The ‘mad genius’ of European autos

by Andy Bryenton

In August last year, the automotive world lost a figure who inspired his engineers to great heights and his rivals to fits of panic. Described as having ‘the strangest and most significant automotive career since Henry Ford’, Ferdinand Piech has also been called everything from a ‘mad genius’ to a ‘visionary’. He was definitely never boring.

The grandson of the founder of Porsche, Piech was born in 1937, and grew up amid the post-second world war rebuild. While he personally owned 10 per cent of the famous marque, the company’s rules meant he was not allowed to hold a position of power there. So he took the move of working for rivals Audi. There, he worked his way to the top and was influential in the development of the rally-dominating Quattro. It springboarded Audi from euro also-rans to the upper echelons of luxury motoring.

In 1993, Piech became boss of Volkswagen, while the famous brand was only a few months short of bankruptcy. He turned this ‘hospital pass’ into success, developing the New Beetle design, clawing back US market share developed when he was the VW boss of North America in the original Beetle’s heyday, and championing the Volkswagen Phaeton, perhaps the most under-appreciated auto in history.

This technical marvel had engineering specifications so precise that some of Germany’s top minds refused to work on the project.

An example, Piech insisted that one should be able to brew a pot of tea in the back of the Phaeton without the windows steaming up. The brains trust who built this car were said to be the only engineers feared by Toyota’s crack Lexus design team.

Later life never slowed the auto genius down. He was the father of the Bugatti Veyron, a masterwork of engineering over common sense and a triumph of design. He also managed to weld Lamborghini, Audi, VW and Bentley into a single juggernaut of manufacturing might. At the age of 71, he still rode his own super-hot Ducati motorcycle. At the age of 82, he was still shocking the world with vehicles like his one-off, Bugatti-derived Voiture Noir.

The only man in history who had ever dared to tell the Emperor of Japan that one of his coveted Samurai swords was a fake will never be forgotten by motorists, or by the rivals he kept guessing to the last.