Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination stimulates, gives birth to evolution. Prophetic words. Not mine, these come from the pen of one A Einstein. But what if you could have both; in abundance and of equal measure? Ferdinand Piëch, who passed away on August 25, certainly did.
Engineer, corporate czar, petrolhead and a man who took half a dozen car companies from the bottom of the barrel to stratospheric heights, Piëch strode the automobile industry like a colossus. He started off with an advantage. His grandfather, and hero, was Ferdinand Porsche. The Ferdinand Porsche (there were three), the one who engineered the original Beetle; the first mid-engined racing car, the Auto Union P Wagen; the Mercedes SSK; and the world’s first hybrid, the Lohner-Porsche.
Porsche’s grandson was even more prolific. His first job at Porsche was developing the race engine for the then new 911. A high-powered 180hp 2.0-litre flat-six, he engineered and built it to such a high spec, it could run for 24 hours without breaking. The production car engine was said to pack up in a few hours. Part of his team was Hans Mezger, legendary engine maker, who Piëch promoted to R&D head. Together they then built the 917, possibly the greatest racing car ever. When it was decided that Porsche family members couldn’t hold high positions in the company, Piëch joined Audi and built the ur-quattro rally winner and the first quattro production car. He championed five-cylinder engines (a configuration likely to become popular again), made Audi the company it is today, and then between 1993 and 2015, took Volkswagen from near bankruptcy to one of the most successful car companies. Along the way, he reinvented platform engineering, resurrected Lamborghini, recreated Bugatti, developed a 1,000hp quad-turbo W16 engine, and then made the VW XL1 prototype, a car that could do 100kpl. Then came the twin-clutch automatic, a crazy 12-cylinder diesel-powered Audi Q7 and in his free time, he nursed Skoda back to health. While his grandfather was named the car engineerof the century, Piëch was named car executive of the century.
He was, however, a terrible boss. His management style was so abrasive and acidic, it would have put Pablo Escobar to shame. Steve Jobs, in comparison, was a saint. Then, his dream of taking on Mercedes with the VW Phaeton was an epic fail and though he was somewhat in awe of Soichiro Honda and almost joined the company, he was quite dismissive of many of his rivals.
While he may not have been a Porsche in the true sense of the word, with his passing, the long line of exceptional Porsche engineers has come to an end. And the automotive world is clearly the poorer.