Ralph Gilles: Handling Great Responsibility With Grace, Style, and a Sense of Humour

An interview with the global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
By David Taylor
David Taylor
David Taylor
November 3, 2016 Updated: November 4, 2016

Growing up in Montreal as the son of Haitian immigrants, Ralph Gilles loved to draw anything automotive-related—especially cars. Interestingly enough, in 1987 an aunt encouraged the teenager to send his sketches to Lee Iacocca, then the high-profile chief executive of Chrysler Corporation in Detroit.

As sometimes happens, the stars and heavens aligned. Fast-forward to 1992 and Gilles was hired by that very same company. Serendipitous? Indeed.

Today, Ralph Gilles is the global head of Design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the US$10-billion company that emerged after Fiat chief executive, Canadian-born Sergio Marchionne, rode to the embattled U.S. automaker’s rescue in 2009. In this role, Gilles oversees more than a dozen disparate brands ranging from Jeep and Maserati to Alfa Romeo and RAM. Epoch Auto recently sat down with Mr. Gilles.

Epoch Auto: In April 2015 you were appointed Head of Design, FCA – Global. What does this mean?

Ralph Gilles: Well, it means that I spent more time in a metal tube (airplane) than I would prefer. But in all seriousness, now I am in charge of all aspects of design for Fiat Chrysler—specifically the design offices and studios, and all those very capable associates in North America, Europe, Latin America, and also within a smaller, specialized set up in Shanghai, China. To be clear, there is very competent leadership in each of those markets. My role is to determine where there are opportunities for global design efficiencies, global aesthetics, distilling all this data and information, and communicating everything to regular executive committee meetings.

EA: With seemingly contrasting brands within the expansive FCA portfolio, this must create some unique challenges and headaches?

RG: Actually, not as much as you might expect. In fact, ever the optimist, I see it all as an awesome opportunity. With such a diverse lineup, we encourage all our designers from every division to spend time in the various groups, learn from one another, and apply winning strategies across the portfolio. This does not mean that you’ll ever see a Maserati-looking RAM truck! There are so many terrific learning opportunities. I must admit, however, that there are still some mornings I wake up knowing that it’s important that each name marque retains its own identity and culture.

Ralph Gilles, global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
Ralph Gilles, global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

The Making of Something Iconic?

EA: You joined Chrysler in 1992 and have spent the majority of your professional career within this organization. Describe how things have changed—for you and the industry—over the years. And will any major automotive manufacturer ever develop a vehicle that becomes synonymous to that brand—for example, the K-car (Reliant) and the minivan for Chrysler?

RG: That’s a good question. We do not call this change, more like evolution—not revolution—although I guess the more common 21st-century term would now be disruption. Vehicles are becoming safer, more fuel-efficient, more technology-driven. But the value proposition has now become an integral part of any car’s DNA. While designers and engineers, regardless of the brand, continue to achieve the best vehicle out there, there is actually one brand, one of our very own, who has continually met the unique challenges of global acceptance. That would be Jeep Renegade with the SUV/crossover platform. In fact to many, just the name, Jeep, has become a word recognized the world over and used to describe many different vehicles which are not Jeeps—much like calling a refrigerator a fridge after the Frigidaire brand.

In truth, the story tends to re-write itself every few years. That’s part of our job as designers—to ensure that something becomes iconic more than ubiquitous. The Jeep Renegade is very much in that vein. Its design embraces what makes Jeeps ubiquitous (the 7-slot grille, upright posture, trapezoidal wheel arches), while also working to push itself in a new direction, bringing its own new, unique styling cues and being our first Italian-built Jeep made for 100-plus countries.

 Jeep Renegade (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Jeep Renegade (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

The All-New Chrysler Pacifica

EA: So it comes down to authenticity, history, symbolism. Jeep is catching a wave that crossovers are an international product. Consumers realize that the crossover vehicle (CUV) is a very good solution for driving consumers the world over–regardless of the shape a country’s roads, might be. For the family, many buyers are looking for a one-vehicle-does-it-all solution; that’s where crossovers fit the bill so well—and Jeep specifically and FCA generally, have fulfilled that need.

