"I don't like to be second," he once famously declared.
Piech, 72, put everything he had into the years-long fight, and even took the rare step of publicly exposing family disputes, in particular with his cousin, Wolfgang Porsche. Piech seemed isolated at times, a far cry from his media nicknames of "the emperor" or "patriarch."
But over the course of several decades, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche has overcome obstacles and disgrace, bouncing back when the press said he was finished. His dream was to create a German auto giant that made everything from heavy trucks to limousines, able to compete with the best to become number one.
Fifteen years ago, Piech called for an "auto war," with the Japanese car maker Toyota in his sights as foreign brands were already chipping away at US domination of the sector. Over the course of a decade, Piech patiently assembled his puzzle. Head of VW from 1993 to 2002, he reorganised the group and cleaned up its books at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs. VW also began launching new models, in particular via its high-end unit Audi, which now competes with Mercedes and BMW.
Head of VW's supervisory board since 2002, Piech also got the group involved with the heavy truck maker MAN and is pushing for a tie-up with Scania of Sweden. VW owns the biggest stake in each company.
Piech has been instrumental in getting Porsche and VW closer together, a move that began in 2005. He swears it was not his idea however, insisting it was suggested by Porsche head Wendelin Wiedeking.
A honeymoon period between the two companies quickly turned sour however, with Wiedeking sparking opposition from VW unions and directors following a series of provocative remarks, notably that there were no "sacred cows" at VW.
Wiedeking audaciously built up a 51 percent stake in VW - with share options giving him even more - but the financial crisis put paid to his plans to swallow up the much larger VW. The approach left Porsche deep in debt and caused squabbles among the families, but on Thursday, Wiedeking threw in the towel and VW appeared to have won the upper hand. It now plans to take over Porsche and make it just another brand.
Born on April 17, 1937 in Vienna, Ferdinand Piech was always fascinated by automobiles.
"I have played with technical things since my earliest days," he said.