Ferdinand Piëch, the omnipotent head of the Volkswagen automotive juggernaut, is famous for going to any extent to get what he wants. Haughty and ruthless, he's been known to steamroll rivals who stand in the way of his goals and oust staff who don't follow his lead. While for the most part this arrogant, go-getter attitude has been effective for him in turning around the fortunes of the Volkswagen Group, it backfired big time in 1998, when he aggressively countered BMW's bid for Roll-Royce Motor Cars.
Ostensibly willing to pay "almost any price" to steal the Roll-Royce deal, Piëch embarked on a lengthy and acrimonious brawl with Bernd Pischetsrieder, the then head of BMW. Although the Munich carmaker was the preferred buyer for Vickers PLC, owner of the Rolls-Royce brand, Piëch pitched much higher than BMW's bid and eventually won. But what unfolded in the following days was the story of one of the most extraordinary and embarrassing oversights in the history of business deals. As it turned out, despite shelling out more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, Volkswagen had no access to the Rolls-Royce trademark or the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem, which were sold to BMW for one-tenth of the price Piëch paid. To compound things further, BMW threatened to stop supplying V12 and V8 engines to Rolls-Royce. Effectively, Volkswagen was left with an ageing factory in Crewe and the rights to build a car that couldn't be called Rolls-Royce and, worse still, without an engine.
Rubbing salt into Ferdinand Piëch's wounded ego, political pressure mounted on him to arrive at an amicable settlement with BMW under which Wolfsburg was allowed to keep exclusive rights to the Rolls-Royce name until the end of 2002, after which it was transferred to BMW while VW maintained the right to build Bentleys. Although this didn't stop the grand old man of German automotive industry from audaciously pushing the limits of strategic risk in the future, the failed takeover will always remain an embarrassing blot on his otherwise eminent career.