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Driving BMW

BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder is aggressively turning the German automaker into a world player.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 2)

That's why it seems to some such a paradox to find Pischetsrieder actively involved in Europe's massive Project Prometheus. A consortium of European automakers, universities and government agencies, the project was launched in an effort to overcome the gridlock that grips cities from Munich to Stockholm. Already, a continent-wide navigation system is falling into place. One option on BMW's 750iL is an in-dash mapping system: punch in your destination and it will plot out a route. In some cities, the system can even display traffic updates, informing drivers how to detour around congestion. But the ultimate step, some experts believe, is a totally autonomous car. Drive onto the Autobahn, tap a key on the dashboard and lie back for a snooze as your car hurtles towards its destination automatically.

One thing is certain. Don't expect to see Pischetsrieder handing over control of his own car. He has a passion "alternately for fast cars or old," and he has turned some fast ones into old wrecks, such as the McLaren that he rolled off a highway last year. Though everyone on board walked away with no more than minor scrapes, there wasn't much left of the Autobahn-burner. A generous charitable donation, not only legal but encouraged under German law, and the polizei found no reason to issue a ticket.

How fast was he going? The official report suggested 120 kilometers per hour, about 75 miles an hour. "I have nothing more to add to that," Pischetsrieder says, struggling not to crack a smile. For a better idea, consider that he drove a replacement McLaren on the track at LeMans last June, just before the start of the annual 24-hour race. "But I made sure no one saw me," he says, because after the accident, "pictures would be quite valuable."

Pischetsrieder has three speeds: fast, faster and mach schnell. whether he's on four wheels, two, or a dangerously short slab of wood. He's been snowboarding for nine years. "When I started, no one knew what that piece of wood was all about. Now, it's so popular with the kids, I'm like their grandfather." He is serious enough about the sport that he'd like to compete--if only there were more boarders in his age class. When there's no snow on the ground, Pischetsrieder remains active--mountaineering, windsurfing or riding one of his BMW mountain bikes. There's also a half-hour morning jog Pischetsrieder describes as his "early-morning brainwash."

Of course, he does have some more sedentary pursuits, such as reading Plato and Socrates, sipping a good Cognac and enjoying a good cigar, the latter being one of the legacies of his South African assignment. Up until then, Pischetsrieder had been an avid pipe smoker. But the African air was too hot and dry and the pipe tobacco burned too harshly. Gratefully, he discovered that there were always plenty of Cohibas, even when they were in short supply elsewhere in the world. For Pischetsrieder, cigar smoking quickly became both a passionate and intellectual pursuit. "A heavy cigar on a rainy Sunday morning after a traditional British breakfast, is just right. On another day, another mood, I'll prefer a light one." The taste of victory in the Rover takeover is firmly linked in his mind to the taste of the Dom Perignon he lit up at the corporate retreat, the Restaurant Residenzin Aschau.

Pischetsrieder cultivates his sources in search of rare cigars; he has standing orders with several of London's top dealers. "The real goal is to find an old cigar, and I'm not talking six months," he says, savoring a rare after-lunch Partagas 898. "I'm talking 10 years, because the taste gets better. New cigars have a greenish taste because they're so fresh." A dealer in Munich recently scored two handsome boxes of aged Hoyas, "better made than average and in a chest that resembled a jigsaw puzzle." Pischetsrieder also has an unopened chest of 100 Montecristo Special Selections from 1958 that was produced only for Alfred Dunhill in London.

His growing collection of about 5,000 cigars at his Munich home includes some 20-year-old Partagas 898s--even a few pre-Castro Cubans and Dom Perignons. "You always hesitate to smoke them," he says wistfully. "But after all, that's why they were made." Besides, Pischetsrieder adds with that Turkish twinkle flashing, "I don't believe in leaving all funds to my heirs. I would rather enjoy smoking one with my son today."

Unlike many of his colleagues and fellow cigar aficionados, Pischetsrieder, who is married and has two children about whom he's as secretive as future business deals, claims no set cigar routine. "I have so many different cigars and always like a change." His favorites are Dom Perignon, Hoya de Monterrey Double Corona, Partagas 898 and Romeo y Julieta Belicoso. He derides anything smaller than a corona as lacking in taste. Surprisingly, until now, the vast Pischetsrieder tobacco collection has been stored humbly, in a cupboard, with no temperature control, though he is able to maintain humidity at a steady 70 percent. Almost apologetically, Pischetsrieder admits he's finally placed an order for a customized humidor, which he recently had shipped from the United States.

There's little left of his 898. Dusting the ash, he rises from the table. He's off to a photo shoot, then it's back to the office. Bernd Pischetsrieder has a lot more communication to conduct before the end of the day. BMW is no longer a little Bavarian company. It's a global enterprise with the inherent payoffs, and risks. Indeed, there are plenty of skeptics betting the big Rover deal will ultimately go bust. And the Spartanburg plant has its own problems. Quality control has been below expectations and production rates remain well behind schedule.

But Pischetsrieder's confidence level is as rigid as his posture. Running an auto company is normally an old man's game. After five or six years at the helm, you're worn out, ready to fall over. But by the time Pischetsrieder would reach mandatory retirement age, he'll have put in nearly 20 years on the job. Doesn't he ever burn out?

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