Ferdinand Piëch's death: The tough dog could be very soft

Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Piëch (* 1937; † 2019)

Nowhere is it lied like in obituaries, it is said. It may be that some of the hymns of praise that are now being spread about Ferdinand Piëch are due to polite duty. But all obituaries share a common true core: Prof. Dr. hc Ferdinand Piëch was a brilliant and visionary car designer and manager who had a positive impact on Germany's key industry worldwide.

So I have had very personal experiences with the "old", which make it seem very different to me than was often portrayed in the media. Piëch was indeed a brilliant string puller who mercilessly executed not only technical but also personnel decisions, but also promoted those who had the same quality standards and product visions as he did. Martin Winterkorn was one of the sponsors as well as ex-Audi boss Rupert Stadler and numerous nameless people who still regret his departure from the VW cosmos.

When he was head of development at Audi and I was editor-in-chief of Autozeitung in Cologne, I got to know the other side of this tough manager. It was about Audi test cars, which are said to have been equipped with sharper camshafts in order to achieve better acceleration values. We at Autozeitung were able to refute the rumors with our own measurements. We have reported accordingly. In a long personal letter to me, Piëch thanked “this fair journalism”. A few days later, he called me and said: "If you ever get stuck with questions to Audi at our company, you can reach me directly on my secret number at any time." However, I never had to use it.

Piëch's quick wit was sometimes surprising

Another time I experienced his technical competence and his quick-wittedness, which no one believed him rhetorically. At the presentation of the Audi 80 quattro in St. Moritz, a journalist asked him whether four driven wheels were really necessary and sensible. He answered me so impressively plausibly that I will never forget this argument. He only asked the journalist with his typically quiet, poisoned verbal arrows: "Do you think brakes on all four wheels make sense?" The journalist was speechless, he didn't answer and his tense smile was a smile with nothing behind it than teeth. Somehow his question suddenly seemed embarrassing. With Piëch's answer everything and more was said. And the triumphal march of the quattro drive began.

Ferdinand Piëch with wife Ursula 2009 at the VW general meeting

One can imagine how feared an argumentative argument with the old might have been. However, Piëch's authority was based on a multidimensional and enormous technical competence. Nobody could fool him. Interviews with him were difficult because his soft voice somehow sounded as if he really didn't want to say anything. Every answer had to be worked out hard. But what he formulated so quietly was anything but harmless and cost the job to some of the top management. The head of a large Bavarian manufacturer indicated to me long before Bernd Pischetsrieder's official departure as VW boss that his days at Volkswagen were numbered. Piëch casually told him at a VDA conference on Pischetsrieder: “He can't do it”… It is probably not possible to formulate a dismissal from a top position in a shorter way.

Four weeks later, Pischetsrieder was history, although the contract had been extended shortly before, but was then completely fulfilled by Volkswagen. That was also Piëch in all personnel decisions: financially very generous.

Bringing Rolls-Royce into the company remained an unfulfilled dream

He did not want to forgive Pischetsrieder that BMW could acquire the luxury brand Rolls-Royce, while only Bentley remained for Volkswagen. Piëch's dream was to get the British luxury brand with the RR emblem and the Flying Lady on the radiator into its automotive universe. This is one of a few unfulfilled Piëch dreams.

His sentence about the then Porsche boss Wendelin Wiedeking was also legendary. When asked by a journalist whether the Porsche boss still had his trust, he encoded the impending expulsion in the sentence: "You can delete the remaining one."

At an Audi event, PR boss Lutz Schilling offered me the opportunity to sit next to Piëch at dinner. His wife and current widow Ursula Piëch sat next to her husband and I witnessed a conversation that couldn't be more normal. Piëch turned to me and complained that his wife was always too fast on the highway and had recently caught a speed camera. His wife just laughed, pointing out that her husband had also been flashed a few times. The family banter reminded me of discussions with my wife. The Piëch family like you and me? In any case, the friendly and teasing argument ended with Piëch offering to pay the fine for his wife, but swapping her Porsche for a slower car. The “old man” said it so lovingly that you could definitely see the soft core behind his stoic facial expressions when it came to family peace. Family was extremely important to Piëch, as long as it did not concern the Porsche branch with which he struggled to the end.

“At a distance from Winterkorn”

When Piech in the mirror went "at a distance" to Martin Winterkorn, Winterkorn's professional future was also decided. I now speculate quite daringly that the “old man” found out very early on in his network how cheating in the USA was or should be done. Such an oversized decision to beautify the diesel exhaust gases in the USA cannot have been escaped or concealed from the best-informed Piëch. Piëch has told the prosecutor that he actually knew about the fraud. However, he wants to know about it when he could no longer intervene. However, he had warned the supervisory board of what it denied. With Piëch's death, this topic remains in the dark.

Piëch must have known about the fraud very early. This was probably the reason why Winterkorn publicly withdrew his trust. Piëch must have had valid reasons. And inadequate US sales are not enough. It is and remains my belief that Piëch should have learned about exhaust gas fraud in the planning phase and suspected how high the risk for VW would be. He told the prosecutor that he had warned those responsible to implement the fraud. Piëch obviously saw the risk, which eventually cost $ 23 billion in the United States alone and has brought two executives in America and Martin Winterkorn with charges including an international arrest warrant.

More billions are on fire in Europe. Oliver Schmidt, who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in the United States, is still on trial against his termination without notice and against damages claimed by VW. It would be interesting to know how Piëch last saw and judged the "diesel issue". Perhaps something surprising will come to the public here. Ferdinand Piëch will continue to appear in the media for a long time.

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