Ferdinand Piech Has Died

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The man who almost outsold Toyota has died.

Ferdinand Piech – who transformed VW from a backwater brand into an almost hegemonic powerhouse  – collapsed at a restaurant in Bavaria on Sunday evening. He was taken to a hospital, where he he died that evening.

He was 82.

Piech was one of those guys who did more than just run a car business. He changed the car business. One of the ways he did that was to make all-wheel-drive cars mass-market cars.

After a stint as technical manager at Porsche (Piech is related to the family; his mother was a daughter of Ferdinand Porsche) where he was the guiding hand behind the development of the 917 race cars and their 600 hp air-cooled 12 cylinder engines, he moved to Audi and developed the 100 and what became known commercially as Quattro all-wheel-drive.

At this time, even Subarus were still rear-wheel-drive and the only cars that had more than two powered wheels were trucks and the handful of truck-ish recreational vehicles (the term “SUV” hadn’t been coined yet) such as the Jeep Wagoneer and Chevy K5 Blazer.

Piech was the first to understand that a car which could handle snow (and handled better in the wet and dry) would appeal to people.

Arguably, Quattro saved Audi – which was almost killed around the same time that Quattro appeared by a malicious and deliberate hatchet job alleging the cars “accelerated unintentionally.”

The claim was bogus; the problem was European pedal placement combined with Americans who didn’t know how to drive. Some floored the gas and thought it was the brakes.

Audi got the blame.

Without the money earned from sales of AWD Audis, there would likely be no Audi. Piech arguably saved the company. And the company he saved changed the business. Probably two-thirds of all new cars either come standard with or offer AWD.

Piech was also responsible for some of the car businesses’ worst business decisions, including the decision to sell a six-figure car – the Phaeton – at VW stores.

Of course it didn’t sell – for the painfully obvious reason that people who buy six figure cars do so for the status as much as the car. To maul a famous car business saying: You can sell a rich man’s car to a poor man (assuming he can scrounge the money) but you can’t sell a poor man’s car to a rich man (regardless of money).

The Phaeton was a magnificent car – and magnificently priced. It was too magnificently pricey for the people who bought VWs and too proletarian for the people with the means to pay the price. That a brilliant – and usually market savvy –  guy like Piech didn’t see this is reassuring in a sense because it tells the rest of us that even the smartest among us is just as capable as any of us of stepping into it . . .

Piech left VW only a month before the “cheating” scandal broke – and broke VW. Literally. The company has been bled of $30 billion dollars so far and caused it to abandon not just the diesels it had been cleaning up market share with but which were also  . . . clean.

By any sane standard. The “cheating” cars would have passed any federal emissions certification test in effect in 2005 or prior and those requirements were extremely stringent; the “cheating” VW did involved fractional differences in “tiers” and “bins” that matter only to Pecksniffian bureaucrats and car-haters looking for an excuse.

One wonders whether Piech – no soy boy – would have rolled over. It is entirely possible that he would have stood up to the lynch mob that sought – and got – VW’s blood and its soul. Called bullshit on the “cheating” hysteria and explained why.

It’s worth remembering that VW was developing 100-plus MPG diesel-powered (and very clean) commuter cars under Piech’s watch. That all got flushed after he left  – when there was no one there with the stones to stand up to the lynch mob.

Like Sergio Marchionne – another car guy who changed the  car business – the passing of Piech also changes the car business. And not for the better.

Somewhere, a 917 engine howls.

You’ll be missed, big guy.

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  1. Subaru only made 20 rear wheel drive cars in the 1500 at the very beginning. All of their mass market cars were front wheel drive until that changed in 1965 to added option of AWD. Then later came the RWD BRZ.

    I test drove a VW Phaeton and it was no better than my 2005 Mercedes W211 E320 CDI which sold at about half the price. I found the VW more like a glorified cigar box on wheels than the fine over-engineered Mercedes.

