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Profile: Ralph Gilles: How To Create Cool Cars

“So, how does it feel to be a suit?”And with that question, Ralph Gilles, the man who is undoubtedly the reigning rock star of U.S. car designers, a man who is lauded far and wide for his design of the breakthrough Chrysler 300, stares back with incredulity, arrayed as he is in something of a designer’s uniform, the obligatory black (sports jacket) on black (shirt) on black (trousers) on black (shoes), with nary a tie in sight. “A what?!?”“Well, you know, a suit—an executive—after all, you’re the vp of Jeep/Truck and Component Design for Chrysler Group.

“So, how does it feel to be a suit?”

And with that question, Ralph Gilles, the man who is undoubtedly the reigning rock star of U.S. car designers, a man who is lauded far and wide for his design of the breakthrough Chrysler 300, stares back with incredulity, arrayed as he is in something of a designer’s uniform, the obligatory black (sports jacket) on black (shirt) on black (trousers) on black (shoes), with nary a tie in sight. “A what?!?”

“Well, you know, a suit—an executive—after all, you’re the vp of Jeep/Truck and Component Design for Chrysler Group. An exec. A suit.”

“!”

This isn’t going so well. Gilles is not in the least bit happy with this characterization. He’s been with the company since ’92 when he joined the Design Office as a designer, the year he received a BSc from the Center [now “College”] of Creative Studies in Detroit. In the following years he has been a manager (’98), senior manager (’99), and then director (’01) in the Design Office. In ’05 he was named director of the Truck Exterior/Interior Design Studio before quickly getting his present position. A meteoric rise for a man who turned 36 in January.

“A suit!”

Well, I guess that characterization is belied by not only what he’s actually wearing, but also what appears to be a Little Tikes TotSports Golf Set* he has in his office in the Chrysler Technology Center. He’d been told that people at his level are expected to play golf—well, suits do, anyway—so . . .

One of the things that Gilles emphasizes about the way work is done at Chrysler is that it is not the individual, but the team that matters. The entire group of people who are responsible for transforming ideas into sheetmetal. Simply stated: “One designer by himself with the greatest sketch in the world won’t mean a hill of beans if he doesn’t have the engineering people and the management behind him.”

He cites, for example, the experience that he’d had with the 300. He explains that about two years prior to his receiving the brief to develop the vehicle’s design, people were working on the vehicle, defining what the vehicle was to be. Fundamentally: “A V8-powered, rear-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan.” About which Gilles says, “In that lies the design of the 300. The idea of the car was already there.” Of course, that’s sort of like a sculptor who is presented with a block of marble and can “see” the finished work within.

But he points out that there are some key design drivers defined by those words: because it was to be a V8-powered vehicle, there needed to be a hood of certain dimensions. Because it was to be a five-passenger car, there needed to be a certain proportional area. Because it was to be a luxury vehicle, it required a classic silhouette.

But then, of course, Gilles needed the support of the executives in the organization to approve his approach as well as the support of the engineers who would be tasked with transforming the design into an automobile. (He observes that so far as he is concerned, the actual manufactured 300 is better looking than the 2003 concept car.)

This, of course, leads to a question of, simply, How? How do you get people to go beyond the ordinary, the expected? After all, there are cars that can be defined as “V8-powered, rear-drive, five-passenger luxury sedans” that don’t hold a candle to the 300. So how does Chrysler get the next one (or in the case of Gilles’ new position, the next Dodge Ram)? His simple answer: “Empower them. Support them.” Which are key things that he must do, now that he is in a position where he is no longer on the screen designing. He amplifies: “A beautiful part about Chrysler is the culture. Since this company’s been around it’s been a bit of an underdog culture, a scrappy, risk-taking culture.”

There is also an awareness of what it takes to be competitive in a market where there are a seemingly never-ending flow of new products to market: “Everyone does a decent product. So why would someone buy a Chrysler versus any other? It has to have an element of passion. I think the passion comes through loud and clear on a lot of our products because of the energy that starts at the design table—and obviously the engineers understood it because they did the layout. The end user can feel it.” All for one and one for all.

But there is another element to Chrysler’s history and its culture, which is a certain frugality. In other words, people within the company understand that they must be cost sensitive when they do their jobs. So how does that affect design? It could to a considerable extent, Gilles admits, but then goes on to explain that making their designs both possible and practical are computer-aided tools such as simulation. As he puts it, “When you have to invest cubic dollars into a tool, you might play it safe unless you have the data that says it’s OK to take this risk.” As an example of making something possible, he references the comparatively small windows on the 300, which he admits “was a tough one.” The question was whether they’d be found acceptable by the market. “We were able to show our management that the aesthetic pulls the car away from the crowd and makes the vehicle distinctive, sporty, and more interesting.” The simulation allowed the executives to see the way the car would look before it was actually built with some of the aforementioned stacks of cash.

This leads to another example, one that goes to the point of practicality or produce-ability. “In the old days we might have said that we’d calm a fender form down, take a radius out to simplify the design.” They’d be inclined to be more cautious because the only way they’d really understand what they had would be to create a stamping die and produce the actual part. But now they’re able to make the assessment while the design is in virtual form.

Providing simulation with the level of props that Gilles’ own design chops have been lauded with, he remarks, “Cars are approaching almost a conceptual look because of this technology.”

A suit? Maybe in position. Certainly not in practice. 

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