Herndon, VA — Ferdinand Piëch’s time as CEO of Volkswagen AG (1993-2002) was notable not only for the company’s tremendous growth, but also for its exploration of new ideas and technologies. While it is difficult to overstate the importance of Piëch’s legacy as an executive, his career as an engineer may be even more impressive. In that role, he helped develop everything from benchmark cars like the Porsche 917 racer, to quattro all-wheel drive, to a slew of engines including the TDI® diesel and the first five-cylinder gasoline engine. One of the lasting innovations of Piëch’s leadership is a design from the man himself which made its way from a set of Volkswagen concept cars into the engine bays of the Passat, Phaeton, Touareg, and the Audi A8, while at the same time helping to revive both the Bentley and Bugatti lines: The W engine.
The W engine’s journey began in an unlikely place: The Shinkansen express train running between Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan. In 1997, after a conversation with Karl-Heinz Neumann, then head of powertrain development at Volkswagen, Piëch grabbed an envelope and sketched out an idea that had been rolling around in his head for some time. The six-cylinder VR6® engine was in wide use by Volkswagen by the mid-90s; its uniquely offset cylinder banks made it compact enough to fit transversely even in small cars like the Volkswagen Golf. By marrying two of the relatively narrow engines in a further “V,” a compact 12-cylinder could be made. The offset cylinders of the merged VR6 engines formed a “W,” and the nomenclature was born.
But what emerged from the train ride was even more emblematic of the person who drew it: a “compact” 18-cylinder engine comprised of three VR6 engines, configured in a tilted double-W shape. Springing from the back-of-the-envelope sketch into the real world, the W18 was a naturally aspirated 555-horsepower, 6.25-liter powerhouse. All it needed was a home.
Piëch was spearheading a growth movement as CEO of Volkswagen AG in the 1990s. As part of that movement, he was seeking a high-end, luxury brand to bring into the fold. Enter Bugatti: Piëch’s son Gregor had recently insisted his father purchase a model of a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic for him, so the company was on his mind. It also happened to be for sale—“An amusing stroke of fate,” he would write later in his autobiography. In 1998 the deal was done, and immediately Piëch set about his goal of restoring Bugatti’s standing as producer of elite, state-of-the-art vehicles, with the new W18 engine as a prominent feature.
With the aid of legendary automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign, the Bugatti EB 118 design prototype was developed within a few short months. With its W18 engine mounted up front, the EB 118 debuted at the Paris Motor Show in October 1998. The design was striking and future-forward while keeping a foot firmly rooted in Bugatti’s past. The 118 was soon followed by the EB 218 concept sedan in 1999, along with the EB 18/3 Chiron and EB 18/4 Veyron supercar prototypes. In 2000, Piëch announced Bugatti would be coming to market with a car that would be the most exciting, innovative, and unprecedented of all time. It would have 1,000 metric horsepower, break 250 miles per hour, and accelerate from 0-62 mph (100km/h) in less than three seconds—all on tires you could drive to, around, and back from the track.
The Veyron would need to go through some revisions and refinement on the way to becoming a production car. The most dramatic of these was to its engine: a 2001 concept, the EB 16:4 Veyron, had a W16 engine—essentially, two V8s joined at a 90-degree angle. Thanks to the W16 cylinder banks being separated at a 15-degree angle, the engine was compact enough to allow for the use of four turbochargers (the “4” in “16:4”). The stats for the production Veyron were as staggering as promised: An 8.0-liter, quad-turbocharged W16 engine with 987 horsepower and 922 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 mph in less than three seconds, and a top speed of more than 250 mph. Further Veyron models would eclipse even those numbers.
Of course, the W18 and W16 engines weren’t the only Volkswagen efforts to bring W engines to the road. Back in 1997, as Piëch was sketching out what would become the W18, he and Giugiaro were working on a concept that Piëch hoped would become a Volkswagen supercar, featuring a W12 engine. The W12 Syncro debuted the W engine to the world at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, with a W12 Roadster appearing at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show. The best known W12 concept, however, is the Nardo. Revealed in 2001, the W12 Nardo had a six-speed manual transmission that sent the 6.0-liter W12 engine’s prodigious 591 horsepower to the rear wheels.
This Volkswagen supercar never materialized in production form, but the W engines did come to market in a variety of applications. From 2001-2004, a W8 engine was available as an option in the Volkswagen Passat. Paired with standard 4Motion all-wheel drive and available in wagon form with a six-speed manual transmission, the rare W8 Passat remains a sought-after practical enthusiast vehicle today. The W12 saw production in the Volkswagen Phaeton and Touareg, as well as the Audi A8. Most famously, the W12 found its home in a new generation of Bentley models from 2003 on. Between the Bentley W12 and the Bugatti W16, the W engine has become a standard bearer for luxury performance vehicles. Not bad for a sketch on some scrap paper.