  2. AWD and saving Audi, not a bad legacy. I never saw the pent up demand. I was seeing that as added complexity and lower fuel economy. I still wouldn’t buy anything AWD. VW really gained market share, seems like around the mid 90’s I started seeing more on the road and that trend hasn’t stopped.

    • Wish I could find a good example of my wrecked Wagoneer. With GM parts to make it go, it would be the ideal SUV since it was similar to my Z 71 in that it had low and high range, 4WD and AWD but was manually shifted. We haven’t been iced up in a 4 years but the Z’s saving grace is the AWD or as they call it, Automatic 4WD. It works better on really slick stuff than 4WD.

      • Quadra-Trac? Those first generation Wagoneers and Cherokees were real off-road vehicles….and then they changed them, and they became shitty unibody SUVs for shuttling kids around…..

        • Nun, I’d have to look. I’m thinking it had Selectrac. Whatever it’s called, it worked well. 100 mph flat out on a level road. That 360 was a dog and not easily modified. I suspect duals would have done it a world of good but it wasn’t mine. I had lots of friends with them and various colors.

          One guy said he did 100 mph on snow from Ruidoso to Lubbock. We did the same 100 mph on ice we did on dry. If I had a good body I’d stick a 383 and 700R4 in it and get the best of both worlds. I’d also change the vacuum/electric switches to all electric and install electric lockers front and rear.

          I’ll probably rob the roof rack and install it on Blackie once it’s a done deal….whenever that might be.

          • Hi Eight,

            You’ll dig this story…

            Back in the ’80s, when I was in high school, one of my best friends had a ’71 Plymouth GTX 440 four barrel/727 Torquflite. Imagine… we were 17 and able to buy cars like that with our summer job slush fund money. The GTX was shit metallic brown with a white vinyl roof. 14×7 Hurst mags and a pair of gattling gun exhaust tips below the huge chromed rear bumper.

            Driving it was like handling a copperhead freestyle. Without one of those things that holds the beast’s mouth shut.

            One night, we were out looking for trouble – me behind the wheel because I was acknowledged to be the most naturally skilled (or stupid brave) of all of us.

            And found it.

            A Yuppie – remember them? – in a new Tuned Port Injection Corvette rolled up besides the Plymouth on I-166, just outside the Heart of Darkness (DC, itself). The Yuppie did the back-and-forth thing, to let us know he wanted to play.

            I did.

            Down came the pedal and the Carter AFB opened up and the 727 shifted down. This car was the very first car I ever drove that barked the tires on the upshifts. It dd not have a shift kit. It came this way. The 440 bellowed like Satan’s Rottweiler. Ninety, 100… 137 . . .and that was the last time I looked down. Because that was when the nose of the GTX started to come up. I felt the air under the front tires. Jesus was my co-pilot that day because the road was straight and I had time to bleed speed and regain control. As the speedo receded to 120-ish, I felt connection to the road being re-established and knew we were going to live to tell the tale.

            Even better, we’d singed the Corvette. The Yuppie was pissed that his brand-new Corvette wasn’t able to keep up with a shit-brown-metallic old beater with a peeling vinyl roof.

            Got-damn, that was fun!

            • eric, you mean that 210 hp Vette couldn’t keep up? I had friends with a lot of those Vette’s and even the limited one with the optional suspension, Gymkhana or something…..and that was the only one that was stock. By the time the engines had been changed they were bad to the bone. Find one a year or so old, something somebody had bought and then traded, not what they wanted or got married, etc. Buy it looking new, build a new engine and then swap it out over the next couple days. I recall one model with a much lower front spoiler and it got fixed and broken and fixed and broken and …….

              A friend had a driver window problem on one that was about a year old. Took it to the Chevy stealership where they “fixed it”. He’s on the interstate driving it away in a rainstorm and the window exploded. He wasn’t a happy camper driving in blinding rain with no side window.

              I recall those old 440’s being pretty salty. They made all the right noises except for suspension noises that didn’t ever sound good. I called them Highway Conastogas. Wander here and there and lots of creaking and cracking going on underneath.

