated the rally circuit from 1981 to 1986, bringing home two manufacturers’ and two drivers’ world championships.


Piëch’s greatest accomplishment at Porsche would have to be his leadership role in developing the legendary 917 race car. At the time, Porsche was a tiny company, and the 917 was a huge gamble that swallowed giant sums of money and manpower. But the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the 917 made it one of the greatest race cars ever. A technical marvel, the 917 utilized advanced lightweight materials and had a pressurized aluminum tube frame to ensure weld integrity. Its air-cooled flat-12 developed about 600 horsepower; later turbo versions made well over 1000. It won Le Mans twice and went on to dominate Can-Am racing so thoroughly that it contributed to the series’ demise. While the 917 put Porsche on the map as a virtually unbeatable engineering powerhouse, the risk and cost involved with its development put the company’s existence at stake. Today, Piëch acknowledges some uneasiness about the money spent on the 917, but at the time, it was the Porsche family that had reservations about Piëch’s gamble. In 1972, Piëch was forced out of Porsche and moved on to an engineering position at Audi.


In a quest for fuel efficiency, Audi introduced the aerodynamic 5000 to the U.S. market in 1984. Although its body possessed a low drag coefficient, the 5000 was a sports sedan underneath, boasting turbocharging and all-wheel drive. In America, however, it is best remembered for being the car accused of unintended acceleration. Audi blamed its customers for the accidents while Piëch stated, “We must teach Americans how to drive.” Audi sales plummeted from a high of 74,601 in 1985 to 41,332 two years later. Eventually, NHTSA cleared Audi of all charges, but its reputation would remain damaged in the U.S. for years.


Early on, this complex technology, which allows for ultraquick shifts and works far more efficiently than a conventional automatic, had few proponents. Used in race cars such as the Porsche 962, the technology’s value was understood by Piëch, and he fought to bring it to market years ahead of the competition.


Considered to be one of Piëch’s greatest failures, the Phaeton was his attempt to push VW into competition with flagship sedans from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus. The Phaeton’s lavish and hideously expensive plant in Dresden, Germany, has operated below capacity for years. To make matters worse, the Phaeton directly competed with another VW Group product, the Audi A8, but the VW was built on a different platform than the Audi. VW pulled the car from the U.S. market after three years.


After his tenure at Audi, Piëch turned his attention to Volkswagen; he was the company’s CEO from 1993 until 2002. One of his first cars at VW was the fourth-gen Passat. Inspired by Peter Schreyer’s Audi A1X concept (an internal project), it was a lavishly engineered sedan with Audi mechanicals and refinement, and it contributed to VW’s resurgence. A pricey (nearly $40,000) eight-cylinder (W-8) version flopped but showed Piëch’s willingness to take risks in his attempt to move VW upmarket.


To slash costs, Piëch poached cost-cutter José Ignacio López from General Motors. Soon after, López was accused of stealing corporate secrets from GM. VW agreed to pay $100 million to GM in 1997 to avoid a courtroom battle—but Piëch denies wrongdoing: “In my 40 years in the business, my admiration for Opel has never reached the level of arousing my interest in any secrets behind it,” he would comment later.


In 1998, under the direction of Piëch, the VW Group purchased the Bugatti brand name. After a series of concept cars, the 1001-hp Bugatti Veyron 16.4 arrived in 2005. We’re not sure if Bugatti will ever be profitable, but to us, a 253-mph supercar with a quad-turbocharged W-16 cannot be considered anything but a triumph. The 268-mph Super Sport, an even faster version followed. His resurrection of Bugatti made today's Chiron possible.

By: Car and Driver

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