The cult of Ralph: Chrysler's Ralph Gilles

Sure, his story has been supersized, but Chrysler still needs Ralph Gilles.

Race-car drivers don't have to win (or die trying) to become local heroes. They don't even have to be locals. Brazilians, for example, fell for France's Hélène Delangle, who was holding her own at the 1936 São Paulo Grand Prix before hitting a bale of hay that may or may not have been tossed into her path by unsporting fans. Delangle was ejected from her Alfa Romeo and landed on a policeman. He died breaking her fall, and was quickly forgotten. Delangle survived and went on to be lionized by the masses. Race-car drivers make natural national heroes.

Car designers, one would think, are another story. But try telling that to DaimlerChrysler AG's Ralph Gilles. When not driving his minivan around Addison Township, his neighbourhood north of Detroit, the amateur racer likes to burn rubber in a 10-cylinder Dodge Viper. But his claim to fame wasn't designed for any racing circuit. It's the Chrysler 300C. It has rear-wheel drive and a lot going on under the hood. But it is still a four-door sedan, and Gilles (pronounced jeels) never imagined it would bring him cult-like status in three nations. “It's amazing,” he says, recalling a female fan in her late 50s who bought a 300C on a whim. “She told me that she'd never given a shit about cars before. A friend told her that she'd like the 300C. She bought one and a few months later she's contributing the most to its online forums. She now has a network of new friends. She hangs out with other 300C owners. The car became a fountain of youth for her after losing her husband. She keeps it immaculate. She has little covers for the seats, which she doesn't want hurt. This is a person who saw cars as an appliance one minute and a source of inspiration the next.”

No doubt, the 300C was what marketing types call a phenomenon. When it first appeared–as a concept car at the New York auto show in 2003–it was an instant hit with pundits. But the introduction of a production model in 2004 was still a gamble for DaimlerChrysler, one that bet North Americans could forget what they were told about the winter safety advantages of front-wheel-drive family cars. The gamble paid off, in spades. Dressed in white (or what Chrysler calls “cool vanilla”), the 300C attracted the Bentley crowd. Black versions, on the other hand, proved popular with less-gentrified consumers who cruise urban 'hoods blasting 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg (two proud 300C owners, themselves). This mass appeal gave DaimlerChrysler's storied North American division a much-needed boost to the bottom line. “The 300C and Hemi engine sales did it for Chrysler, more than they admit,” says David Healy, a Wall Street analyst with Burnham Securities. “They went from something like a minus 7% operating profit margin in 2000 to a small but respectable margin of maybe 2% last year.”

This year, the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based automaker has skidded back into the red thanks to the sudden U.S. market shift toward fuel-efficient cars, which kept profits curbed at Ford Motor Co. and dented restructuring efforts at General Motors Corp. Chrysler–which recently boosted its estimated third-quarter loss to US$1.5 billion from about US$600 million–has been forced to slash production of slow-moving product. Total shipments to dealers in the latter half of this year are now expected to be down by 16%. Large pickups and SUVs will account for most of that. Even the 300C assembly plant in Brampton, Ont., has been forced to idle production.

Nevertheless, the 300C–which will soon break the 400,000 sales mark–has served the company's reputation well. It has made Car and Driver magazine's Top 10 list for the past four years running, received a Best Buy distinction from Consumer Guide and has been called one of the market's top luxury rides under US$25,000. For this vehicle, car-of-the-year titles are a dime a dozen. That's probably why Automobile Magazine also placed it on its list of the Top 20 vehicles of the past two decades.

The product in question, however, is still just a good-looking means of transportation with a reasonable sticker price. It doesn't explain the extent to which Gilles is now a role model to Canadians, and to Americans, and–oh yeah–to Haitians, too. After all, we're talking about the American-Canadian-Haitian kid credited with saving one of the Big Three from self-destruction. He's the sexiest man in Detroit (People magazine), Chrysler's Bling King (Time magazine), a black white knight who speaks both country club and hip hop. His media clips spin a tale of “love, luck and, seemingly, destiny” under headlines like: “From slacker to superstar, the Ralph Gilles Story.”

