VW CEO Martin Winterkorn in happier times earlier this year at an event in China. He resigned after pressure on VW continued to grow this week

VW CEO Martin Winterkorn in happier times earlier this year at an event in China. He resigned after pressure on VW continued to grow this week

I'm not unsympathetic to him at all but, as the Volkswagen emissions-test rigging scandal continued to erupt this week, after the EPA's shock Friday night recall order announcement a week ago, Volkswagen's CEO Martin Winterkorn took the honourable and brave course, obviously after considerable discussion and thought, and, finally, offered the supervisory board his head on a plate - and his resignation was accepted. It was a sad and ignomonious end to a long and successful career.

There's no doubt that consumers' and regulators' knives are now out for Volkswagen and the scandal has quickly spread, in one form or another like a flu virus, from the US to, it now appears, most of the globe. The initial number of diesel cars with software to 'game' official emissions certification testing quickly mushroomed from around 483,000 in the US alone - the individual cars the EPA ordered recalled a week ago and those for which VW of America almost immediately issued a 'stop sale' order to dealers. Barely had we started to absorb the ramifications of the scandal just in the US, things just started to get worse, bulletin and statement by bulletin and statement, like dominoes falling in a row.

The week

Tuesday (22 September), VW announced it was taking an initial charge of EUR6.5bn in this third quarter to help cover the costs of the US recall (and the fallout) while insisting current' diesel vehicles sold in the European Union comply fully with local emission laws. Meanwhile, as always happens with such recall scandals (and American lawyers being American lawyers), our inbox was starting to be dotted with press releases from law firms we never heard of in cities we never heard of promising, in essence, that 'X, Y and Zee, attorneys at law, Inc, would be throwing the book at VW in the form of a class action lawsuit'. If Toyota's 'unintended acceleration' experience is any guide, some of the more serious suits will stick - eventually - and result in payouts costing millions of dollars.

It got worse later in VW's Tuesday statement. "Further internal investigations conducted to date have established that the relevant engine management software is also installed in other Volkswagen Group vehicles with diesel engines. For the majority of these engines the software does not have any effect. Discrepancies relate to vehicles with Type EA189 engines, involving some 11m vehicles worldwide. A noticeable deviation between bench test results and actual road use was established solely for this type of engine. Volkswagen is working intensely to eliminate these deviations through technical measures. The company is therefore in contact with the relevant authorities and the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA)."

Updated Passat launched anyway

Yikes. Ironically, despite the scandal breaking earlier on the Monday, VW's US unit that night (21 September) launched a substantially revamped version of its Chattanooga, Tennessee-made Passat in Brooklyn, New York. (A US source told just-auto the event was 'too big and too pricey' to cancel.) US CEO, Michael Horn, commented briefly on the diesel issue before the unveiling: "Our company was dishonest, with EPA, the California Air Resources Board, and with [the public]," he said. "In my German words, we totally screwed up. We must fix those cars [to] prevent this from ever happening again and make things right," he continued, "with the government, the public, customers, employees, and our dealers. This [dishonesty] is completely inconsistent with our core values, which include… responsibility," he added. "It goes totally against what we believe is right." Horn, notably, did not take questions after the event.

More government inquiry

Through Tuesday and Wednesday, with VW and CEO Winterkorn under intense pressure, various European governments, including those of the US (where the EPA announced an additional probe into VW's group diesel V6 shared with Audi and Porsche), UK (the SMMT trade lobby grabbed the chance to demand reform of EC emissions testing while assuring us no other automaker was conducting such test scamming), France, Germany and Italy, announced various investigations and probes, and several suppliers, including some making emissions control kit, told us they were 'clean' and it was all VW's problem.

Winterkorn goes

Finally, on Wednesday, Winterkorn announced his departure, saying in a statement: “I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group. As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the supervisory board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part. Volkswagen needs a fresh start – also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation. I have always been driven by my desire to serve this company, especially our customers and employees. Volkswagen has been, is and will always be my life. The process of clarification and transparency must continue. This is the only way to win back trust. I am convinced that the Volkswagen Group and its team will overcome this grave crisis.”

It must have been a difficult decision to make and carry out, a regrettable end to a long spell at the VW tiller during which, particularly here in Europe and in China, many new models, some covering new niches, were rolled out very regularly, to be rewarded by strong sales and rising market shares with brands and individual models often top, or near topping, of their respective sales charts, country by country. Only in the last year had the strong growth in 'emerging markets' like China, Russia and Brazil begun to taper off, or even turn into the red, but the long term, big picture still looked, generally, good.

Obviously, Dr W will depart with a generous settlement and what we in the UK call a 'generous pension pot' from VW and I doubt his considerable expertise at steering a large automaker largely on course will long be left untapped for management and supervisory supervisory boards in Germany and further afield.

More to come

Winterkorn's departure was followed by South Korea promising to re-test Audi and VW emissions, the New York attorney general launching a state probe into VW emissions, claims German chancellor Angela Merkel's government turned a blind eye to Volkswagen emissions rigging, and on, and on, it went. As we used to say in my old newspaper days: "this story has legs". There's (lots) more to come.

Have a good weekend.

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Graeme Roberts, Deputy Editor, just-auto.com