Car News: Death of a Salesman

A weekly look at all that sucks and blows in the car world, and some good bits

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Ferdinand Karl Piëch – 1937-2019

Readers who take little interest in cars won’t have noticed various obituaries published on the death of one of the car industry’s giants, engineering genius, savour and defiler of Volkswagen, Ferdinand Piëch, an all-out Machiavellian bully. If ever Dieselgate is laid at his door – he retired just before the news broke – the reasons for the massive cheating of emission levels can be blamed on his tyrannical and ruthless leadership of Volkswagen.

Piëch lived a long life, dying aged 82. Having steered VW to international sales profit, and taken several struggling brands into its ownership, Bentley, Porsche, Audi, Skoda, SEAT, Lamborghini, to name only a few, it is fitting he lived long enough to see his empire severely tarnished by men who cowered at his imperious domination.

He was named car executive of the century in 1999, thee most prestigious award in the car industry that lives on a diet of hyperbole, conventional, safe design, and project deceit. Piëch was at the heart of the German car industry for five decades, leading motor racing competition at Porsche in the 1960s, turning Audi into a luxury competitor to Mercedes and BMW in the 1970s and 1980s, and reviving VW in the 1990s and 2000s.

What salivating car journalists won’t tell readers is how much of a cold fish he was, frozen is more accurate, and how brutal he became to rivals and colleagues he disliked. His cold manner and cut-throat leadership style contributed, according to critics, to three major scandals at VW in the past 30 years, culminating in the company-threatening crisis in 2015 over diesel emissions. The German weekly Der Spiegel once described work life at VW as “North Korea without the labour camps”.

Piëch was dictatorial. He accepted no excuses for failure. He is chiefly responsible for the preposterous reincarnation of the Bugatti marque, the Veyron. In an effort to beat the competition of his day, namely Ferrari and the (then) British McLaren company, he forced the ersatz Bugatti with the fireplace for a nose to cost over a million pounds each while the bread and butter of VW, the Golf, was starved of development cash and build quality. The Veyron storm trooper never made a profit, needed a dozen radiators to keep the engine cool, and weighed a ton. Lightweight super cars reached similar speeds without the noise and fury and £2,000 a wheel replacement. The cars became collectors items, rarely seen driven on a normal road. The VW Veyron stands as an emblem of the combustion engine pushed to ludicrous levels, a ginormous white elephant.

Piëch was born in 1937 in Vienna with “petrol in his blood”, as he wrote in his memoir, appropriately called Auto.Biographie. His mother, Louise, was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Beetle at the behest of Hitler, while his father Anton Piëch ran the main VW factory for the Nazis for most of the second world war. After his father died when Piëch was just 15, he was sent to Swiss boarding school by his notoriously tough mother. Allies said that helped form a personality that allowed few people to get close to him. It was when in charge of Porsche Racing that he almost bankrupted the company determining to build the Porsche 917 as a Le Mans winner. It was, three times, and that experience taught him, no doubt, never to compromise.

Later, when in control of VW and the company in trouble, the boss of Porsche made an attempt to buy VW but lost the battle and was summary dismissed, thereafter leaving Piëch to build an empire on sand by allowing  second level companies, such as SEAT and Skoda to build their own cars using old VW components. He cemented his power in 2002 becoming chairman of all he surveyed while rumbles grew over his brutal management style, his interest in technical excellence over profitability and his disregard for corporate governance standards.

Piëch’s tenure at VW was frequently bedevilled by scandals that insiders and outside critics blamed on the system he developed in which he micro-managed the company closely with workers. If you could not solve a problem Piëch had set and demanded fixed, you cheated. That way kept your job. Auto testers began to notice the diminution in quality for which VW had once been famous. In 1993, he poached a top executive from GM, leading to a backlash of insults and lawsuits over alleged corporate espionage. A second scandal, this time involving bribery and VW allegedly paying for prostitutes and Viagra for workers, broke out in 2005. Challenged about the scandals, Piëch described them as “irregularities” but denied knowledge of them. Soon after came testing emissions on monkeys, and Dieselgate itself.

There is no denying he was an engineer of considerable gifts but not one who should have been put in charge of an entire company. A comparison might be one where a movie star is given an entire studio to run and revelling in his new-found power base commissions every film with him as its star and his family in supporting roles. In 2012, Piëch nominated his wife Ursula, the family’s former nanny and 19 years his junior, to VW’s supervisory board; a “kindergarten teacher with additional qualifications in business and law” was how shareholders got the news.

Rumours emerged in 2013 that Piëch was on the point of stepping down for health reasons. Like all dictators, he demanded to know who started the rumours. “First, I must be sure who it is. Then I will send him to the guillotine.” But, in line with his self-preservation at all costs character, he did step down citing ill health, thus generously letting his junior executives take the court hits from the Dieselgate scandal and VW facing multi-million dollar fines.

And like other automotive giants he liked woman and had the money to pay for all the children he sired, an estimated twelve or more. His wife Ursula wasn’t counting when she posted a few words for the press. She opined, “Ferdinand Piëch’s life was marked by his passion for the automobile and for the workers who built them. He was an enthusiastic engineer and car lover until the end.”

One can argue with justified reason Piëch loved cars more than he loved people, but not more than he loved himself. It is fitting that he died just as the combustion engine is being phased out worldwide, and car companies are in a frantic drive (excuse the pun) to invent electric vehicles and alternative methods of propulsion built together with external and internal renewable materials, something they should have been doing over fifty years ago.

GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS

Another fall

UK car production fell 10.6 per cent in July 2019, marking the fourteenth consecutive month of decline. Some 108,239 cars rolled off UK production lines in July 2019, compared with 121,051 in the same month last year. So, if you’re looking for a bargain buy secondhand and miss out the tax and drop in valuation, or haggle like hell if buying new from a dealership. Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, car makers are piling extras into the models, extras that used to cost an arm and a shirt to buy.

More disabled badges, fewer disabled bays

There are 30 Blue Badge holders for each council-owned disabled parking space in the UK, on average, but nearly three-quarters of local authorities are not planning to create more spaces, new research shows. The shortage of council-owned disabled parking spaces is likely to get worse as well, with the eligibility criteria for Blue Badges now extended to include people with hidden disabilities. Nursing a painful crushed lower vertebrae, I parked in a disabled bay remaining behind the wheel while others brought the item to the car. Wondering if I might be eligible for a disabled badge and juggling with my pride – I used to be able to leap over a tall building in a single bound – I checked Edinburgh council’s website but was repelled by the questionnaire. For those with permanent disabilities I hope obtaining a badge is easier than I think. Numbers are guaranteed to grow, bays to remain a luxury.

The Flying Bicycles

On my way home yesterday evening, the light dying early, I counted five cyclists not just with no lights on, but no lights fitted on their bicycle to switch on. Come on, guys, get a grip. As for the one that flew past me down Dundas Street to certain oblivion soon enough, you were doing an estimated 40 mph in a 20 mph zone. I nearly wiped you out when you came at me on my blind side as I was about to signal left, you free of lights. I repeat: we need legislation to make mandatory cycle lights day and night. Cycle makers ought to be thinking of how to integrate LED lights as standard issue.

Happy motoring!

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1 Response to Car News: Death of a Salesman

  1. Lanark says:

    Like VW cars, he was sometimes brilliant but deeply, deeply flawed.

    Annoyed at being outsmarted by Bernd Pischetsreider when trying to buy Rolls Royce, he enacted a strange revenge by hiring and firing him a few years later.

    In the early 80s, Piech had his heart set on leaving VW and joining Honda. A lucky escape for the Japanese I feel.

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