The tale varies, but the basics are as follows: On Jan.14, 1970, Gilles is born in New York to Haitian immigrants, emerging from the womb with a talent for designing cars. He is raised in Montreal, where, at about 14, he becomes so good at automotive design that his aunt sends one of his sketches to Lee Iacocca, then chairman of Chrysler. He forwards the work to a design executive, who is so impressed that he sends Gilles a list of schools and urges the kid to hone his raw talent. Gilles ignores the advice. After high school, he enrolls in engineering at Montreal's Vanier College, then drops out to spend his days in a gen-X funk, watching car shows like Dukes of Hazzard. (This failure to graduate and patch of teenage wasteland doesn't stop Vanier from later listing Gilles as a famous alumni.) His older brother eventually recalls Chrysler's recommendations and insists that the family couch potato apply to Detroit's College for Creative Studies. The whole clan then spends about a week force-feeding Gilles coffee so he can complete sample designs for the looming enrollment deadline. After graduation from CCS in 1992, Gilles joins Chrysler, where he rockets to a position of power while completing an MBA and pretty much single-handedly designs the 300C, Dodge Magnum wagon and new Charger. That hit trio then saves the company from its much-hyped 1998 “marriage made in heaven” with Daimler-Benz, which crashed and almost burned the sum of DaimlerChrysler's merged parts. The wunderkind is then rewarded with the high-profile task of rejuvenating Chrysler's minivans, which is followed by a promotion to the company's executive ranks.

That, at least, is the media take on Ralph Gilles. And it makes one wonder which A-list African-American actor is hot enough to play him in a movie. Then again, a movie about his life is probably the last thing Gilles needs or wants. After all, films tend to exaggerate, and the media version of his career has already been supersized. Simply put, his public persona has a life of its own, one that is only loosely based on real events. His mom may think he runs Chrysler, but he is actually just a vice-president in charge of Jeep, trucks and vehicle components. He reports to design chief Trevor Creed, who has another key vice-president in charge of passenger-car development and a third running a division that thinks long-term.

Furthermore, while Gilles is proud of his design work, which includes interiors of the Jeep Liberty and Jeep Jeepster concept, he is also the first to admit that the now-famous note of encouragement from Iaccoca's people was probably a form letter that went out to every kid who sent in a design–regardless of talent. “My sketches were nothing that would make a car executive scream, 'Ooh, a prodigy,'” Gilles says. The difference, he adds, is that he took the letter seriously.

As for the 300C, well, if truth be told, Gilles designed the side panels and tail lamps while managing a team that included two other designers–Mark Hall and Jeff Gale (son of former Chrysler design chief Tom Gale)–who were handed “rough fixings” for a “banker's muscle car,” conceived by other talented designers based on earlier concepts, including one dating back to before Gilles was born. He likens his role to that of a movie director handed a loose script with some great dialogue, a first-class cast and a dedicated production team. But for some reason, the media “latched on to me as the face of the 300C.”

At times, Gilles admits, the hype has been amusing. While honoured, he found being named to Black Enterprise magazine's hot list (along with P. Diddy) somewhat funny, since he never gave much thought to his skin colour until the 300C became a rap-master favourite and some people started expecting him to speak in Ebonics. The media attention has also generated numerous public speaking opportunities, allowing Gilles to serve as a role model for the Haitian community and to inspire future generations of designers–something for which he has become grateful. Still, he dislikes being given credit for work done by others, especially office mates who won't let him live it down. “When I was promoted to vice-president,” he says, “the media described me as the guy who penned the 300C. That bothered me, because at Chrysler nobody really pens anything, except concept cars. I'm just one designer in the Chrysler pack.”

