FERDINAND’S FOLLIES

“I’VE SET THE ENGINEERS A TARGET: I’VE TOLD THEM THE PHAETON’S CABIN MUST BE ABLE TO MAINTAIN 22 DEGREES IN 50-DEGREE OUTSIDE TEMPERATURES WHILE BEING DRIVEN ALL DAY AT 300KM/H.”

Peter Robinson

Only Ferdinand Piech, the fanatical, utterly singleminded Volkswagen CEO, obsessed with beating the S-Class Mercedes-Benz, could come up with such a ridiculous demand.

But it was Piech’s answer to the next question during the 1999 Frankfurt motor show, where the Phaeton was revealed as Concept D, that left us even more incredulous.

“What happens,” we asked, “if the engineering team can’t deliver?”

“Then I will fire them all and bring in a new team, and if they tell me they can’t do it, I will fire them, too.”

Observing the dramatic recent events surrounding Volkswagen’s deliberate cheating on emissions levels, Piech’s extraordinary answer from 16 years ago took on a new significance.

Piech’s style was not to motivate but to use his enormous power to get what he wanted

Is it possible, I wondered, if the culture that flowed from Piech’s ruthless management style, which spread fear throughout the VW empire, meant that a small group of terrified engineers, unable to meet the proposed emission targets, simply decided to cheat rather than admit failure?

I have no inside knowledge; I’ve not spoken to a VW engineer in more than a year. This is just a personal theory developed in trying to fathom why personal theory developed in trying to fathom why VW would create a ‘defeat’ software to enable the diesel engines to pass emissions laws. It seems to me that, although there was no direct order from senior management, the team responsible for developing the EA189 engine knew failure was not an option.

Piech’s management style was not to motivate but to use his enormous power to get what he wanted. Throughout his career as CEO of Audi and then Volkswagen (later, from 2002 until 2015, he was chairman of the VW Group supervisory board) he fired numerous executives or forced them to resign in frustration. In his autobiography, Piech (a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche) admitted that “my desire for harmony is limited”.

In his first three years as boss of VW more than 20 managers left the company. Among the talented executives forced out by Piech were: Jurgen Stockmar, his successor as head of R&D at Audi; Prof Ulrich Seiffert, head of R&D at VW; Franz-Josef Kortum, Audi boss for 13 months; Herbert Demel, Audi’s next CEO; VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, just half a year after his contract was extended; and former Audi and then Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen.

In 2011, motoring writer Georg Kacher, who famously feuded with Piech for decades, recalled Piech’s first words on meeting him at a VW reception: “In Japan, writers like you would have long ago been fished dead out of the sea.”

Piech’s environment and corporate culture of fear was sustained by his similarly driven successor Martin Winterkorn, who resigned in the wake of the emissions scandal. Winterkorn, famously caught on film adjusting a Hyundai i30’s steering wheel at the 2011 Frankfurt motor show, was heard forcefully asking his underlings (in German): “How do they do it? BMW can’t do it, we can’t do it... no clanging!” He is told, “We had a solution, but it was too expensive...”

The impossible takes a little longer

THE Bugatti Veyron was fi rst unveiled as a W18- powered concept in 1998.

By early 2001, when Piech (above) formally announced production plans for the now W16 Veyron, he declared it would be the most powerful and fastest production car in the world – with more than 1000bhp (746kW) and a top speed of over 400km/h – despite not knowing if either were realistic. Delays in solving massive cooling and aerodynamic problems (under a new chief engineer) meant production didn’t commence until September 2005.