              At least you had the sense to know when you’d separated from the road. Our high speed races back then were always on the straight and level roads. Wound out you’d never make a curve.

              I was going home from college one day on a road that was known as The Devil’s Backbone, narrow, rough and squiggly. I’m doing 105 around a curve in the rain and the hood blew up…..and caught on that second latch or I wouldn’t be telling about it.

              The next day found me buying hood latches. Of course that started a war of stealing pins which I only won by replacing them with padlocks, a good idea unto itself anyway.

      • Our 88 XJ will go practically everywhere in the “Full Time” 4wd setting, plus it still has “Part Time” (locked) 4wd, 4-low, and 2wd. We just leave it in full time all the time: dirt, snow, mud, gravel, and pavement. Gets 22 mpg once you get into overdrive on the highway. Once in a while I put it in 4-low for something interesting.

        It’s a solid front axle with no hubs or axle disconnect. Funny how somewhere along the way they decided that lock out hubs weren’t necessary anymore. I “permanently” locked in the IFS front axle disconnect on my Chevy pickup so that I don’t have that electrical part to fail anymore. I just shift between 2wd and 4wd as necessary. I hardly ever use 4-hi though, usually just shift between 2-hi and 4-low.

        • Wikipedia: “The NP242 Selec-Trac transfer case debuted alongside the Fuel-Injected 4.0L Inline-6 in the compact Jeep Cherokee in 1987. The shifter has modes 2WD – 4WD Hi Part-Time – 4WD Hi Full-Time – N – 4WD Low. There is a center differential that is open in 4WD Hi Full-Time mode and distributes torque 48/52% front-to-rear. This mode can be used on dry pavement or slippery surfaces with only a small fuel mileage penalty compared to 2WD mode. In 4WD Hi Part-Time and 4WD Low, the center differential is mechanically locked, so these modes are for slippery surfaces only.[3] Low range engages a 2.72:1 planetary gear ratio for increased torque and low speeds. Overall, this system functions very much like the NP228 transfer case above, just with all of the mode and range controls via a single, console-mounted shift lever. It was available in the 1987 to 2001 XJ Cherokee and Wagoneer, the 1987 to 1992 MJ Comanche, the 1993 to 2004 ZJ and WJ Grand Cherokees, the 2002 to 2007 KJ Liberty, and the 1998 to 2000 Dodge Durango.”

          • That’s similar to the NP128 transfer case used in the ’86 AMC Eagle, that was for one year only. The NP128 of course had no low range but also didn’t have the part-time locking function of the NP242. So if you lost traction on one wheel you’d just sit there with that one wheel spinning. (Eagles all other years used a transfer case with a viscous coupling providing a limited-slip center differential.)

            • Could be … I dunno what kind of suspension the Eagle had, but the XJ has enough flex in the stock suspension that it just keeps going even with three open differentials unless you get in an extreme twist. I never use the “part time high” 4wd; if it gets to that point I go straight to 4-low.

          • My 84, which a friend destroyed the back by backing into a tree, a tree you had to avoid on the driveway every time you backed out(driveway was curved so staying on the driveway presented no danger to any vehicle). But he didn’t have time, in a big hurry, not even time to put 2.5 quarts of oil in it to bring it to full. That’s the way it is with that speedy monkey on your back.

            I considered using an SBC and TH350 I had to replace that Chrysler crap and cutting the rear off just behind the back seat, a great pickup/SUV but never did and I regret it.

            Just a different shaft for the transmission and transfer case and it would have been sweet. The endgate and back windows were fine and I could have parted them out. Coulda, shoulda, woulda, the story of my life. Oh shit, how did I get logged out? And why won’t TurdPress let Firefox keep my password? What a PITA.

            • If it was an 84, it would have been all AMC (or whatever they procured) and not Christ-ler.

              By the time my 88 was built, Jeep TM had been bought out but all the workings were still AMC, for better or worse.

              Jeep/AMC really knew how to build a 4×4 but they weren’t so great on electrical and cooling systems.

