Martin “Dieselgate” Winterkorn turns 75


Martin Winterkorn: one of the most influential and successful bosses at VW – until the diesel scandal swept him out of office. Since then it has become quiet around him, he is spared the presence in the fraud process for the time being.

Who would have thought that this meteoric career would end like this? After years of ever higher profits, after years as the best-paid German top manager, after years of being in awe of his technical knowledge and entrepreneurial success, it was suddenly over for Martin Winterkorn as Volkswagen boss on September 23, 2015.

Five days earlier, the US environmental agency had dropped a bomb: His company had used software to manipulate measurements of pollutant emissions from diesel cars. It soon became clear that the fraudulent code was in millions of cars. To this day it is unclear who in the group, right up to its top level, knew what and when. For Winterkorn, who turns 75 on Tuesday (May 24), it meant the end at VW with immediate effect. Totally unexpected at the time.

He had to accept that his “name is linked to the so-called diesel affair,” he said later. The manager of the largest German company, who had long been considered untouchable, did not want this to be understood as an admission of complicity in the emissions scandal. And almost seven years later, Winterkorn is not willing – or able – to contribute much to the investigation of “Dieselgate”.

The Braunschweig district court meets in a large hall – but the chair for Martin Winterkorn remains empty

An empty place in the dock

At least not in public, not in the courtroom. A medical report has so far saved him from having to appear in person at the first major criminal trial in Braunschweig. The charge in the proceedings, which have been running against four other ex-VW managers and engineers since September 2021, is commercial and gang fraud with the deception program. Its function was to only allow VW diesel to completely clean the exhaust gas flow on the test bench.

His absence has bothered critics of the auto industry and those involved in the trial alike. “The message of sitting here without Mr. Winterkorn is a disaster,” said a lawyer for the other four who had to appear in the district court in round one. “Taking responsibility for your own actions looks different,” said a defender colleague. The public prosecutor wants to see Winterkorn in the dock just as quickly.

The fall of “Mr. Volkswagen”

The ex-boss had to undergo three hip surgeries. The consequences of the interventions led to the report that attested the lack of negotiability – for the chairman Christian Schütz the basis for separating the proceedings. Many of those involved do not deny that Winterkorn has to go through lengthy rehabilitation measures. But why suspend his part indefinitely? Will he ever appear before the judge?

Hardly any top manager has fallen so deeply in such a short time. “Mr. Volkswagen” basked in the success of a record hunt that seemed to have no end during his almost nine years at the helm of Europe's largest car group. In a farewell video to the workforce, Winterkorn was visibly touched. “Everything is on the table – as quickly, thoroughly and transparently as possible”.

Through an internally negotiated settlement, VW received 288 million euros in damages from the ex-boss, three other executives and mostly liability insurers – given the “Dieselgate” costs of well over 30 billion euros, a symbolic sum. In 2017, Winterkorn quarreled half defiantly, half humbly in the Bundestag investigative committee: “How could something like this happen?” He claimed to have known nothing about illegal activities before the scandal became known.

Just a few months before “Dieselgate” became known: Martin Winterkorn “on an equal footing” with the big names in politics

Record chase up to the diesel crash

“Wiko”, as he was known from line workers to board colleagues, was a star of the business elite, with annual salaries of up to 17 million euros and a pension of 3,100 euros – per day. But the workforce usually didn't let anything get on their boss. He maintained close ties with the works council and was generally well respected, regardless of the trepidation of many engineers and designers at his judgement.

The workaholic gets up at 5 a.m., after umpteen meetings he gives the green light for a new model, at noon to the test in Sweden, in the evening to the next USA or China appointment. This is what working days looked like.

The football fan comes from humble backgrounds. The son of a worker and a housewife, Winterkorn was born in Leonberg near Stuttgart in 1947. After studying physics and obtaining his doctorate, he began his career at Bosch in 1977. Four years later he went to Audi, where he worked early on in the orbit of Ferdinand Piëch, who later became VW executive and supervisory board chairman. From 1988 he was Head of Quality Assurance. In 2002 Winterkorn became head of Audi, and in 2007 he was at the top of VW.

That's how he was known, that's how he wanted to be seen: an engineer with a love of detail and an eye for the essential

< h2>“There's nothing rattling”

In Wolfsburg, the father of two expanded the group into a conglomerate with twelve brands. Some actions were legendary. “There's nothing rattling,” he said in 2011 at the Frankfurt Motor Show IAA about the steering wheel adjustment of a Hyundai, which he tugged at the South Korean competitor's booth with great attention to detail.

The surprising quarrel with Intimus Piëch then rankled him very much. The chief controller has the visions, “and I guarantee that the cars will work,” said Winterkorn, describing the distribution of roles. But at the beginning of 2015, after a hitherto unthinkable interview statement by the foster father (“I am at a distance from Winterkorn”), the break came. The diesel disaster followed just a few months later.

“I'm at a distance from Winterkorn” – this sentence from his former mentor Ferdinand Piëch brought down Winterkorn

The wait goes on

Winterkorn lives a secluded life in Munich. Will he come to the Braunschweig proceedings in a shorter period of time? That is probably rather unlikely, is to be heard. In the meantime, however, a higher authority has issued an order to the regional court to retrospectively review the discontinuation of parallel criminal proceedings for market manipulation in the emissions scandal.

One way or another: the relationship between the group and many employees and Winterkorn remains divided. It is said that the achievements of the former boss should not be forgotten either. More than 140,000 jobs were created under him, and sales and earnings doubled.

A number of models from which the car manufacturer is still making good money today, despite Corona, the Ukraine war and the chip crisis, were part of the planning for the Winterkorn era. At least in this respect, a sentence from his farewell message has a certain validity: “Volkswagen was, is and will always be my life.”