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February 25 2016

I owe my career to a letter from Chrysler
By Ralph Gilles

My office at the FCA US complex is pretty low key – you won’t see a lot of sketches hanging on the walls. Since I travel a lot in my job as head of global design I don’t see my office as often as I used to.

But I keep one important memento there, an old letter. It reminds me of the special people in my life – my aunt, my dad and my brother. They pushed me to chase my dream job, the one I have today. Without them I might still be stocking shelves in a hardware store.

I’m telling this story now because on Friday, for the fourth year in a row, the FCA US Product Design Office is honoring four high school artists who won our contest. This year’s winners get some cool Apple products and a three-week summer design course at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). We hope it inspires them and others to really think about auto design as a career.

One fateful summer

Thirty years ago, that was me. I grew up near Montreal and loved drawing. As a teenager I spent a couple of summers living with my aunt in Syosset, N.Y., and worked at a local supermarket unloading produce. It was a pretty sleepy town so I constantly sketched cars to pass the time.

My aunt is a real go-getter and very supportive of me. At that time, 1987, Lee Iacocca was the only auto executive she knew since he was on TV all the time. “You’re so talented,” she told me. “Let’s write him a letter.”

I was sure Mr. Iacocca wouldn’t answer, but my aunt was the type of woman you don’t tell no. She wrote the whole letter, I looked it over and she sent it away on my behalf. (I wish I had that letter today.) Summer ended and I returned home to start college prep classes.

The letter Neil Walling sent to a young Ralph Gilles.

One day a letter arrived from Chrysler Motors – I was astonished. It was signed by Neil Walling, who at the time was head of advance and interior design. He offered encouragement and a list of some design schools. The last sentence made all the difference: “Your portfolio does show significant promise.” I worked with Neil later on (I joined Chrysler in 1992, Neil retired in 1999.) He is a great man, a great artist, an amazing oil painter.

My aunt was a bit disappointed that the letter didn’t come from Lee Iacocca, but she was very excited that he forwarded it to the right people. “There’s a sign here,” she told me.

I put the letter aside. I quit college prep after just a few weeks because it just wasn’t fulfilling. So I got a job at a hardware store unloading semi-trucks. I must have been doing a good job because they promoted me. Being a car designer just didn’t seem probable to me.

Make my dream come true

My brother, Max, was going to college for pre-med studies. In spring 1988 he challenged me – what do you want to do with your life, work in a hardware store or make your dreams come true? He had me dig up the letter and we started getting info on the schools (making phone calls, there was no Internet yet).

The submission deadline for the College for Creative Studies was a week away and they overnighted an application kit. But I had to completely redo my portfolio – CCS wanted larger, more-detailed pieces in a different format. So we stayed up four nights in a row creating a new portfolio. My parents had given me an art table so I had a little studio set up in the basement. I still have those sketches – a bunch of supercars, modified versions of current cars, a lot of see-throughs.

It worked! CCS let me in. Walking in there felt like going into the X-Men mansion for the first time. It was humbling and nerve-wracking, but it was great to see people like myself who were really into cars and art.

In the move to school I lost track of Neil Walling’s letter. My dad passed in 1989 and we found the letter in his effects – he had kept it. So I took it– and lost it again as I moved to new homes and everything.

I talked with my wife about how much I missed having that letter. It had been at least 10 years since I saw it. Then, just a few weeks ago, she found it! It’s now framed and hanging on my office wall.

Do you have what it takes?

We need more young artists to consider a career in auto design. There’s a lot of competition today from places like Hollywood.

One of the best benefits of the Drive For Design competition is that we try to stay in touch with the winners, to encourage them as they work their way through school.

I do get letters, just like the one my aunt wrote. Most of them send a sketch and want to get hired right away.

Do you think you’d like a career in car design? Here’s some of my advice:

Research your brains out and really make sure you understand what this career is all about because there are some misconceptions. Sometimes I meet kids who just want to be tuners. That’s a little different. There are great aftermarket shops that do very well and may not require a four-year degree. On the other hand, what we do is much more technical. All the design colleges have really good websites.
There is no shortcut. You need a degree. No matter how talented you are, it’s really important that you compete with other designers and understand that there are a lot of other people like you out there.
Go look at other portfolios. It helps you understand where you need to be in order to be successful. There are a lot of good portfolios you can check out online.

