The man who just can't stop buying luxury cars

IF A middle-aged man who owned a Skoda Felicia, a VW Golf and a Seat Ibiza suddenly went out and bought himself a Lamborghini and a Rolls-Royce, his friends might be forgiven for starting to wonder about his mental health.

And if the same middle-aged man then announced he was trying to buy a Bugatti - an Italian sports car so outrageous nobody has ever seen one - his nearest and dearest might be seriously concerned.

Ferdinand Piech is just such a man. Like the American tycoon who appreciated Remington razors so much he bought the company, Mr Piech is on a shopping spree of exotic car companies.

At the beginning of this year, Mr Piech, the chairman of Germany's Volkswagen Group, Europe's biggest car-maker, was in charge of VW, its sister company Audi, Seat and its (relatively) new acquisition, Skoda. His companies were doing well and in America a new Beetle was being launched to a dazzling public reception.

But this wasn't enough for Mr Piech. Earlier this month, he successfully outbid archrival BMW for Rolls-Royce. Only a week after paying pounds 460m for the classic company (although he admittedly got Bentley, less flashy, faster and considered a better investment by analysts, thrown in) it was revealed he was buying Lamborghini.

Until then, most people agreed that a pounds 220,000 Bentley Azure was as far as it was possible to get from a Volkswagen Polo. Rapidly, they changed their minds; a Lamborghini Diabolo Roadster, which costs the same, is a road-melting 200mph beast. Only 600 are made every year.

Now Mr Piech is buying Bugatti, a car company so exotic it doesn't even make cars. Its Italian factory turned out the last pounds 150,000 EB110, a quadruple- turbo, V12-engined apparition that accelerated to 60mph faster than the Space Shuttle and then promptly exploded, in 1995, before going into receivership.

People who know the man describe him variously as brilliant, arrogant, powerful and autocratic. Worth hundreds of millions of pounds, Mr Piech is an engineer by training, and recognised by friends and rivals as Germany's most brilliant: he designed the Le Mans-winning Porsche 917 during the Sixties, and was responsible for the legendary Audi Quattro when he switched allegiance. He rules his companies with an iron fist and an inspired mind.

But the new purchases are no whim.

"[Mr Piech] sees them as being part of the VW arsenal," says Gavin Green, editor-in-chief of Car magazine. The status will rub off on other marques. "He wants VW to be a much broader company than it was two months ago. I'm sure he thinks he will make money out of them. And, anyway, Lamborghini only cost $50m, which is a drop in the ocean for VW."

Observers are wondering what's next for Mr Piech. A few hundred miles from VW HQ is a family-owned firm many would love to get their hands on: Porsche. But the world's ultimate compulsive shopper doesn't even need to try. For Mr Piech is the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the company's founder; he owns some 10 per cent of the company (estimated to be worth more than pounds 2bn), and sits on its board.

It beats sitting in a Skoda.