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The rapid fall of VW's Martin Winterkorn

Tall, gruff and stern, Martin Winterkorn was precisely the sort of executive that Volkswagen favored—first and foremost an engineer. In this case, one who seemed readily capable of understanding even the most arcane technical details of every car within the vast VW empire of a dozen brands.

Under the leadership of Winterkorn, the automaker's onetime head of quality assurance, VW aggressively sought to expand its global presence, setting the lofty goal of becoming No.1. Although Winterkorn originally expected to achieve that goal by 2018, the company ended the first half of this year as the world's best-selling automaker, topping Toyota.

Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn arrives for the Volkswagen annual general shareholders' meeting on May 5, 2015 in Hanover, Germany.
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Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn arrives for the Volkswagen annual general shareholders' meeting on May 5, 2015 in Hanover, Germany.

That achievement made Winterkorn's resignation—the swift result of a scandal involving technology that enabled VW vehicles to cheat on emissions tests—seem all the more sudden.

After a board meeting in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Wednesday, the executive committee of VW said in a statement that the automaker's recent success "is inextricably linked to his name," crediting Winterkorn "for towering contributions in the past decades and for his willingness to take responsibility in this critical phase for the company."

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There is an almost Shakespearean irony to Winterkorn's downfall. His rise was largely fostered by longtime VW boss and personal mentor Ferdinand Piech—a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the first "people's car," or Volkswagen, for Adolph Hitler.

Winterkorn pursued many of the same basic strategies during his eight-year run as CEO, including adding an array of brands to the corporate arsenal, including Porsche. But Winterkorn's fate came into doubt when the two men had a falling out, and Piech openly criticized Winterkorn's performance.

Piech resigned from the automaker's board in April, in what was a short-lived victory for Winterkorn.

Whether or not Winterkorn knew about VW's efforts to cheat on diesel emissions tests is likely to be one of the central issues in a variety of probes around the world.

While Michael Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, America's largest dealer network, said it is "too early" to point fingers, he told TheDetroitBureau.com that he believes the corruption at VW is "systemic," adding that it is impossible to believe that the scandal is the result of just a few "bad apples."

For his part, Winterkorn said his resignation came "in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part."

"As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group," he said.

VW's executive committee acknowledged that it expects "further personnel consequences in the next days."

The company has already launched its own investigation into the scandal, which was triggered by the announcement of a recall of 482,000 vehicles last week. The VW board is expected to appoint a successor Friday.