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Ralph Gilles, Dodge’s man with a plan

Published December 14, 2012

One thing all car designers have in common is that they love cars. But for Ralph Gilles, vice-president of design at Chrysler, it’s more of an obsession.

“I love cars, and I’ve been sketching since the tender age of 6,” says Gilles, who is also president of the company’s performance SRT and motorsports division. “I was born in New York, but raised in Montreal from a baby to 17. With the Grand Prix visiting every year, and my neighbourhood was Trans Ams everywhere, I was surrounded by enthusiasm and it bites you when you’re a kid.”

Even so, Gilles says his path wasn’t a direct one. He initially focused on engineering, guided by his high-school counsellors. It was his aunt who realized he needed a career with cars.

It was the 1980s, and Chrysler president Lee Iacocca was a well-known public figure.

“My aunt said, ‘You should write to Chrysler,’ ” Gilles says. “We attached a few pictures that I drew, and they wrote back and said, ‘You should consider these four schools.’ I wonder if they did that to a lot of people. But I followed their recommendations.”

But he still hadn’t found his calling. “I started going to college, but it just wasn’t turning me on. I was bored and still sketching cars instead of listening to trigonometry. So I dropped out and worked at a hardware store, loading trucks.

“Finally, my brother, who was halfway through med school, came home and said, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ So I applied to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and I got accepted.”

He joined Chrysler in 1992 and has remained there ever since, including through its darkest days.

“There were times when I wondered if I should make a move,” he says. “I’ve had seven CEOs in my short career, and the companies have changed dramatically. This particular era is by far the most progressive, daring, and functional that the company has ever been in, and I’m glad I wasn’t lured away.”

He rose to prominence with the LX-platform cars, which marked the switch from front-wheel to rear-wheel drive in the company’s full-size lineup in 2005, with the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum and Charger.

“That was a great time for me,” Gilles says. “I literally went from a kid on a sketching board to a manager in those 3-1/2 years. I learned more than just design.

“People underestimate how complex a vehicle is to create. The 300 was such an oddball at the time, and wasn’t the obvious move to make. I learned a lot about networking and campaigning a vision, not just designing a car.”

Gilles’ latest baby is the Viper, which he presented at the New York Auto Show by kissing the car when it was driven onstage. The company almost lost the Viper in 2008 when Cerberus, the investment firm that bought Chrysler from Daimler, put the sports car unit up for sale. It remained unsold when Chrysler moved to Fiat. The last Viper was built for 2010, but Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne put it back in production for 2013, now badged as an SRT rather than a Dodge.

“When I saw it was going to be sold, that was truly a nightmare for me,” Gilles says. “I saw this as a show car, as part of Chrysler’s mojo, and it was like selling one of our children. Sergio drove a 2010 model and, a few weeks later, said, ‘Let’s protect the brand.’

“It’s a spiritual piece. It’s one of those vehicles that ends up on the cover of just about every book. We’re going racing with Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, and it’s so cool to see our brand with those.”

Despite the exclusivity of the car, Gilles says it pays for itself: Viper customers become “freakishly loyal” to the company, and tend to buy three or four other Chrysler vehicles in succession.

Although Gilles’ hand was in the design, he wasn’t the only one.

“We opened the Viper to the whole office, and we had six finalists,” he says. “We had one guy lead it, but it was a combination of six designers, plus my work. It was a family project. It wasn’t fair to have one guy have so much fun.”

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