              • I just lumped them together back then. It was AMC but with a Torqueflite it’s a hybrid to be technical. Sitting down inside one you noticed such as Ford window controls and Ford gauges. It was a truly mix and match parts car. I heard when they first made them they had 400SBC’s and 400 THC’s. Put an A6 compressor and Donalson coolers and they would have been bullet-proof.

                Of course the vacuum over electrical controls sucked as the good for nothing cheapest vacuum hose you can get had them fail well before they should have.

                I recall my best friend owning the one I inherited(he just parked it and left it). We were on highway 70 north of Rotan Tx. one day heading to Lubbock and the sky was indicative of mucho ice and snow. When we hit the top of the rise and could see it all, we tried for 4WD or AWD as it were. Nothing happening so I got under it to put it into gear manually when my friend said “Don’t bother, we’re headed in the worst blue norther I’ve seen”. I got out and in that half a minute the blue had increased 10 fold and it was obvious on the road was a place nobody wanted to be that day. We turned back for Sweetwater, got to my house in Nolan county and watched it move in. I did get it into 4WD so he could use it safely.

                I recall that was the infamous winter of 83-84 and it might have been an 83 but it was new. I don’t ever want to experience another winter like that.

                The only enjoyment I got from it was outrunning the cops everywhere I went because of the ice and I had 4WD with some really sticky tires.

                I’d be driving along and meet a cop. They’d hit the brakes and nearly wipe out and try to get turned around while I was leaving them in the “dust” so to speak.

                To be fair, it didn’t have any real electrical or cooling problems hard as that may be to believe. Those old York and Tecumseh compressors would last forever or give up nearly instantly. Their Q/C sucked evidently. They always drew a lot more power than the A6.

              • Yeah, jeeps were always sort of a mixed breed compared to the Big 3. IH was always a crap shoot too when you went to get parts for them.

                We got lucky: my XJ limited with the Selec-Trac has NO disconnect on the front axle which the pure part time 4wd did at that time. Over on the Jeep forums there is instruction on how to permanently lock the two half axles together as the ninety-something plus did from the factory. I did a similar thing to my Chevy K1500 with a 1″ long piece of 3/4″ PVC pipe – LOL

                By “cooling” I meant the radiator, etc. I never had a Chevy overheat unless something broke or it was half out of water, but the jeep you have to watch the gauge like a hawk in the summer. It’s a great fall-winter-spring runabout but I don’t trust it to go on long trips. But it is fun in town with the great visibility, torque, and AWD.

                • The Wagoneer amazed be by never over-heating. As many Ford parts as it had it was hard to believe. I recall having a brand new 83 One tone Ford dually with a big work bed and Autocrane that would over heat with the hood up, and running nothing but the Autocrane. It truly was a “hot water 400”. The owner had supposedly changed from Chevy’s, the guy who started the bidness, to Ford’s cause the Chevy’s with 454’s never got over 4mpg. While I can relate to saving gas, not at the expense of a huge amount of power and every one of those Ford dually’s got 4mpg, every single day. The bad part was the slushomatic, not even a hind tit to the TH400.

                  Chevy’s would run without a/c on a day that was iffy. Their ventilation would keep you cool in not very cool weather but the Ford was a/c all the way. Turn the a/c off and it was hot air coming through when the ouside air was fine. The Trac Lock axle was not long for the world regardless of the truck you were driving. You’d better head to the Ford house the first time you went around a corner and it jerked hard. There were few miles between that first jerk and the last. I felt like the jerk trying to ease it in and avoid any more of a corner than necessary.

                • Yeah, the Wagoneer was a lot bigger and more room for a radiator. The XJ is pretty cramped under the hood, unfortunately, and the radiator is wide but not very tall. The engine fan is small and offset, with an electric fan on the other side. If the electric fan doesn’t come on when it needs to, then the gauge spikes pretty quickly. There’s lots of connectors and relays to fail. Some jeepers hard wire in a manual switch.

