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Chrysler 300 gives young designer star billing

July 05, 2005|by JASON STEIN /Wheelbase Communications

With shoulders the width of those from a middle linebacker, and a demeanor as pleasant as your neighborhood butcher, it's not hard to find Ralph Gilles in a crowd.

And that's exactly what one woman has done as she chases Gilles down inside the bowels of Detroit's cramped and crowded Cobo Center one day in January.

"Ralph! RALPH!" a young woman yells out to Gilles, tracking him down as he makes his way across the floor during a recent event at the North American International Auto Show.

Without missing a step, Gilles slows, turns and flashes a smile that would make the grille on a Chrysler 300 envious.

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"You are one up-and-comer, man," the woman says, not stopping to identify herself. "I just had to say Chrysler's very lucky to have you. You remind them of that. Remind them!"

Gilles looks like he's going to melt.

From the top of his cleanly shaved bald head, to the bottom of his immaculately polished shoes, there's something special about Ralph Gilles.

It's something intangible; something car designers call the "undefinable variable."

What is definable about Gilles (pronounced jeel): he's hot, he's happening and he's making a lot of things happen for DaimlerChrysler.

As the design director of exteriors and interiors at Chrysler's Studio 3 in Auburn Hills, Mich., Gilles is riding a renaissance for the automaker.

Only 35 years old, he oversees the design of Chrysler's and Dodge's large cars - the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger - and its minivans, which means he has had a lot of good things to look at lately. The 300's out-of-the-box big sedan style and power and pizzazz have drawn attention from athletes to company CEOs. It was named the Car of the Year last year.

"The challenge was to create an inspirational vehicle for Chrysler that would take it to the next level for all the sedans we did before," Gilles says. "The 300 formula has always been about something cool, luxurious and fast. We've got that here."

And Gilles has been right there with it.

Time Magazine nicknamed him the "King of Bling," for the 300's ability to draw interest from hip-hop music artists. People magazine called Gilles one of the sexiest men in Detroit.

How does Gilles take it? Without missing a beat.

"Style," Gilles once told the Detroit Free Press, "is your weapon in this competitive environment."

If so, then Gilles is loaded.

His team's designs brought attention back to Chrysler after a period of difficulty and demanding financial issues. Thanks to the Magnum, 300 and Charger, Chrysler is on everyone's tongue again and Gilles is the biggest thing to hit Chrysler since a guy named Iacocca, which is all too ironic.

Raised by Haitian immigrants in Montreal, Canada, Gilles showed an amazing flair with a pencil and pad at an early age. So much so that a 15-year-old Gilles once wrote a letter to Lee Iacocca, Chrysler's former CEO, asking the Chrysler boss how he could get a job designing cars.

Neil Walling, then vice president of Chrysler design, wrote back suggesting Gilles attend one of a handful of design studios around the country. After floundering in an engineering program at Montreal's Vanier College, Gilles dropped out of school and lived in his parents' basement until his brother, a medical school student, sent Ralph's sketches to Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, a school that churns out most of North American's top designers. The school accepted Gilles and he was on his way, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in transportation design in 1992. As his graduating thesis, he designed a full-sized auto interior that was so impressive, Gilles had to weigh different offers from a slew of automakers, including Chrysler and Ford.

But, he remembered the letter from Chrysler.

After graduating from CCS, Gilles went to work for the Chrysler Group, leading the design for the interiors of the Dodge Viper GTS/R, Dodge and Jeep concept vehicles and production versions of the 2002 Jeep Liberty and 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10. By 2001, he was promoted into his current position.

Now he's riding in what he believes is an era of greatness.

"The new Charger would run circles around most of the muscle cars from my era," Gilles once said. "This is what an automaker is supposed to do: evolve the species, not be paralyzed by it."

As for what he drives, Gilles says his wife and two kids prefer the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. Gilles drives a Chrysler 300 SRT-8, a performance version of his popular 300 sedan, as well as a 600-horsepower 1997 Viper he customized and still races on weekends. He even raced a customized Dodge Caravan at one point.

"I love what I do," he says. "I wouldn't change anything in the world for the opportunities I get every day."

And, as for the effect of the 300 on his life: "It has opened doors," Gilles recently said. "Now people tend to want to hear what I have to say."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at : www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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