If anything, Gilles insists that Hall is the unsung hero behind the 300C. “He's probably the vehicle's godfather, at least when it comes to what makes it look as expensive as it does. I may have sold and protected his design work, but we were part of a team.” That team included the German executives who took over Chrysler in 2000. (Gilles calls former Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, who now runs the mothership in Stuttgart, the vehicle's guiding light. (Healy insists the biggest executive role was played by Wolfgang Bernhard, who bolted to Volkswagen after running a textbook restructuring as Zetsche's chief operating officer.) And then there is the army of engineers and marketing people who helped build a business case for the 300C and then made it roadworthy in about 18 months of testing. Even component suppliers contributed to the vehicle's success. After negotiations with them, Gilles says, something that looks as simple as a speedometer can take six months to finalize and go through 20 designs.

According to Gilles, the 300C's story has been simplified because outsiders imagine car designers are like fine artists. “People see Pimp My Ride and think being a car designer is about slapping cool wheels on something. It's a lot more complex. It takes constant deal making [internally and externally]. And that's what I bring to the party.” Indeed, if anything separates Gilles from the pack, it appears to be knowing when to fight bean-counters. He has a reputation for being practical–one reason the modern version of the Charger has four doors. But he'll fight tooth-and-nail with anyone in the way of something he thinks can be cool and profitable. He did it for the Magnum station wagon, and he would do it tomorrow for some chrome if he thought it made sense.

Understanding the non-design side of making cars didn't come naturally to Gilles. As a young designer, he used to listen to product ideas attacked by other departments using sales- and marketing-speak, or what he called high-frequency noise. “I used to think, What is this shit?” he recalls. But after graduating from Michigan State University with an MBA, in 2002, the static cleared. “I'm a good agent for pure designers,” he says, “because I now know what is bullshit.”

That is what makes Gilles an asset to the industry today–at a time when Chrysler, not to mention its two American cousins, finds itself in desperate need of more consumer hits.

Chrysler's previous turnaround focused on hitting the U.S. market with highly differentiated product that would sell for a premium. “The 300C,” says analyst Dennis DesRosiers, “is one of the best examples of this strategy.” In his new role as head of truck design, however, Gilles won't directly lead any attempt to differentiate Chrysler in the small-car market, unless you count as small more efficient crossover vehicles like the Jeep Compass, which comes with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine. But the North American auto sector isn't going to abandon trucks and SUVs, which (along with minvans) currently account for about 70% of Chrysler's sales. Industry competition has simply created a war with multiple fronts. Gilles thinks there is a lot that can be done to make trucks and SUVs more attractive and efficient. As head of component design, he also influences everything the company puts out. But he won't be penning Chrysler's next 300C. Design, he says, is a generational game. “I can still sketch cars,” he says, “but can I compete with a kid two years out of school? No way. Their minds are unpolluted. When I sketch today, I can't help but think about things like feasibility and legal issues.”

As a coach, however, he'll inspire the youngsters called upon to develop the mix of products required to secure Chrysler's future. It won't be easy, he says, noting the K-Car days are long gone: “That vehicle made this company a lot of money. But the designers laughed about it. They knew it wasn't the kind of car shown at a car show.” Today, Gilles says, the market demands designs that stir emotion and over-deliver. That's why he expects his team to work 24/7. “A good designer is always on the job,” he says. “I'm stimulated to the point of collapse when I go home because all day long I'm observing life. I'm looking and asking, Why did that woman buy that car? I'm observing how hard it is to put that stroller in that trunk.”

Gilles takes design cues from faster-moving industries, like mobile phones. And he can't wait for minivan customers to see what awaits them next year. It won't have a 340-horse Hemi, but Gilles promises that soccer-mom husbands won't have to hide their faces at the rink anymore. And when Detroit's King of Bling gets credit for making the minivan sexy–even though he was actually on the project for a relatively short period of time–he wants you to remember: design is a team sport.