Passion for Design
Passion for Design
Spurred by a desire to be the best, Ralph Gilles designs vehicles that people love to drive.January 12, 2021
Many of the best-looking cars of recent times owe some of their appeal to Ralph Gilles, MBA ’02, and to what he observed as a boy.
“I joke that I grew up in the ugly ’70s and ’80s,” said Gilles, global president of product design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. “In the mid-to-late ’70s, a lot of cars got really funky-looking; we thought the muscle car was gone, back then. So, anything fun was quite rare.
“Once in a while, when you saw something like a Porsche 911, or even an older ’Cuda or something like that, it really stood out; it was really special. And so it made me notice the contrast between the mundane cars and these cars with spirit to them.
“I noticed that even at 7-8 years old,” Gilles continued. “I was like, ‘Why am I feeling such an attraction to this machine?’ It made me hyper-tuned-in to that feeling of the contrast between a boring car and an awesome car.”
Gilles, who joined Chrysler Corp. in 1992, recalled that the fascination led him to magazines such as Car and Driver and Road & Track. “I would read them back-to-back like a minister reads the Bible,” he said.
Then, in high school, his classmates decided that a new student had supplanted Gilles, who was designing and redesigning cars through sketching, as the best in the school at drawing. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because then I really took it seriously,” he said.
Gilles is proud of his work on a Dodge sports car, the “Gen 5 Viper,” at a time when the company was deciding whether to bring the car back.
“Even to this day, it has a heroness about it, an outrageousness that’s attractive,” he said. “It combines many of my loves. I like muscle cars, the idea of power, I love the driving and I love the styling. It had all those things. And the later models are outstanding track cars. I’m an amateur racer. Driving your own brand on the racetrack and having it dominate is so much fun.”
Gilles said he is also proud of his work with the Pacifica minivan, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Ram truck. “We happen to have these amazing brands that also have great car clubs behind them. Having brands that people create communities around is huge. You don’t see that with too many brands.”
As for African-Americans advancing in the corporate world, Gilles said: “I think, in general, whether it’s at the board level of companies or the (executive level), definitely I think the top of companies need to look like the market. I think America is getting more diverse every day, just naturally. I stop short of promoting affirmative action, because I think it could be very organic once you give it a second thought.”
His own career will remain on the same track. “The visceral part is something, I don’t know where it comes from, but to this day, I still have that feeling. It never gets old.”
Contributing Writer(s): Tom Kertscher