President and CEO, Dodge Car Brand and Senior Vice President, Product Design
2009 was a watershed year for Chrysler, as Ralph Gilles well knows. With the bankruptcy declaration of the “old” Chrysler the creation of a “new” Chrysler, a.k.a. Chrysler Group LLC, Gilles is now seated as one of the co-pilots of an automotive phoenix rising from the ashes.
As the designer is quick to admit, at the “new” Chrysler, now partly owned by both the U.S. government and Italian automaker Fiat S.p.A., things have changed—most notably, leadership roles. “We’ve divided up the product design responsibilities under each one of the vehicle brands,” he details, which means he now leads as the president and CEO of the Dodge car brand and senior vice president of product design.
“After being part of the Dodge organization for close to three months, I can tell you that I’ve never seen a more dedicated and functional management team as we have right now across the company. There is no doubt that we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re running on all cylinders now to turn things around as quickly and as effectively as possible,” Gilles says.
The shakeup of leadership means it’s not all “business as usual” at Chrysler, says Gilles. Indeed, the auto creator says that Chrysler designers are working harder at planning for both the short-term and long-term future. “Our team is always looking toward the future for the next major change and when they can be implemented,” he contends. “The challenges we’re faced with at this very moment deal with quickly leveraging our alliance with Fiat on current and future projects and bringing world-class products to the market. We’re much more focused on what needs to be done in the short term while simultaneously sharing and comparing future product plans for different markets around the world.”
Of course, America is on lookout for how the foresight of Gilles’ team will unleash innovation in the next few years. “Product designs will be differentiated like never before to capture the true essence of each brand,” explains Gilles. “Each vehicle brand has a newly assigned head of design who is charged with keeping each brand well defined and unique within the company.”
If all goes well, that means fewer, clearer brand options for the American consumer. “Chrysler embraces design as a means of capturing the emotions, senses (including a sense of value) and the appreciation of quality workmanship in the mind and heart of the customer,” says Gilles. “The advantage that Chrysler has as a company is that design has always been a priority and the primary tool in preserving, enhancing and strengthening the tradition and heritage of our brands. This is never going to change.”
With top-notch design as his goal, Gilles concedes that designers today face not only challenges from the consumer but also challenges from Uncle Sam. “Modern cars are easily becoming the most regulated products in the business world, which has brought a litany of compromises to design,” confesses the creator when asked to name his favorite auto design. “As a designer, it is hard to look past that. While technology has brought new things that offset this like high-tech lighting, exotic materials, et cetera, my favorite cars tend to be the classics that are by default the closest to the unpolluted vision of the designers and founders of their epoch.”
As such, vintage design strikes the highest personal chord for the design head. “The little enthusiast car lover boy inside me who still mentally plays with Hot Wheels would pull out the 1960s Ferrari 250 GTO and the spiritual successor—the 1996 dodge Viper GTS—out of my toy chest!” he smiles.