Ferdinand Piëch, a hard-charging Volkswagen executive who transformed the company into Europe’s largest automaker, overcoming scandals and dispatching business executives with a ruthless management style, died Aug. 25 in the German region of Bavaria. He was 82.

The German newspaper Bild reported that he collapsed while eating dinner at a restaurant in Rosenheim, Germany, and died at a nearby hospital.

As the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the Austrian-born Piëch was a member of one of Europe’s most prominent automotive families. In the 1930s, his grandfather founded the Porsche auto company and designed, at the request of Adolf Hitler, the beetle-shaped “people’s car” – or Volkswagen – for ordinary citizens.

Ferdinand Piech in Hanover, Germany, in 2013. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

A brilliant engineer in his own right, Piëch had a leading role in the 1960s in developing the Porsche 911 sports car and the Porsche 917, a racecar that could reach a top speed of 240 mph.

Ferdinand Porsche’s first Beetles came off the assembly line in 1938 and, during World War II, Volkswagen was a major producer of military vehicles, aircraft engines and other equipment for the German war effort. Piëch’s father was chief executive of Volkswagen during the war and was a member of the Nazi party.

After designing sports cars, the younger Piëch had hoped to become the top executive of the family-run Porsche business in Germany. He had to shelve that ambition, however, when his mother and uncle – Ferdinand Porsche’s children – grew weary of intrafamily disputes and ruled that none of Porsche’s descendants could hold a management position with the company.

Piëch then moved to Audi, a German automaker that was a Volkswagen subsidiary.

“All the quarreling made me realize that I had the qualifications to prove myself outside of the family,” he wrote in a 2002 autobiography. “I wasn’t so certain that some members of my loving family could do the same.”

At Audi, Piëch helped develop a five-cylinder engine and a four-wheel-drive system that helped burnish the image of the once-dowdy brand. He moved up in the company hierarchy, and by the time he became board chairman in 1988, Audi was a credible rival of Germany’s two top luxury carmakers, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Meanwhile, Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, was falling further behind its competitors. It faced an estimated loss of $1 billion in 1992, and there was talk of closing its dealerships in North America. Piëch joined the supervisory board and soon was named chief executive of the struggling company. He already had a reputation as an imperious leader who fired executives who didn’t meet his expectations.

“Only when a company is in severe difficulty does it let in someone like me,” Piëch wrote in his autobiography, acknowledging his rough edges. “In normal, calm times, I never would have gotten a chance.”

Piëch ousted several members of the board to consolidate control, eliminated layers of executives and demanded design changes from the engineering department. In one meeting, he said he wanted the gap between the car door and the body frame reduced within six weeks.

“If I don’t have it,” he said, “everyone in this room will be fired.”

The German magazine Der Spiegel once described Volkswagen’s factories under Piëch as “North Korea without the labor camps.”

In 1998, he reintroduced his grandfather’s Beetle, which had long gone out of production. Once the low-powered utilitarian vehicle of the hippie generation, the new Beetle had the familiar bubble-top design but a livelier engine. An innovative advertising campaign played off its earlier image with the slogan “Less Flower. More Power.”

Piëch bought several other carmakers, including Italy’s Lamborghini and Bugatti, Britain’s Bentley and the Czech brand Skoda. He engineered concessions from Germany’s powerful labor unions, reducing the workweek to four days while saving most workers’ jobs.

He also introduced the idea of building different car models – from Audi to Volkswagen and other subsidiaries – on the same “platform,” or the same design blueprint. In other words, different auto models would share the same chassis, wheel-well design and hardware. This efficiency move reduced Volkswagen’s basic design “platforms” from 19 to four, while the company produced millions of cars a year.

One of the executives Piëch recruited to Volkswagen was José Ignacio López de Arriortua, who worked for the Opel division of General Motors and brought several colleagues with him. Piëch’s poaching of Lopez led to a years-long legal dispute, with GM accusing Volkswagen of industrial espionage.

“In my 40 years in the business,” Piëch said in a typically sharp-tongued statement, “my admiration for Opel has never reached the level of arousing my interest in any secrets behind it.”

To avoid a prolonged courtroom battle, Volkswagen agreed to pay $100 million to GM in 1997 and was required to buy $1 billion worth of GM parts. Several years later, some VW executives were convicted in a scheme of paying for prostitutes for labor leaders, but Piëch was not implicated.

Nonetheless, Piëch won praise for steering Volkswagen out of a financial ditch. Under his leadership, VW sales rose dramatically around the world. In 1993, the year he became chief executive, only 62,000 Volkswagens were sold in the United States. Nine years later, more than 355,000 were sold. A company that was $1 billion in the red in the early 1990s had annual profits of more than $3 billion a decade after Piëch took over. VW became Europe’s largest automaker and challenged Toyota for the top position in the world.

“His most significant achievement is that he built the largest and most successful automobile company in the world,” automotive historian John Wolkonowicz told Automotive News. “And he built it from nothing.”

Ferdinand Karl Piëch was born April 17, 1937, in Vienna, and grew up on a family estate in southwestern Austria.

As a child, Piëch visited Volkswagen factories, seemingly unaware that much of the work was being performed by slave laborers. When a book appeared in 1996 describing Volkswagen’s part in the Nazi war effort, Piëch was upset and noted that the company had paid millions of dollars in reparations.

Piëch attended boarding school in Switzerland and graduated in 1962 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

He led a complicated and somewhat veiled private life. He was married three times and was the father of at least 12 children with four women. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Piëch stepped down as chief executive of Volkswagen in 2002 but stayed on as a powerful board chairman for more than a decade. In the mid-2000s, when the Porsche company – owned by his family – made a bid to take over Volkswagen, Piëch fought the effort. By 2009, he turned the tables and bought Porsche, placing his family’s greatest jewel under Volkswagen’s corporate umbrella.

He was finally forced out of Volkswagen’s leadership in April 2015, months before a scandal broke involving the fraudulent manipulation of emissions figures. Observers charged that his autocratic style led to a management style of concealment, although he escaped direct responsibility. The fallout left the carmaker facing about $30 billion in fines.

In 2017, Piëch sold his billion-dollar stake in Volkswagen to members of his family, giving effective control of both VW and Porsche to his grandfather’s descendants. When asked to name the most important things in his life, he listed, in order, “VW, family, money.”

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