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Ferdinand Piech’s Greatest Hits

From Quattro to Veyron, here’s how the late, great Piech changed the world of cars

  1. Car manufacturer board members are usually as exciting as the table they sit around discussing profit margins and shareholder behaviour. Not Ferdinand Piech, who passed away over the weekend aged 82, four years after leaving his role as chairman of the Volkswagen Group.

    It’s reported he collapsed in a Bavarian restaurant before being taken to a nearby hospital, where he died “suddenly and unexpectedly” according to a statement released by his wife, Ursula.

    He leaves a lasting legacy. The grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche, Austrian-born Piech has been a colossus of the car industry for six decades, piloting the rise of the mighty VW Group empire from disorganised mess to market-dominating, money-spinning behemoth.

    He leaves behind an extraordinary portfolio of cars from a vastly influential career, spanning everything from AWD rally cars to family hatches and 1000bhp hypercars. Here are just a few of Piech’s finest efforts…

  2. Porsche 917

    Porsche’s first Le Mans-winning racer gave little indication it would become an immortalised competition legend straight out of the box. Sure, it produced massive power from a flat-twelve engine, and its welded, tubular chassis (filled with with gas so cracks could be detected by the pressure dropping) was both lightweight and clever, but the car was a widowmaker.

    Massive rear-end lift at speed made it ill-suited for twisty tracks like the Nürburgring and Spa, while the first driver to race one at Le Mans was killed when his brand-new 917 speared off the road at high speed in 1969.

    Piech’s pet project to build a winning endurance car to beat Ford’s GT40 and the illustrious Ferraris could’ve ended there. But relentless aerodynamic development saw the 917 become the dominant force in sports car racing, winning Le Mans in 1970 and 1971, before spawning the monstrous 1100bhp Can Am version.

    It celebrated its 50th birthday this year, alongside Concorde and the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon. It’s remembered very nearly as fondly.

  3. Audi 80/100

    Funny to think that, as little as thirty years ago, Audi was as bit part a player in premium cars sales as Infiniti is now. Piech oversaw the development of the company’s 80 and 100 models (the predecessors to today’s A4 and A6), including the application of his 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel engine, which was the first Audi product to wear the ‘TDI’ badge. The first of many…

  4. Audi Quattro

    Just as Piech’s drive to build the Porsche 917 arose from a regulation change that required only 25 cars to be built for qualification, his plot to establish Audi as a master of rallying stemmed from the allowance of all-wheel drive.

    The result was the iconic Quattro, which won the WRC title in 1982 and 1984. It also spawned a legend so strong Audi continues to build its brand around the values off AWD, all-weather performance to this day, in everything from titchy hot hatches to the R8 supercar.

  5. Bugatti Veyron

    Piech’s platform-sharing, part-saving nous has saved VW Group millions, but it’ll be his mad, money-no-object projects that’ll remain his greatest legacy, and they don’t come any more ambitious than the Bugatti Veyron.

    Having shown the basic shape (hardly the slipperiest design ever drawn for a supercar), Piech briefed his engineers to fill it with a 1000PS (987bhp) engine, and demanded a top speed of at least 400kph (248mph).

    No radiators had ever had to cool a road car engine that powerful before. No tyres had ever been made to cope with that kind of stress, yet still work on a wet B-road. And can you imagine how difficult it was to build a gearbox that shifts instantly when marshalling 922lb ft, yet still behaves when you’re trickling through traffic?

    The Veyron over-delivered on all of the above, and whether you think it’s a pricey folly or a true Concorde moment, it remains an engineering marvel.

  6. VW Phaeton

    Another attempt at making ‘the world’s best car’ saw Piech create a twin-turbo, W12-powered AWD limo, badged as a VW and rivalling the Mercedes S-Class.

    Half of the crack engineering team walked out when Piech unveiled the car’s ambitious must-haves, like a bonnet that didn’t vibrate even when subjected to a 190mph headwind.

    From a sales perspective, the Phaeton largely flopped, but those who did buy it found themselves in one of the most meticulously engineered cars of the past decade. And don’t forget, the Phaeton donated much - including its powertrain - to the wildly successful Bentley Continental family, Crewe’s most successful product of all time.

  7. VW Golf Mk4

    The Mk4 Golf was the epitome of Piech’s trademark strategy - to improve the perceived quality of the product (and make it more desirable) while reducing the number of components needed to build the range (thus saving money, and improving profit).

    TG’s Paul Horrell recalls of the Mk4: “It was a huge leap at the time. I remember it felt like it had landed from another planet.”

    The hot hatch GTI version wasn’t VW’s finest hour, but the regular versions sold by the bucket load, and VW’s coffers filled far beyond the level they’d been languishing at before Piech’s involvement. Only the recent Mk7 Golf has really elicited the same respect from the press as the Mk4.

    RIP, Ferdinand.

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