DaimlerChrysler's Ralph Gilles Drives
the Fast Track By Roger Witherspoon
There comes a point in the creation of a
car where the designers and engineers have to bite the bullet,
hold their collective breath,
and hope the test car rolling out of production meets their
For Ralph Gilles, head of DaimlerChrysler Corporation's
creative Studio 3, that moment arrived as he opened the door
of the prototype Chrysler, a car he and his staff hoped would
help rejuvenate the company and boost its effort to
differentiate its brands."Dodge and Chrysler are
separating themselves into different types of vehicles, with
different customers in mind," says the 34-year-old Gilles,
winner of this year's Black Engineer of the Year President's
"Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude, but Chrysler is
more aspirational, more graceful with more high-end products.
We're going to a premium market where the main competitors will be
Volvos, Audis, and other imports."
Gilles' studio had scored one hit already with its Dodge Magnum, a
hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine masquerading as a family
station wagon. They led the track with the 200-mile-an-hour,
500-horsepower Dodge Viper. And his Jeep Liberty had proved to be
a successful link between Jeep's comfortable Grand Cherokee SUV
and its road warrior Wrangler.
But it was the Chrysler division where they needed to shine. They
needed a high-end sedan with a classical look reminiscent of a
Bentley; a rear-wheel-drive like the best from Chrysler's heyday;
a head-turner engineered soundly enough to be parked next to a
Jaguar, Mercedes, or Volvo without embarrassment.
The car, says Gilles, "would redefine us as a car company, and it
would be the kind of car the valets would park out front."
What they came up with was the Chrysler 300. "That car was a
perfect storm of all our ideas," says Gilles. "That car really
Car of the Year
And when he sat in the drivers' seat and
stepped on the gas "I was almost in tears driving the car. It felt
so right. It's one thing to make it look good, but the engineers
brought it home."
Critics thought so, too, and Motor Trend Magazine named the
Chrysler 300 its Car of the Year for 2005, ahead of 24 competitors
including the Porsche 911, Lotus Elise, and BMW 6. Together,
Gilles' cars led the way in an amazing turnaround for
DaimlerChrysler, whose bottom line went from an $806-million loss
in 2003 to a $1.3-billion profit in the first nine months of 2004.
In all, 2004 was a banner year for the young artist from Montreal,
For Ralph Gilles, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Haiti,
the creative spark appeared early. He was five years old, visiting
his Aunt Gisele on Long Island, N.Y., and, like a lot of kids,
drawing what he saw. What differentiated Gilles from the pack at
that early age was the fact that his drawings were clear and made
"My aunt saw my sketches," Gilles recalls, "and she turned to her
husband and said 'Hey Mike! My Nephew can draw! Give him some
paper to draw on."
A Letter to Iacocca
So he began sketching wherever he went,
passing dull moments in school with fanciful drawings of cars and
other modes of transport. At 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler
head Lee Iacocca, asking what it would take to become a design
artist for the giant car company.
"And wow, they wrote me back," he said. "I was so impressed. They
wrote giving the different names of colleges they hire from, and
that was all I needed."
He was a bit disappointed that the letter came from Neal Walling,
then vice president of design, instead of the legendary Iacocca
himself. "But I felt a certain loyalty to Chrysler because they
wrote me, and it changed my life."
He spent a semester in engineering school in Canada, but decided
he'd rather draw.
"Design is creative," Gilles said. "Engineering is like art work,
but they're not the same. As designers, we are in charge of the
way a car looks and the emotions you get when you look at it. It's
different from the calculus and the engineering. It is a different
So he followed Walling's advice, attending the College of Art and
Design in Detroit, which provides about 40 percent of the
company's designers, and went to work for Walling after graduating
in 1992. It did not take him long to work his way up the ranks,
and in 2001 he took over Studio 3, in Auburn Hills, Mich., one of
seven Chrysler design studios.
'Living Out Your Dream'
There, they work in tandem with the
engineers to create a package.
"We start sketching," Gilles says. "and the engineers come up with
how it works, where the wheels are at, where the engine is, and
how it fits together. The image is ours.
"You can have the best sketch in the world, but if the package
isn't right, it won't drive right."
Gilles equates the design studio with a movie lot. "I direct a
studio to draw," he said. "We get together with the other team
members and exchange ideas. It's like when you make a movie, and
you talk about the scenes in the movie before you film the thing.
"It's like that with cars. No one person designs a car."
With Gilles at the helm, the synergy between the engineers and
artists obviously works. But he can't design cars all the time. To
escape, he gets away from the office and onto a track to race his
Gilles rhapsodizes about the powerful sports car.
"The Viper is low-slung and sensuous with all that engine all over
there," he says. "As a young man, it appeals to you. It's like
living out your dream."