5796 Stellantis designer Ralph Gilles on awards, his heroes and his favorite wheels

Stellantis designer Ralph Gilles on awards, his heroes and his favorite wheels

Canadian automotive designer Ralph Gilles feels shaken to “the core” to have received the EyesOn Design award because it’s awarded by past recipients — his heroes.

“If you look back at the list of previous winners, it’s really the who’s who of design, at least for three solid decades if not four decades of design,” said Gilles, chief design officer at Stellantis for the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Maserati and Fiat Latin America brands. “And in that list are some of my heroes.”

The award, launched in 1988 by the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, recognizes lifetime achievement in automotive design. Past recipients include Sergio Pininfarina (1991), Tom Gale (Chrysler, 2002), Walter de’Silva (Volkswagen Group, 2011) Chris Bangle (BMW, 2012), Peter Schreyer (Kia, 2014) and Ed Welburn (General Motors, 2018).

Gilles, 52, will receive the award at a ceremony in the spring.

“I’m a little shocked because it’s so significant and because you feel kind of welcomed into this community, said Gilles, who holds Canadian and U.S. citizenships.

“It sounds maybe cheesy, but like when an F1 driver might win a championship, it seems like all that effort paid off and all the sacrifices and the attention to detail.”

Gilles, who is of Haitian descent, was raised in Montreal and has spent his entire 30-year career at Stellantis and its previous companies. He has overseen and contributed to the creation of a vast portfolio of designs for the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands.

They include the Chrysler 300, Dodge Viper SRT, Ram 1500, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler Pacifica. Concept vehicles include the Chrysler Portal, Chrysler Airflow and Dodge Charger Daytona SRT.

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Gilles spoke with Grace Macaluso, managing editor of Automotive News Canada, on a range of issues affecting the industry and automotive design. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: Is it more challenging to design electric vehicles than internal-combustion vehicles?

A: I think it’s exciting. It’s a new era, and we’re definitely embracing it. If you look at the Charger concept we just launched, it’s exactly that. It’s kind of taking advantage of some of the packaging benefits, the proportional changes and the messaging, right? Getting it to feel very future forward.

How did your upbringing in Montreal affect your career?

If you remember, Formula One was at its height, with Gilles Villeneuve driving and winning. I distinctly remember every June when the F1 circus would come to town, so did some incredible machinery. All these incredible supercars and high-performance automobiles would descend on the city. And it struck me, the beauty of those premium vehicles mixed in with the current stuff that was in the ’70s. And there was quite a contrast between the average cars on the road and the exotics that just really sparked my interest.

Given the industry’s ongoing labor shortages, is it difficult recruiting talent for your design team?

We have extremely good retention. What I struggle with is, maybe, the next generation of designers. Of course, we want to make sure that people are aware of the career. So that’s a little tricky. And the type of designers. When I came up, you were basically hiring exterior car designers. Today, we’re hiring digital experts, infotainment design, textiles designers. So the field is really expanded to much more.

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Why have you chosen to build your career at one company?

I’ve always loved our brands from the get-go. And a lot of the brands that I’ve also loved, we ended up acquiring or becoming partners with. So now we have 14 brands, and as a designer, it’s so exciting to be able to hop back and forth, and my staff loves it. So we have this incredible portfolio of juicy, yummy brands that we can touch. Plus, the company keeps evolving. We’ve had some gut-wrenching change here and there. But for the most part, we keep growing. We’re becoming more global. And to watch that happen, it’s forever intriguing. I don’t regret a day of it. And I feel a big part of that now.

Do you get the same sense of accomplishment when you design a production car as you do when you design a concept?

The production car ultimately gives me much, much more satisfaction because I really love seeing our cars on public roads. Show cars are great, but they kind of have a fleeting pleasure. But in terms of the true payoff, it’s production. So my thing is to make production cars feel like show cars; that’s the goal.”

What are your top three favorite vehicles you’ve designed?

I think being involved in the 300 was a big deal, bringing the Viper back to life was a lot of fun, and working on the Grand Cherokee. It’s such an incredibly popular, successful nameplate and brand.

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