Ralph V. Gilles is the epitome of a Car Guy and definitely one of Motoring Exposure’s favorite people. Mr. Gilles joined Chrysler as a designer 22 years ago. His extensive background in business administration and industrial design has afforded him the opportunity to hold several important positions within the company, including:
-2011 – current, President and CEO – SRT Brand and Motorsports, Chrysler Group LLC.
-2009, President and CEO – Dodge Brand and Senior Vice President – Product Design
-2009 – current, Senior Vice President – Product Design
-2008, Vice President – Design, Chrysler LLC
-2006, Vice President – Jeep®/Truck, Color and Trim Studios, and Specialty Vehicles, Chrysler LLC, DaimlerChrysler
-2005, Director – Truck Exterior/Interior Design Studio
-2001, Director – Design Office, Large Car Studio, Family Vehicles
-1999, Senior Manager – Design Office, Studio 3
-1998, Manager – Design Office, Jeep Interiors, Chrysler Corporation
-1992, Designer – Design Office
Between auto show appearances, design meetings and developing new products, Mr. Gilles took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us, for which, we are grateful. Special thanks to goes out to Dianna Gutierrez, Head of Public Relations for SRT/Design/Motorsports at Chrysler. She wears a lot of hats, but went out of her way to make this happen. Our thanks and loyal support is extended to her and the entire team. They not only make the cars that we love, but they are ingratiating and easily entreated people as well.
Is the Jeep Cherokee your idea of the future of automotive design?
The Jeep® brand asked us to create an all-new vehicle that would help to continue the brand history and bring in a new customer to the showroom. So far, I think we have accomplished that task; however, it’s tough to say that any one vehicle’s design is a symbol of the future. At Chrysler Group LLC, I have the privilege of working on our various brands (Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, FIAT, SRT and Mopar). Each of these brands has its own distinct design DNA, needs, personality and, consequently, its own design solutions. However, there is an underlying trend affecting all car design.
In the case of the very futuristic Cherokee, we were trying to accomplish a fresh and unique look all while instilling the brand DNA into the design of the vehicle. Its distinctive face is about standing out in a crowd of SUVs at the same time changing some paradigms about what a Jeep “has” to look like (read Boxy). As advanced as the Cherokee design is, it is instantly recognizable as Jeep and every bit as capable as a Jeep needs to be, not to mention appealing to a new group of people that would not have considered the brand before.
Muscle cars are an important part of Chrysler’s product lineup. What do you think the future holds for these powerful, rear-wheel drive cars?
I believe that we are truly in a modern day/golden age of muscle cars as we know them – big displacement, big power and rear-drive. Over the last decade, we have made huge gains in both horsepower and fuel economy, not to mention creature comforts and safety. As far as design, we clearly are enjoying a great legacy that was fostered in the late 60s. There will always be a subset of people that love the pure thrill of fast and aggressively-beautiful cars. As for the future, it’s all about the propulsion system. You can already see displacements shrinking dramatically in the supercar and sports car world. We are seeing a more aggressive use of turbo chargers and pressure chargers. These systems give vehicles a dual personality, like our multi-displacement technology in our HEMI® V-8 engines – muscle when you want it and efficiency when you need it. Eventually this generation of traditional muscle car lovers will be replaced with a new generation with different paradigms and priorities; they will be attracted to a whole other type of machine. We are monitoring this new generation carefully to ensure that we will meet their needs.
How do stricter EPA regulations affect the design of Chrysler and Dodge vehicles?
The EPA regulations, as it pertains to fuel economy standards, provide the same challenge for all automakers. From a design perspective, the biggest contribution we can provide is with the vehicle’s aerodynamics and overall proportion. Now more than ever, we are spending greater time in the wind tunnel in comparison to 10 years ago. This time is important and necessary in order to preserve the vehicle’s personality and design traits while making it as efficient as possible.
Are we in the midst of an automotive revolution with the “Big Three” in Detroit?
Yes, I believe so. It makes me very happy to see the American car companies regain over 50 percent of the U.S. market, collectively. The truth is that this “revolution” has been underway for a long time. However, it takes time for the product to come to market because of the relatively long development cycle of the automobile – and, of course, the subsequent time it takes the market, media and third parties to notice. American automakers have balanced out their portfolios quickly, adding a fresh world-class fleet of small delectable cars to an already distinguished combination of trucks and SUVs. I also believe that the American automakers still do a great job of developing distinctive designs – combine that with award winning interiors, clever features, value, top tier safety, fuel economy with performance and you do, indeed, have a revolution.
What does the Viper symbolize for Chrysler as a whole?
When it was first revealed in 1989, the Viper was an outrageous show car that was designed to be an attention-getter and signified Chrysler’s rambunctious spirit. It was never intended to be a streetcar until the enthusiast community willed us to build it and so, we did. For years, it was one of the most powerful and visceral automotive objects anyone could buy. Fast forward to today, the SRT Viper is still outrageous and the type of vehicle only a healthy company can afford to do, but doesn’t necessarily need to do. Today, unlike 22 years ago, the automotive landscape is teaming with some pretty serious sports cars and supercars. Just about every automotive company has one or two high performance machines in its stable. In our case, the Viper still symbolizes our fun-loving “mojo,” if you will. It also serves a very important role as the “flagship” of the Street and Racing Technology (SRT) brand as both a street car and racecar. The SRT Viper is a test bed for advanced technologies, such as magnesium castings, true autoclave cosmetic and structural carbon fiber, hot-stamped aluminum, advanced stability control and the industry’s first cam-in-cam variable-valve transmission. In fact, Viper SRT is the first place we have developed all of these technologies and techniques.
How much do the designs of Walter P. Chrysler and classic Chrysler models influence the design of vehicles today?
I personally visit our collection often and continue to be inspired by the endless, innovative spirit that is evident in the Chrysler and Dodge legacy. Being the smallest of the American automakers, Chrysler always had to offer something a little special!
How have cars like the BMW i8, Porsche 918 Spyder, McLaren P1, and Ferrari LaFerrari changed the automotive marketplace?
Cars such as those are, in a sense, rolling laboratories. On average, they are million dollar cars that represent a small fraction of the sports car market, but they do help to forecast the future. Many of the technologies on these super cars came from the multi-million dollar GT, Prototype and F1 race world. Technologies, such as multiple powertrains, hybrid for performance, energy recovery, active aero, ultra-light composites, advanced torque vectoring and variable dynamic aero are all relevant to the future of the automobile, and several have found their way into the average family sedan. What is encouraging is that we can see a promising future where green technology can enable incredible performance.
What are some of your favorite automotive and non-automotive designs?
I love cars, they are one of the few products that move and constantly change settings, but I also like all aspects of interior home/space design and architecture. As a designer, you can easily detect passionate works that have some “risk” in them; when it’s done well, it resonates in an undeniable way. The collaboration between the designers and the implementers is clearly apparent; the result is usually a timeless design that punctuates the current period and culture.
Knowing that you can’t give us specifics, can you share a sneak peak at what to expect from Chrysler and/or SRT in the future?
I am very proud of how far we have come as a car company in the last five years. We don’t intend to squander this momentum. While I can’t give out any sneak peeks, I can assure you that the passion at Chrysler Group, in my team and me, runs very, very deep!
We’s like to thank Ralph Gilles for taking time to answer our questions. Keep making great cars!