  3. Since when do the Krauts name their kids Ferdinand? Appropriate though, considering all of bull VW has had to fight as of late….

  4. “Somewhere, a 917 engine howls.”

    Very Nice Eric.

    Always suspected you might have verbal skills beyond the ranting level. 🙂

    • Hi Mike,

      At times…

      I’ve been at low ebb for several weeks. I am not sure why. Just tired. Mentally, physically. Lack of sleep not helping either…

      Thanks for the kind words!

      • Could be the dog days of summer, but probably just the dog days. I lack energy in the winter myself. I would go online and try and meet a chick or two.

      • eric, sounds like me. I was doing well a few months ago. Then things just built up including a bad heel(mine, not my boot). We’ve had such godawful temps for so long I’m depressed. Day before yesterday it was 111 when I got off that grader with the deficient a/c. I was in bed and asleep before 8:30. Yesterday wasn’t so bad but I’m still not “up”.

        I’ve decided I’m not getting enough CBD oil. It helped me greatly for months. At least I can sleep better than I have in a decade…..most of the time.

        • I’ve thought about getting off the anti-seizure medication and try CBD oil. I’m sick of feeling lethargic, irritable, and depressed all of the time. I wish I could feel like my old self again.

          • Hi Handler,

            You too, eh? I also feel lethargic, irritable and depressed a great deal lately. I figured I was just getting old. Or maybe just tired. Maybe both….

            • The humidity is really getting to me. If California wasn’t such a leftist hellhole, I’d move there in a heartbeat.

              • Shoot, here in KY too- Been here 18 years, and this is the only summer that we’ve had more than a few humid days. It’s been humid ALL summer (but lower temps than usual). And humid here is like 60%- Don’t know how I used to stand it in NY, where it was often 80-90%!

                • We’ve had too many days with over 85% humidity.

                  I sometimes regret filling my pool in, but those horse flies and mosquitoes were too much of a nuisance.

                  • Oh, thank goodness there are no mosquitoes here! They used to drive me nuts on Lawn Guyland.

                    My above-ground pool sure makes life easier too!

      • Eric, in this world today; and in this country especially, with no future, there’d have to be something wrong with anyone who wasn’t affected.

        And like the others have said; the weather isn’t helping. I’m unusually lethargic myself lately. I keep thinking how nice it would be to lay on the bed for a while! Or maybe I’m just getting old.

      • Ah, that “lack of sleep.” Definitely can make you mentally and physically run down. Usually both a cause of malaise and a result of other issues too. Often impossible to say which was the chicken and which the egg.

        “Play it as it lays,” just like a drive that sliced into the rough. You can be back on the fairway with just one great shot, and on the green in two.

        Sorry if these sound like mindless cliches. But I’ve fought insomnia too. And this mindset seems to help me a lot.

  5. A VW W12, that was an unusual engine. Too bad they didn’t get into OTR tractor engines like Mercedes. And maybe Mercedes is why they didn’t.

    I used to haul with a guy that had a Sterling(I hung my head)with a Mercedes in it. We’d both be loaded as close to 40 tons as possible, oftimes even more since 500 lbs or less I’d stand on the rail around the scale, lift up on the door and have the scalehouse person click it when it got to 80,000 even. It was faster than going back and “adjusting”.

    I’d sometimes be in front with a 400 hp 60 Series Detroit and the ramp was in a bad spot with you having to use it all because of the volume of traffic. When I’d hit the ramp with hammer down he’d pop out behind me in the right lane and just blow by. Damn, that was a good engine…..not a good truck but half is better than none.

  6. Damn. He was one of my favorites of the car industry. The Phaeton with a VW badge was a bad idea but what a car. I still want one.

    Coincidentally, last night I watched The Grand Tour episode 3-12, Legends and Luggage with the 917 and Richard Attwood (78 years old) driving it. Quite good.

    I’ll lift a glass to Ferdinand tonight.

    • I literally thought self-righteous chickenshit when I read that. I wonder how many pecksniffians thought same. They’re too self-righteous to admit being chickenshit.


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