By Andreas Cremer and Christiaan Hetzner
BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Volkswagen AG (GER:VOW3) has denied its chairman Ferdinand Piech plans to step down in coming months, rebutting a newspaper report that he would depart for health reasons to make way for Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn.
The Wolfsburg-based group, known for its top-selling Golf model, rebuffed a report in business daily Handelsblatt, saying 76-year-old Piech was in the best of health and would continue to run VW's supervisory board for a long time.
Piech, whose contract was renewed for five years in 2012, was quoted by Spiegel magazine on Friday as saying: "Those who are declared dead live longer".
But that may not dampen speculation about how VW will cope after Piech, a brilliant tactician who has run the firm for 20 years, first as chief executive then as chairman since 2002.
The report comes ahead of the Frankfurt auto show, where Europe's No. 1 automaker will hope attention will be focused on the models it is showing, such as its first battery-powered cars, the Up subcompact and a battery-driven version of the Golf hatchback.
"VW to date has not anointed potential heirs to Piech and Winterkorn," Helmut Becker, a former chief economist at BMW (BMWG.DE) who now runs a consulting business in Munich, said. "They have let the succession theme slide for a long time."
Handelsblatt had earlier cited sources close to Piech as saying 66-year-old Winterkorn was earmarked as a successor to Piech and that 62-year-old finance chief Hans Dieter Poetsch would run the company until a longer-term solution could be found.
During Piech's time in charge, Volkswagen has been transformed into the world's third-largest carmaker and has grown through the purchase of luxury names such as Bentley and Lamborghini.
Its reach has expanded globally and engineering costs have been cut across all its brands through a "platform" strategy under which a number of modals can be built on the same chassis.
A grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the sports-car maker bearing his name who developed the Beetle under a 1934 contract with the Nazis, Piech took the reins at luxury division Audi in 1988 before joining the parent company.
One of Piech's biggest victories may have been turning the tables on Porsche (PSHG_p.DE) in the sports-car maker's botched takeover of VW in 2009. Piech initially backed the plan, but changed sides as Porsche's financing unravelled, opening the door for VW to buy the Stuttgart-based manufacturer.
Some said there may not be great changes should Piech bow out and Winterkorn assume leadership.
"VW's rise is inextricably linked with Piech, but ultimately the company isn't a one-man show," said Stefan Bauknecht, a Frankfurt-based fund manager for Deutsche Bank AG investment vehicle DWS. "VW's future course has been set a while ago."
VW wants to surpass General Motors Co (NYS:GM) and Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> to become the world's biggest carmaker no later than 2018, aiming to sell more than 10 million cars per year.
Speculation about Piech's future at the helm of the VW board had flared up in April 2012, when shareholders granted him a third term. If he serves this out, the balding Austrian would become the oldest-ever chairman of a listed German company.
Volkswagen's supervisory board meets at the end of this month, a person familiar with the matter said on condition he not be identified because the meeting is confidential.
VW shares were little changed, trading 0.4 percent higher at 172.35 euros by 1214 GMT while the blue-chip DAX index (.GDAXI) was flat.
(Additional reporting by Christoph Steitz and Jan Schwartz.; Editing by David Goodman and David Holmes)