Ralph Gilles is a Different Kind of Car Designer

The true gearhead is creating fun, boundary-pushing cars for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Ralph Gilles. (Photo: Roy Ritchie)

Perhaps no mainstream carmaker embraces notions of vainglorious, hairy-chested power quite like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The conglomerate, which comprises the Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Ram, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Fiat brands, houses the hottest high-performance buzzword in recent years: Hellcat. The label is affixed to two FCA models—the Dodge Charger and Challenger—each producing in excess of 700 horsepower and no shortage of whiplash from onlookers. But such ostentatious numbers do not convey the company’s commitment to power. For that, you have to go to the man who gives that power shape.

Ralph Gilles is the head of design for FCA Global, a mantle he took on after previously serving as CEO of Dodge and Street and Racing Technology (SRT), Fiat Chrysler’s performance-oriented brand, which was reabsorbed into FCA in 2014. In his role, Gilles has emphatically resisted association with any one style or aesthetic tendency. Born in New York City and raised in Montréal, he is as comfortable mixing it up at a dragstrip as he is running a vintage sports-car rally through Italy with ne’er-do-well millionaires. That is soft power—the kind that Gilles wields when he’s outside of FCA’s studios. Inside, he’s defining power for a clientele that has come to inherently trust Gilles’s judgment.

“What I appreciate is a certain athleticism,” he says. “What I mean by that is the car sits well on its wheels. Stance to me is almost as important as the power itself.”

The 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. (Photo: Courtesy Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

It’s a sentiment heard throughout the industry, but not every automotive designer has the wherewithal to deliver on it. For Gilles, common signifiers of power are not enough to convey the deep, depraved character that distinguishes his most recognizable designs. “Hood scoops, vents, those are a little du jour, and they come and go,” Gilles says. That leads him and his teams to place uncommon emphasis on their cars’ faces. “A lot of our Dodges have a certain scowl, a certain demeanor. It almost looks like the vehicle’s brooding.” Gun-sight windshields and low rooflines further accentuate the menace.

Though he enjoys nothing more than disappearing into the company’s Michigan studios—as well as those in Europe, a territory he’s overseen since Turin-based Fiat made Chrysler a full subsidiary—Gilles is the rare designer with front-office experience. Having outright directed all operations at Dodge and SRT, he now thinks about the “lifecycle” of a given car much more than he once did, particularly how a design team informs the car’s evolution. “A car has to live in-market for six, seven years,” he says. “You have to continually feed the product for that duration; there’s no one and done. That’s something that I think came from [being a CEO]. It opened up my eyes.”

Gilles is at the fore of a trend in the automotive industry, where design chiefs suddenly have a seat at the boardroom table. He attributes it to a welcome shift in executive thinking. “Most of the major CEOs of car companies, they get it. They’re aware of design, they know it’s a huge comparative advantage,” he says. “Peter Schreyer [president and chief designer of Hyundai Motor Group] responding to the CEO, that’s a huge evolution. Used to be you’d report to the head of engineering. Now that might be considered a red flag.”

Another view of the 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. (Photo: Courtesy Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

As he cannot be in half a dozen studios at once, Gilles has appointed brand stewards in each who keep him apprised of their projects’ progress. “What we’ve done over the last few years is separate the studios. The colors are different, the designers’ desks are configured differently. I have a brand shepherd for each brand,” he says. “They do research, they go on enthusiast trips. ‘Lords of the brand,’ so to speak.”

Ultimately, Gilles may not sculpt the front fascia on a Maserati concept car, or the headlight configuration on a Dodge Charger, but customers rest assured that his approach guides each team of designers. “We’re looking at function first,” he says. “Before we even put pen to paper, we’re thinking about cooling zones, how to get air where it’s needed. But more than any holes or vents, to me power will always be surfacing. It will always be stance. It will always be about that visual impression.”

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