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Rift in Porsche/Piëch family over VW CEO Winterkorn

First, Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch shocked the car world by saying he was "distancing" himself from VW CEO Martin Winterkorn. But now his family, the Porsche heirs, has said Piëch was not speaking for them.

When news magazine Der Spiegel first quoted

Ferdinand Piëch's comments about his heir-apparent Martin Winterkorn

, it seemed like the beginning of the end for the VW CEO. After all, Winterkorn's predecessor, Bernd Pischetsrieder, was swiftly brushed aside following some choice words from Piëch in the press in 2006. Suddenly, the question of who would replace Piëch as chair of the 12-badge brand's supervisory board in 2017, when his term expires, seemed wide open.

But other key figures at the Wolfsburg carmaker have rallied around Winterkorn since the initial comments, most notably Piëch's relatives and fellow heirs to Beetle inventor Ferdinand Porsche.

"The statement from Dr. Piëch portrays his private opinion, which is not aligned…with that of the family," Wolfgang Porsche said in a statement issued to German news agency dpa on Sunday on behalf of the Porsche family.

Volkswagen-Konzern

The Volkswagen Group incorporates Bugatti, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborghini and others

Porsche and Piëch are cousins, both grandsons of Ferdinand Porsche, and both on the supervisory board of VW, which Piëch chairs. Wolfgang Porsche is the family's public spokesman. Combined, the clan owns 51 percent of the Volkswagen Group.

Porsche clan joins staff council, regional government

The Porsche family was by no means the first influential stakeholder to call this apparent criticism of the VW CEO into question, leaving Piëch somewhat isolated in his position.

The VW staff council, which holds half of the 20 seats on the supervisory board, came to Winterkorn's defense, as did the state premier of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil, himself a board member. Weil and the state's support could prove crucial; Lower Saxony holds a 20-percent share in VW, but also has special voting rights and veto rights for key decisions at the company.

Winterkorn and Weil were side-by-side on Sunday in Hanover, touring the "Hannover Messe" trade fair on its opening day.

"I consider a public discussion about the leadership of VW to be damaging," Weil told reporters at the trade fair on Sunday, having already voiced his "uncomfortable surprise" at Piëch's quoted comments when the story first broke on Friday.

Piech, Winterkorn

Ferdinand Piech (left) brought Winterkorn (left) into the fold in the 1980s

Multiple newspapers around Germany cited unnamed VW "insiders" over the weekend, seemingly suggesting that Winterkorn had no intention to quietly step aside. "Piëch wants to kill him off, but Winterkorn's fighting back," the Bild am Sonntag quoted an unnamed Winterkorn "ally" as saying.

Surprising split, more to come from Piëch

Winterkorn, VW CEO since 2007, has a contract until the end of 2016. He joined VW subsidiary Audi in the 1980s, hand-picked by Piëch, himself a former VW CEO.

Piëch's own comments hit the German newsstands in full on Monday morning, with his Spiegel quotes released in advance of the weekly magazine. In the initial report, he batted away suggestions that his wife, Ursula, might replace him at the head of the board - saying that the position was earmarked for somebody with an engineering background. Saying simply that he was "striving to get the right people" in the top VW jobs, Piëch said that the candidates were already working for the company, without naming any possible candidates.

VW is chasing Toyota for the mantle of the world's most successful car seller by units. The 12-brand giant is also not far clear of General Motors, with all three behemoths around the 10-million-vehicle mark. Annual sales when Winterkorn took charge stood at 6.2 million units. The company logged record profits for 2014, and Winterkorn is Germany's top-earning executive by some margin.

However, among the Volkswagen Group brands, VW itself has been struggling, especially in the world's second-largest car market in North America. Its two truck brands, MAN and Scania, are also struggling. The brand's faltering entry into the budget-car sector - with plans long discussed but as yet unrealized - is another reported source of strain within the company.

VW shares, buoyant like the DAX index as a whole in recent months, were trading at around 244 euros over the weekend, having stood closer to 180 euros at the start of the year.

msh/cmk (AFP, dpa)

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