Ralph Gilles with the 2008 Dodge Challenger at the Toronto Auto Show
Ralph Gilles with the 2008 Dodge Challenger at the Toronto Auto Show. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

Toronto, Ontario – How many of us as teenagers spent hours sketching fantastic imaginary cars, dreaming of the opportunity to turn that hobby into a real job?

That was certainly the case for this writer. Same deal for Ralph Gilles, though he was probably just a little better than most of us. That’s the easiest explanation for how, at just 38 years of age, he’s the Vice President of Design for Chrysler’s Jeep and Truck division.

That’s a big deal for a relative upstart, but it’s easy to see how he got there: Gilles was the designer who penned the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger and Magnum, arguably three of Chrysler’s most important vehicles in the last decade.

The beginning of Gilles’ quick rise can be traced back to age 14, when a proud aunt who had seen his drawings wrote to Chrysler to tell the company of her nephew’s talents. The modest designer chuckles at the story.

“She actually got an answer. They suggested a couple of good design schools, and I ended up attending the College for Creative Studies (in Detroit) after high school,” he says. “That response helped me decide that designing cars was what I wanted to do. The fact that I work for Chrysler now is pure coincidence.”

Since penning the LX cars, Gilles has led the designs of two other important Chrysler products: the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country and the 2009 Dodge Ram pickup are both his babies.

Given the significance of both of these vehicles and the 300 – the Ram for its bold front end and the minivans for their practicality – it seems as if reworking the look of a successful vehicle would be a daunting task.

“The 300 turned out to be a bit of an icon for Chrysler,” Gilles said. “The question was whether to evolve the design or revolutionize it. It’s always a tough choice. The important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t change a car just for the sake of it. New designs don’t always have to be radically different if people like what they already have.”

Gilles says he likes the 300’s design because of “the tension it creates. I love cars that evoke a love/hate dynamic in people.”

Obviously, redesigning a minivan is very different than drawing up a sexy, big sedan. Gilles says many minivans are actually “sold” by kids who come to the dealership with their parents. “They see a feature they love and convince their parents that this is the vehicle they should get. Many have written off the minivan segment because of the popularity of crossovers, but minivans still attract many new customers and lots of customer research.”

But Gilles says that while it’s important to consider current owners’ likes and dislikes when working on a redesign, the opinions of “rejectors” – those who don’t buy one of your company’s products – are just as important.

“That’s why you’ll see us making changes early on in some of our most recent products’ life cycles,” he explained. “Many of those decisions are based on the reasons people haven’t bought one of our cars. You’re already seeing the beginning of the rebirth of our interiors, and there’s more of that coming. We’ve been hiring some more interior-centric designers to help bring interior quality up.”

One thing Gilles says design school didn’t teach him was the anthropological and cultural aspect of designing vehicles, and that “predicting cultural trends is key to creating a successful design.” One thing Gilles never foresaw was how the marketplace would react to the “LX” cars.

“Those cars, particularly the Charger and Magnum, became real niche-market vehicles,” he said. “They’re viewed by many as ‘hot-rods’ (though they were conceived as mainstream products). One surprising fact is that the Magnum SRT-8 (a high-performance variant with 420 horsepower) has been the best-selling version of that car.”

He adds he was sad to find out that the Magnum would be dropped after 2008, a victim of slow sales. But he respects the company’s decisions when it comes to which vehicles are worth keeping in the lineup.

Gilles, who grew up in Montreal, says that being Canadian gives him a unique perspective as a North American designer.

“Canadians buy more mid-range cars, while Americans spend a lot more money customizing their vehicles,” he explained. “I’ve found that being Canadian, and designing cars for both countries, tends to bring out my more practical sensibilities.”

Gilles says his career has far exceeded his expectations, but one gets the feeling he misses the hours he spent drawing in his room as a kid.

“In all honesty, I wouldn’t change a thing about how my career has progressed,” he said. “But in my position, you spend a lot less time designing and more time travelling and in meetings. It’s nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. I’m actually a little jealous of the designers who get to spend their days drawing while they listen to music through their headphones.”

Connect with Autos.ca