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Eight of the best for Ferdinand

Piech has picked up a quartet of 24-carat car makers, never mind that their glory days go back a few generations
AT THE last count, the chairman of Volkswagen, Dr Ferdinand Piech, owned eight car companies and had 12 children.

Nobody in the car industry thinks bigger than Piech, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who invented the VW Beetle and the sports car company which bears his name. He is extremely rich. He is widely reckoned to be the greatest living car engineer. And, just now, he is probably the most successful car company boss in the world. While the rest of the industry talks about overcapacity and impending doom, Piech looks to expand.

A decade ago, his Volkswagen Group owned just the VW and Audi badges, the latter bought in 1969. It bought Seat, the Spanish maker of crummy rebadged Fiats, in 1986, and Skoda in 1991. Skoda was once one of the world's worst car companies, alongside Lada and Trabant. Last year, under VW, it won the JD Power customer-satisfaction survey. This is a turnaround roughly equivalent to Eddie the Eagle winning the Men's Downhill Olympics.

But VW's big year has been 1998. This year Piech has added Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti to his stable. Rolls-Royce once made the best cars in the world, even if that was in the 1920s. Bugatti made the best sports cars in the world back when the first Beetle was being conceived. Lamborghini was the world's most potent sports car maker in the 1960s. Bentley won Le Mans 60 years ago. In short, Piech has picked up a quartet of 24-carat car makers, never mind that their glory days go back a few generations.

Piech plans for Seat to fight Alfa Romeo, as a manufacturer of sexy, stylish, southern European sports saloons. He wants Skoda to battle Volvo as builders of safe, stolid, reliable, good value family saloons. Audi, VW's most successful brand, is fighting BMW.

Of this year's signings, Bentley will make distinguished sports saloons for those more likely to know the price of a magnum of Bollinger than a litre of petrol. Bugatti will make conservative yet beautiful sports coupes. And Lamborghini will continue to make wild supercars, except in future they won't fall apart and invariably be three years late coming to market.

There are a few clouds on the good doctor's horizon. He loses Rolls-Royce to BMW in 2003, after a complicated deal worked out with his opposite number at BMW, Bernd Pischetsrieder. He has a hell of a job to make anything of Bugatti, a name long dormant.

Most perplexing of all, what happens to the Volkswagen badge? His other brands seem to have every hole in the market covered. He once spoke ambitiously of VW matching Mercedes. Most pundits thought this was proof that, like all geniuses, Piech can occasionally seem mad. We know that VW has just launched its Lupo baby car, is working on a new VW-badged luxury saloon to go up against big Mercedes and BMW models, has previewed a VW 12-cylinder supercar, and has the retro Beetle.

In other words, the Volkswagen badge seems hell-bent on spanning the whole market by itself. Which makes you wonder why Piech bothered spending so many millions on the other seven car brands in the family.