He built up the VW Group by bringing in new brands – notably Skoda, which has become a significant success – and driving VW, from the back seat for the last 13 years, to become the world’s second largest car maker.
His tenure came to an unexpected end when he was accused by members of the board of trying, for a second time within two weeks, to overthrow his long-time collaborator Winterkorn.
It was the second meeting since Piech, chairman of the supervisory board, had attempted to destabilise Winterkorn.
At the beginning of April, Piech had been quoted in the German press as saying he was "no longer aligned" with Winterkorn. Based on Piech’s previous record of expelling senior figures he felt had failed, this kind of understated comment was widely understood to mean Piech wanted to see Winterkorn replaced, and quickly.
The result was to throw VW into an immediate management crisis (German companies pride themselves on consensual management) which saw the supervisory board meeting confirm that Winterkorn was safe as the VW Group boss. The statement even described Winterkorn as "the best of VW".
Piech had, for once, failed to get his own way, being forced to sign up to the supervisory board’s statement of support.
A few days later, however, rumours within VW began swirling that Piech had refused to accept defeat and was lobbying to get Matthias Mueller to replace Winterkorn.
At the Braunschweig airport meeting it seems the supervisory board finally turned as one on Piech, and he and his wife - who was also a board member – resigned.
Although it will probably never become public knowledge, there is probably more to Piech’s ousting than meets the eye. For a start, the VW Group is not in the best shape, despite being the world’s second biggest car maker.
VW brand profit margins are just 2.6%, and the VW Group is almost completely propped up by the huge profits being made by Porsche and Audi. VW is also, by the standards of Toyota, significantly overmanned, with some hundreds of thousands more employees than the Japanese company.
The VW brand is still a minnow in the US (unlike Toyota) and sales have been sliding backwards as VW management completely mishandled the need to roll out as many SUV and crossover models as possible, as soon as possible.
VW is also spending huge amounts of money rolling out its MQB factory programme across the world, which is proving extremely expensive.
Based on what’s known about Piech’s taste for competition, he’s probably not pleased that Audi has no rival for the i3 and i8 which, arguably, gives BMW the look of the current automotive technology leader.
More to the point, Piech faced both the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony and the company’s union representatives on the supervisory board. It’s hard not to conclude that Piech’s main solution for fixing VW woes was much more aggressive cost-cutting and job losses via a VW Group boss who was willing to force these moves through.
Germany’s consensual industrial system is designed to prevent just such dramatic moves, however. It was Piech’s success in turning VW around during the 1990s that made him so popular with local government and unions.