Ferdinand Piech — A Personal Remembrance
One of the industry’s most influential men.
Ferdinand Piech, the man who resurrected Volkswagen from the scrap heap of the car industry and also developed such diverse cars as the Porsche 917 race car and Audi’s then-unusual/now-universal four-wheel-drive “quattro” system, has gone to the big Auto Graveyard in the sky. He was 82 years old.
Elsewhere on the internet, you can read all about his accomplishments and his peccadilloes, such as his role in VW’s emissions issues with Rudolf Diesel’s brilliant engine (a VW Jetta TDI Wagon sits in my driveway as I type).
My task today is to relate my personal experience with this titan of the industry.
It was the launch of the (then-called) A4 Golf in late 1998, in San Diego, Calif. (The same family of cars as my Jetta.)
Piech was speaking at the press preview for this car. I was there on behalf of the Toronto Star Wheels section, along with what must have been about 150 other journalists from around the world.
After the speeches, we left the auditorium. I always try to be first out of these presentations so I can grab the brightest-coloured test car for eye-catching photography.
As we were leaving the press conference, the public relations people for each country — in our case, Bernice Holman — were there, telling certain journos to turn right coming out of the room, rather than left to where the test cars were.
I was one of the chosen few.
“Why?” I asked.
“Shh!” she said. “Just go!”
Being an obedient Canadian, I did as I was told.
Turns out that sixteen of the assembled scribes were going to ride two at a time on one of the test-drive segments with Piech himself.
The idea behind separating the journos as we left the hall was that nobody but the sixteen of us would know the plan.
As if …
Word spread. Pretty soon they had sixteen really happy journalists and 134 pissed-off ones.
“Why didn’t I make the cut?” was the common beef.
Not my problem; I was one of the anointed, and don’t know to this day whether I was the only Canadian so selected.
I was to be paired with an American colleague, who might well have been Daniel Howes of the Detroit Free Press — neither my notes nor my memory are good enough to be sure.
When it came our time to ride with Piech, we were in the middle of the ride-and-drive route, in the Anza Borrego Desert near the Salton Sea. We decided — why not have Piech drive?
I mean, he was Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson.
So, I got into the back seat, my colleague rode shotgun, and Piech took the wheel.
Before he even started the car, he said, “First, we close the windows. Not aerodynamically efficient.”
Um, sure, Dr. Piech. It’s 110 degrees F. in the shade and there’s no shade, but, hey …
“Next, we turn off the air conditioning. Wastes fuel.”
I was wearing a short-sleeved “golf” shirt — how appropriate — as was my colleague.
Piech had on a three-piece suit, all buttons done up, his tie fully — well — tied.
That’s when I came to the conclusion that babies born in Germany (or Austria, as was Piech) don’t have silver nitrate put in their eyes like we used to do; they have their sweat glands surgically removed.
In any event, he fired up the car, rocketed out of the parking lot strewing gravel everywhere, and screamed off down the highway.
So much for saving fuel.
Needless to say, he was an excellent driver.
During the drive, we were able to chat with him. I recall asking him how many children he had. He paused for a moment, clearly thinking.
“Ah, thirteen, fourteen,” he replied.
What? He wasn’t sure how many children he had?
One of his obituaries reads, “He was married three times and was the father of at least 12 children with four women.”
At least 12? If he wasn’t sure how many children he had, how could anyone else be sure?
I then asked him how he got the interior quality in VWs so much better than any other cars remotely in the Golf’s price class.
(The interior of our 2003 Jetta with 430,000 km on it still looks like new.)
He replied, “I used to have fourteen suppliers for the horn. I now have two suppliers for the horn. You would not believe how little I pay for the horn. The money I save I put into the interior.”
I guess if you’re a mom-and-pop manufacturer making four million horns a year for the VW group and they tell you to take a euro or two out of the cost of the horn, you either do that or you go out of business.
The point being, nobody ever sees the horn. You see the interior every time you get into the car. Put your money where people can see ít and feel it.
He wasn’t the only, nor even the first, car company executive to understand this. Many years earlier, a Ford interior design engineer told me essentially the same thing.
The difference is, Piech made it happen.
He has to rank right up there with Henry Ford and William Crapo Durant (the founder of General Motors) as one of the industry’s most influential men.
We will surely never see his like again, for better or for worse.
Rest in peace, Dr. Piech.
Jim Kenzie is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.