If you have creative talent and a love for cars, then I suggest you research and visit some of the various art schools around the country.

Someday, I just might want to hire you as part of our team.

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Cars 'freakishly expensive,' Gilles warns

Cars 'freakishly expensive,' Gilles warns

February 28, 2016

Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles global design chief, has an urgent message for suppliers: The cost of designing and manufacturing vehicles is spiraling out of control.

"Cars are getting freakishly expensive, and the public isn't willing to pay," Gilles said at the Original Equipment Suppliers Association U.S.-Canada dinner in Dearborn, Mich., last week. "It's not sustainable."

Standing near a 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan, Gilles spoke about the factors driving costs higher.

"In less than 10 years, all this new technology -- park assist, speech recognition, blind-spot detection, iPod interface -- all this stuff is becoming standard. That's why I reach out to the supply community. We have to find a way to consolidate modules."

Pointing to the Pacifica, Gilles said: "Modules, modules and more modules. There's so many modules there. If we were to strip off this car, we'd probably have a basketful of modules -- little black boxes that do something. It's getting out of control. They're very expensive. They're tough to package. They're very complex.

"There are six cameras and God knows how many sensors, radar, lidar -- everything on this van to make it safer, but it's expensive. Wouldn't it be nice to consolidate all that? We can't just keep pasting sensors on a vehicle."

Gilles said he'd like to see suppliers develop "a monster module that controls the entire vehicle and that's easier to upgrade."


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A Conversation with Fiat Chrysler’s Global Design

A Conversation with Fiat Chrysler’s Global Design Chief Ralph Gilles
February 26, 2016

When it comes to car guys, it’s hard to find one with more bona fide credentials than Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) Ralph Gilles.

He’s flown up through the ranks of Chrysler’s hierarchy since first joining in 1992, from being the designer who won international acclaim for his swaggering Chrysler 300 to President and CEO of the SRT Brand and Senior Vice President of Design, and on to his current position as global Head of Design for FCA.

But Gilles isn’t exactly your typical car company executive. When not carving apexes in his Viper ACR, or churning out billowing clouds of burning rubber to delighted crowds at Carlisle, he’s also the guy who famously lit up the Twitter-sphere by telling Donald Trump he was “full of shit” when Trump erroneously tweeted that Jeep was moving its production line to China.

Further cementing our affection for him here at is the fact that Gilles – apart from being a car-nut of the highest order – was raised in Montreal, Canada.

We had a chance to catch up to this busy, former Montrealer at the Canadian International Auto Show.

LW: So, tell us about your experience as a Canadian rising to international leadership in the automotive industry.

RG: [Laughs] I can’t say I’ve thought about it that way going in. I think, as a young man, Detroit seemed… well… we went to Gary, Indiana once and it was like going to the moon, it took forever to get there by car. I think time has shrunken the world – it feels like nothing to go anywhere now to me, so the intimidation is not there. But looking back, yeah, I think starting from a humble high school in Montreal to being here, I never would have… if I could go back in time and talk to myself, I wouldn’t believe myself [laughs]. There’s no way – ‘What are you talking about! Designing for an international company?’

Obviously, Sergio has a great way of giving you many hats, had me get some experience in marketing – and motorsports as well, that was great – but at the same time never gave up planning and design so was on top of my job. Now this job has gotten so big that it’s its own thing. I’m really in a good place and I’m happy. But I never forget my roots, and when I can I answer letters from young and aspiring designers.

I also go to speak at schools (including a Mississauga high school in 2013), so when I tell them to “dream big”, they listen. I came from immigrant parents and there’s no reason I should be here other than through hard work and not giving up.

So I respect that. I don’t think I wear it as anything more than a great experience.

I did this thing called “Failure Lab” where they forced me to talk about a whole part of my life…

(After completing high school, Gilles enrolled in engineering at Vanier College. It wasn’t a good fit. Unhappy, he dropped out and spent the next few months in his parents’ basement, in a self-described funk.