RG: That’s true. But today, for any vehicle to be a success in terms of sales and volume sold, billions of dollars are invested to make every effort to provide the auto buying public a new mode of transport which fits the bill, checks off all the boxes for general acceptance in North America, and hopefully around the world. One such vehicle is the all-new Chrysler Pacifica. Here is a sophisticated mode of transport that was conceived on a blank piece of paper. Decades of learning from our previous success with minivans went into designing and building the perfect family vehicle. Data from “acceptors” and even “rejecters”—people who disliked what we were doing—was utilized. Our intent is to raise the bar.

EA: Has this different approach been successful?

RG: While we are still in the early days of the Pacifica, we are very pleased at our “conquest” rate. There is a tremendous amount of TLC in this vehicle—tender loving care. Look at the value solutions built into the van: ease of use, storage, safety, designed by moms. The vast majority of leadership within the multitude of groups involved in bringing this vehicle to market were moms; our sometimes harshest critics yet are always our best allies.

EA: So who determines what technology and features are built into any vehicle?

RG: The criteria varies from vehicle to vehicle. Again, looking at the Pacifica, it’s pretty much all new from the ground up. It’s even built on a brand new platform. We made a point of disrupting ourselves and our very culture, and challenged ourselves as designers, engineers, even as individuals, to build a car where no assumptions were made. Starting with aesthetics, we have given the vehicle a feeling of confidence, of stability, excellent fuel efficiency and most important, safety. Safety was our watchword throughout. Once we got the fundamentals down, we then went to town exploring multiple “what if?” scenarios. Improved sight lines, the position of pillars—always ensuring that safety standards were met and even exceeded. We even created some new ones! This auto was built with a ton of feedback from every imaginable source.

Ram 1500 (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
Ram 1500 (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Technology and the User Experience

EA: Has automotive design become easier as a result of technology these past 20-plus years?

RG: Well… yes, and not hardly! With everything seemingly changing almost overnight, this adds a degree of difficulty we had yet to experience in the early years. How do you design when tech is changing constantly? That’s why we now have teams of “futurists”—experts who look at all new technology and have discussions with our design teams about upcoming technology to determine validity and relevance. A trend today may be of no consequence down the road. What is important to a customer? Is it still cup holders? Today, it might be how many active USB outlets can be installed.

EA: Sounds as if the challenges are coming at you from all directions! Is technology available today to add new tech after the fact, on the fly?

RG: Upgradability is key. That’s why we have an extensive UX (user experience) department. It’s all about tech integration. Will it work for everyone or do common denominators apply? Regardless, all tech has to be robust. Will tech make a vehicle better? Will the consumer/driver experience benefit? Today it’s even possible for some updates to be conducted in real time, live over the air in a seamless manner.

EA: Are the lines blurred between Detroit (Motor City) and Silicon Valley. Is tech taking over?

RG: No. One thing is for sure, safety will never be compromised for the latest and greatest anything! Safety is and always will be number one. While technology is most welcome, we need to be prudent and not just add features with little interest in functionality.

Chrysler Pacifica (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
Chrysler Pacifica (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

A Distinct Chinese Connection

EA: Finally, you mentioned earlier a small studio in Shanghai, China. What happens there?

RG: We realized early on that as much as there may be an economic desire to create a truly world car, some markets require—maybe demand is a better word—things that will differentiate that market vehicle from a similarly badged auto in North America. Authenticity is crucial. Brand loyalty is key. For example, the sheen on leather upholstery may necessitate different materials from one market to another to encourage sales success. Further, what we might consider a must-have feature, in China it may not be. Functional technology from practicality to safety is very important—maybe more so than in Canada.

EA: Thank you for your time. We look forward to the next innovations from FCA.

Ralph Gilles, global head of Design Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
Ralph Gilles, global head of Design Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

David Taylor is an independent automotive writer, producer, and editor with a love of cars, people, and animals, based in Barrie, Ontario.

David Taylor