I’ve just spent 36 hours with Audi. Last night was the pre annual press conference dinner and this morning was the hard number crunching, where the board of management presented the 2012 accounts.
As you’ve probably already seen in Autocar’s news story, the numbers were very healthy. Audi sold 1,455,123 cars, up 11.7 percent on 2011. Profits were only up marginally, but Audi argues that’s because it is making massive investments in future models, future drivetrains and future factories.
But another thing came out of my visit to Bavaria. Just how Italian the Audi brand group is becoming. First off, of the four brands, three are Italian companies: Ducati, Lamborghini and design house Italdesign Giugiaro. And they are all headed by Italian executives.
Certainly when it comes to styling, Audi is under Italian leadership. The VW Group design boss is Walter Da’Silva - a long-term Alfa Romeo design chief - and Audi brand design boss Wolfgang Egger is also ex-Alfa. Audi also has one Italian on the management board, Luca de Meo, head of sales and marketing.
Both Giugiaro senior and junior were at the Audi events, with the legendary Giugiaro senior re-introducing the 1973 ‘Ace of Spades’ concept, which was based on the then-new Audi 80. (And you can probably guess what the concept eventually morphed into).
Ducati CEO Gabriele del Torchio strode onto the stage accompanied by a pair of MotoGP race bikes (Audi had handed out ear plugs for this part of the proceedings) and suggested that ‘Bavaria and Italy were not so different’. In proximity, perhaps. You can reach the Italian border from Munich in about 90minutes,
Audi chairman Rupert Stadler actually asked the question out loud. ‘Is Audi to become more Italian? Emotion, design and creative solutions means we might become more Italian’ he said to the gathering in the historic Munich Postpalast.
I don’t think all of this was a coincidence. What immediately came to mind was the spat between Ferdinand Piech, the ultimate boss of VW Group, and Sergio Marchionne, boss of Fiat Auto. Piech has long been goading Marchionne about his desire to buy Alfa Romeo. As recently as last September, Piech told the press he was still interested in buying Alfa, saying ‘we [VW] have time’ and would wait for an opportunity to buy Alfa.
Of course, a complete revival of the Alfa brand is the lynchpin of Marchionne’s plan to fill Fiat Auto’s Italian factories with profitable, premium, cars. But having watched the presentation last night, it’s clear Alfa would slip perfectly into the Audi portfolio. While Alfa Romeo won’t be joining the Audi brand group anytime soon, the VW Group is watching and waiting.
In the same way that German carmakers hoovered up ‘characterful’ British brands, their attention has turned to the ailing Italian car industry. The Germans are constantly concerned that their own brands are little too cold and logical. Adding a character brands allows them to cover a wider pool of potential buyers. Meanwhile, if you are an ambitious Audi middle manager, it’s probably time to buy a pair of brown shoes to go with your grey suit.