FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) unit Audi (NSUG.DE) is in talks to buy Italian motorbike maker Ducati, two sources familiar with the matter said, in a deal that could extend a long-standing rivalry with BMW (BMWG.DE) to superbikes.
If talks with Ducati’s private equity owner Investindustrial are successful, Volkswagen will also add lightweight high-revving motorbike engine know-how vital to improving fuel efficiency, to an engineering empire which includes cutting-edge car, heavy truck and ship engine technology.
Audi is conducting due diligence and a decision about a purchase is expected by mid April, one of these sources said.
Volkswagen, Audi and Ducati’s owners declined comment.
At the annual earnings conference on Monday, Volkswagen Group Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn signaled that Europe’s largest auto maker may be on the lookout to snap up the Bologna-based maker of the “Ducati monster”.
“I like everything that’s red,” Winterkorn said in response to a question about whether they would buy Ducati, a veiled reference to the fire-engine red fuel tanks which have become a hallmark for Ducati bikes.
“One should never say no if an interesting opportunity arises, but we’re big enough,” Winterkorn further said, adding he did not like companies which are loss making.
Last month Investindustrial said it was looking for a “world class industrial partner” for Ducati.
Volkswagen could announce a deal as soon as its annual shareholders’ meeting on April 19.
BMW, which makes the Ducati rival S 1000 RR superbike, on Tuesday forecast it would reach its long-term sales target for cars four years earlier than planned, presenting Audi with a bigger challenge to clinch the crown of becoming the biggest selling premium auto maker.
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Before rising to become Volkswagen Group chief, Winterkorn built up Audi’s Ingolstadt headquarters to become a key research and development center for the entire VW group, specialized in lightweight fuel saving technologies like aluminum.
Snapping up Ducati would add yet another brand to Volkswagen’s sprawling empire which includes car makers Lamborghini, Skoda, Seat, Bentley, Audi and Bugatti, as well as truck makers MAN and Scania.
Audi’s move would also be in line with a long held wish by Ferdinand Piech, Volkswagen’s current chairman and grandson of VW Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche.
Piech, himself the owner of a Ducati, has long coveted Ducati and on repeated occasions lamented missing an opportunity to buy the motorbike maker after it fell on hard times.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in June 2008, Piech said VW could learn from Ducati’s approach to building lightweight engines.
“A 1 litre engine can produce 200 horsepower,” Piech told the paper. “Small engines are also lower from the point of view of fuel consumption. We can learn something here.”
Reporting by Jan Schwartz in Hamburg Andreas Cremer in Berlin, Jennifer Clark in Milan, and Edward Taylor in Frankfurt; writing by Edward Taylor; Editing by David Holmes and Jon Loades-Carter