‘Ottawa’ How a Car-crazy Canadian Kid Became Fiat Chrysler’s Head of Design
Ralph Gilles was just another bored teenager, sketching hot rods to pass the time during a visit to his aunt’s home in suburban New York in the summer of 1987.
He’d clearly shown an aptitude for drawing, and a particular talent for drawing cars, while growing up in Montreal as the son of Haitian immigrants. It could have been nothing more than a hobby, but Gilles’ aunt on a whim suggested that he send his sketches to Lee Iacocca, the high-profile chief executive of Chrysler Corp.
Today, Gilles, 46, is global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA), the US$10-billion company that emerged after Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne rode to the embattled U.S. automaker’s rescue in 2009. In this role, Gilles oversees more than a dozen brands ranging from Jeep and Ram to Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
Making cars has dramatically changed in the 30 years since Gilles sat sketching in his aunt’s house. Quality is no longer a concern for the vast majority of nameplates since most cars are well made, so design is increasingly what differentiates them. And as cars become increasingly connected and automated, design — both inside and out — is essential to making them as user-friendly and safe as possible.
In 1987, though, Gilles was just a kid who loved cars with an aunt who saw his potential. Much to his surprise, Gilles got a response to his letter, not from Iacocca, but from Neil Walling, who was the No. 2 in Chrysler’s design office at the time.
“I’ve looked over your portfolio and believe that you have the potential to have a career in automotive design,” Walling wrote, going on to list a few design schools that Gilles could apply to. “I hope that I’ve been of some help to you. Your portfolio does show significant promise.”
Gilles was stunned by the response. So stunned that he ignored it.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with it. It was kind of overwhelming and I just kind of parked it,” Gilles said in a phone interview from his office in Auburn Hills, Mich., FCA’s U.S. headquarters.
That fall, Gilles started at Vanier College, a junior college in Montreal, and forgot about the letter from Walling.
“I thought I wanted to be an engineer so I loaded up with trig and calculus and I just about killed myself,” he said. “It started to kill the right side of my brain.”
He lasted about six weeks before he dropped out and took a job in a hardware store. It wasn’t entirely uncreative: Gilles got to arrange the displays at the end of the aisles and excelled at it.
“I thought that could actually be a career, but then my brother came home at spring break and just smacked me,” he said. “He was like, ‘What are you doing? Wake up! Where’s that letter from Chrysler?’”
Realizing the college admissions deadline was only a week away, they frantically put together a portfolio — Gilles said he “discovered coffee that week” — and sent it to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
He was accepted and, after graduation, he was hired as a designer under Walling at Chrysler. At the time, the perennial No. 3 of the Big Three automakers didn’t have the best reputation for quality, with vehicles such as the Dodge Omni receiving dismal ratings from Consumer Reports. Gilles had offers from other manufacturers, but he turned them down.
“I wanted to work for Chrysler because that letter really meant a lot to me,” he said.
His first assignment was to help develop the interior of the Concorde sedan — fitting since he had done his thesis on interiors, which he felt were an under-served area of design.
Clearly, Walling’s assessment of Gilles’ talent was right. By the time Gilles was 31, he was a director, running the studio that developed the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger.
“It was daunting,” he said. “It was one of those pivotal moments where I was like, ‘Oh my god, they really see me as a leader. I just want to go put my headphones on and sketch, and they see me more as a leader.’”
Gilles’ career trajectory only accelerated from there. By 2008 he was vice-president of design at Chrysler LLC and in 2009, the year the company was bailed out by the U.S. and Canadian governments with Fiat SpA acquiring a minority stake, he was named head of the Dodge brand.
After a stint as head of the SRT racing brand and motorsports for FCA North America, Gilles was appointed FCA’s global head of design in April 2015.
Certainly he’s a terrific designer, but he’s also a terrific leader from everything I can tell.
His impact is reflected today in every new vehicle released by FCA, whose 2016 models have received several awards for their design. The Chrysler brand was named best car styling brand in the 2016 Kelley Blue Book brand image awards, while the Pacifica minivan was on WardsAuto World’s 10 best interiors list for 2016, to name just a couple.
“In watching this company for the last decade or so, I have seen his influence in improving the products overall, which means that he’s had management support in order to make that happen,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS Automotive.
“Certainly he’s a terrific designer, but he’s also a terrific leader from everything I can tell. He seems to be able to understand how to motivate people and how to get the best out of people.”
Merging two companies with completely different histories and cultures such as Chrysler and Fiat isn’t an easy proposition, and Gilles has successfully encouraged the European and American designers to work together, she added.
“We have so many brands and we’ve adopted more brands,” Gilles said. “We’ve grown significantly in the last five years with the Fiat merger and it’s just opened up a whole different world of excitement.”
FCA’s customers tend to be loyal but very exacting, and he said he will often buy the vehicle he’s designing to immerse himself in it.
“When you look at the Wrangler, for example, you have to be careful. If you mess that car up they will lynch you,” he said with a laugh.
Over the years, he has amassed an impressive collection of vehicles, including a 1969 Alfa Romeo GTV, three Dodge Vipers and a Challenger Hellcat.
As someone who loves the details of design, Gilles admits he sometimes struggles to “take the 60,000-foot view.” Most recently, he poured a lot of his time and energy into the all-new Pacifica minivan, which is built in Windsor, Ont.
The Pacifica, he said, just might be his biggest accomplishment.
“It’s maybe not the fashionable thing to talk about when I’m hanging out with my enthusiast buddies, but, honestly, the Pacifica was the most rewarding project I’ve probably ever worked on, even more so than the 300, as iconic as that car is,” Gilles said.
The challenge was to build a stylish minivan — an oxymoron to some — that didn’t compromise function.
“Why can’t a minivan be sexy? Why can’t it look sporty on the road? Why can’t it have a confident look?” Gilles said.
The resulting vehicle, which was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, looks more like a modern crossover than a traditional minivan but will carry one more passenger than the maximum of seven in existing Chrysler minivans.
The most important thing when designing a vehicle, according to Gilles, is to create an emotional connection with the customer. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise, then, that his favourite movie is Pixar’s Cars.
“I always look for something that will pierce through the subconscious. … We really strive to give our vehicles an iconic sense of feeling, so that when you look at them they almost feel alive,” he said.
We really strive to give our vehicles an iconic sense of feeling, so that when you look at them they almost feel alive.
“The latest Renegade looks like it’s staring back at you. Same with the Cherokee, it’s kind of squinting in a slightly upset way. The 300 is puffy-chested, the Challenger scowls … the (Pacifica) minivan is this effortless, confident thing.”
Some industry watchers believe that the days of the vehicle as a fashion statement are coming to an end, and we’ll soon be tooling around in Google’s pod-like self-driving cars — the triumph of function over form.
But Gilles dismisses such thoughts. First of all, he believes fully autonomous vehicles won’t be seen outside controlled environments for a “very, very long” time.
“Driving is one of the most complex things people do, more complex than we realize,” he said.
Secondly, he believes consumers will always want to own cars with distinctive brand identities.
“Visual pollution is as bad as other kinds of pollution, so if it’s going to be on the road, it’d better look good,” he said. “I refuse to believe the car will become a commodity. That would be a dark day for me.”