Volkswagen Group may purchase Ducati – why?
The news swirled around the Geneva press days a few weeks ago that Audi would be the Volkswagen Group division to place a bid for Ducati, which is up for sale. Volkswagen Group has made no formal comment about the story, but senior officers have.
Why buy a motor bike manufacturer? Well the visionary leader and Chairman of Volkswagen Group Ferdinand Piech is a very big fan of Ducati, and is owns some Ducati bikes. Next, within the Audi group there is Bugatti and – more significantly – Lamborghini. Finally there is the BMW Motorrad division, which has made bikes for many decades with variable reputation but consistent commercial success – a division which upon the acquisition of Husqvarna bike division from the Electrolux group, celebrated the fresh thinking it brought to BMW. The Ducati Current investor Investindustrial has done much to re-build the company. Essentially Ducati customers want a slice of Italian style, at a high but not stratospheric price, along with devastating performance.
One senior Volkswagen Group person was quoted that Ducati would offer light weight engine technology to the Group. This is a flawed argument:
- All vehicle manufacturers are trying to down size powertrains to make engineering light(er) weight body structures more feasible without resorting to ultra-exotic materials.
- The internal combustion engine weight is mainly concentrated in the block / crank / piston / conn rod assembly (called the ‘base’ engine). This in turn is defined by the amount of torque which is needed to start a vehicle from rest.
- Hence peak power for a typical car engine is lower than a bike engine because it has to move more than 1000 kg of mass from rest as opposed to less than 400 kg – so the power and torque curves are optimised correspondingly.
- Without the need to develop a mountain of bottom end torque to move at least 1100 kg of vehicle, a bike can have inherently lighter (weaker) block and crank.
- Unless Volkswagen Group are proposing 4 seat cars at a kerb weight of 400kg, a bike engine does not easily translate to a car. However combined with electric motor launch assistance, or even as a range extender, this makes 100% sense.
- However, to reduce base engine weight alternative means of producing low speed torque are required. Step forward the electric motor fed from a battery or ultra-capacitor, or even some sort of flywheel.
Does Ducati engine technology offer anything for Volkswagen Group? In short, not really. The famous desmodromic valve gear (the vales are lifted and returned with full mechanical control) has been surpassed by other technologies and engine speeds of greater than 7000 rpm are frankly not likely to be required for future mass market passenger cars. If purchasing bike engine technology was the main agenda for Volkswagen Group, there would be better acquisitions to be had (Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and more, for example).
So why consider the purchase? Ducati has an immense international following, which would sit well within the Audi family of companies. Is it a good idea? For marketing and brand extension, yes but otherwise, no. Under the Audi wing (hence with Lamborghini and Bugatti) Ducati engineering will improve and quality will become simply brilliant all the time but the risk is it could become a little diluted by the ‘Group’ approach to engineering. Customers would notice any change in character.
This is an example of corporate expansion for the greater good of the company rather than the specifics of saving Ducati. There are others with cash to spend who also want Ducati such as India based bike manufacturer Hero.
So there we have it.
Volkswagen Group could buy Ducati as a brand halo to add to the Italian image they have for Lamborghini. Audi are in discussions, with due diligence to be completed by mid-April 2012 at which point a decision to purchase will be made. So that is quite a bit more serious than a chat in a café.