LW: What was your role in the new Chrysler Pacifica minivan?

RG: Well, obviously I’m managing all of the design for FCA now, and the Pacifica, it was done by Brandon Faurote, with Klaus Busse and now Chris Benjamin.

We started about four and a half years ago, right as Sergio came in. We started with an advance process – we really worked hand-in-hand with product planning and engineering. It’s rare, in my lifetime as a designer, that you get to start with a fresh sheet of paper, a truly clean sheet – brand new platform, brand new architecture. So my role was really reminding my designers to be humble about it – don’t think that because we’re leaders in the segment that we know it cold. Let’s disrupt ourselves, let’s stand back and really listen to the customers and find out what they really want. We spent more time researching than designing. The design almost came about naturally.

LW: Form following function?

RG: Exactly.

LW: How do you adapt and compartmentalize design tastes for the different brands?

RG: That’s probably one of the coolest things about working for FCA is the amount of brands we have. What I’ve done is put a chief at the head of each brand. They spend a lot of time with the brand marketing teams… and they start wearing the jackets. We’ve actually taken all the studios and painted them up, every studio is themed by brand, we have the Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler, we have the Alfa now and also Maserati. So we try to remind them every day when they go into the studio who they work for and it becomes embedded. For me, it’s a bit of an out-of-body experience, I literally on my walk through, one minute I’m talking about Chryslers then Jeeps then Dodges – but I can multitask, it’s what I do. I read up on the history of each brand.

LW: Your cars… what are you driving, what are you racing, what’s your next project car, your dream car?

RG: Laughs. Well, I trust the auto collection market more than the Wall Street market right now, so my wife and I went on a bit of a spree last year. I bought a Hellcat Challenger, which I love, I had one as a company car and now I actually own it.

I splurged and I got a Ferrari 458, I’ve always loved that car. I’m a big fan of its design and the way it sounds and I’m just grateful that I was able to afford it.

And I bought a Viper ACR. And my childhood favourite is a Junior or GTV, a 1969 Alfa Romeo. I’ve always lusted after it. I was on Design Auto Show and there was one on display and when I walked by it – I could feel my heart beating. I jokingly asked the guy if he would consider selling it, and he said actually it belongs to a church. Technically, they said, if I buy the car I’m making a donation to the church so you can write off the investment. So my wife bought it, and next thing I know [laughs] the car was in my garage.

LW: And you’re saved!

RG: Yeah, I’m saved [laughs]

LW: If you were given complete carte blanche and could develop and design any car for any FCA brand – electric car, lightweight roadster, luxury flagship, autonomous concept – what would you create?

RG: Well, we’re doing it. It’s not a dream, it’s happening. The Alfas that we’re doing right now are beautiful, there are things in the hopper which I can’t talk about, some gorgeous machines. It goes back again to one day being a kid when those vehicles are posters on your wall to now, having a part in making them come true – I pinch myself every day.

And what I also love in my new job is how well I’ve been received by the Italians – something I take very seriously. Hey, I’m a Canadian-American guy, helping Italians design, learning to speak Italian, and loving the collaboration. Everyone has the same passion, everyone is united – two studios across the globe, united.

That’s the toughest question for a head of design, what we’re working on next. I don’t want to spill the beans to our competitors but there’s some cool stuff . Cool and relevant. We’re not as chatty as the other OEMs, there’s a lot of discourse out there about future product and autonomous cars – and we are working on that, but for our own reasons we’re not sharing it because we don’t think we should. Why should we? It will be ready when it’s ready – I’m a little annoyed that people think we’re not concerned about it – we just don’t talk about it like everybody else. I think people are talking about their solutions prematurely. There’s a lot of vapourware out there.

We tend to, famous quote of Bill Gates, we “overestimate the change in the next two years, and underestimate the change in the next ten years.” So we’re looking at more the long, long term. If you look at the market, it’s still strong. Sure, there’s people choosing Uber over cars, but at the end of the day it’s a small percentage.
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