Welcome to our interview feature, Roadshow Asks, where we find out how people in the automotive industry snagged their dream careers. We interview everyone from designers to race car drivers to get an idea of what their job entails, what education they undertook and the role technology will play in their future.
If you’re a car enthusiast you have probably heard of Ralph Gilles. He’s been with Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles for 25 years, first as an interior designer, later as the North American Head of Design where he had a hand in designing his favorite FCA car, the fifth-generation Viper. Gilles became the global head of design in April of 2015 and oversees the aesthetics of everything from the Chrysler Pacifica to the Dodge Demon to the Jeep Compass.
Gilles was born in New York but grew up in Montreal, Canada. As a teenager he was sketching at his aunt’s house and she suggested he send his work to the well-known head of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca. While he never heard back from Iacocca, the second in command at the design studio replied and encouraged him to apply for design school.
Gilles has a BFA from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit in Industrial Design with a specialization in Automotive Design. In 2002 he graduated from Michigan State University with an MBA. You can catch Gilles in episode five of the Netflix series “Abstract: The Art of Design“.
I sat down with Gilles at the New York Auto Show.
Emme Hall: What was your first car?
Ralph Gilles: It was a terrible car. Nobody will know this car. It was a 1976 or ’77 Austin Marina, a British car that was sold in Canada. I got it from an uncle. It didn’t run, so I asked, “Well, if I fix it, can I have it?” It actually only had dry rotted fuel lines. So I fixed it and that was my first car. My mom had it repainted for me with an Earl Scheib type of job. I had it for two years.
I thought I was mechanical but I didn’t realize the thermostat was bad, so I had no heat until someone asked if I had checked the thermostat. So for a $2 thermostat I suffered for two years. My second car was a Corolla, and during school I bought a 1981 Scirocco which was one of my favorite cars. I always wanted a Volkswagen Scirocco. I wanted to start exercising my passion for cars.
EH: What was your first automotive job and how did you get it?
RG: I had a thesis at school and I did a full-size interior. I was the first student ever to do a full-size cockpit. I built it with wood, foam… whatever I could find. At the time there was nobody really specializing in interiors. I had an exterior wall too, but I focused on interiors because I saw a lack of that. And it worked. Chrysler was really excited to hire me to do interiors specifically. I had a lot of detail, lots of ergonomic ideas. I had a whole notebook with ergonomic ideas, like how big switches should be. We had a human factors (the study of how humans interact with the systems around them) class and I was so in love with that. I thought, “Why can’t I design an interior with those principles?” I tried to basically still have it be stylish but think about ergonomics and ease of use.
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EH: Take us through an average day at work.
RG: My day starts off with a lot of emails, but I look forward to my one-on-ones. I sit down with each of my staff and we have 40 min to an hour session and talk about whatever they want. I like the ones where we talk about their people and developing their new staff. Then I usually have to talk to engineering about something.
My favorite part of the day is when I get up and and take a break and go down to the studios and walk. I just literally walk through the studios and I always see something new. The walls change all the time. They are living organisms. New sketches, new ideas, new themes come up. Each studio is like a different mood and feeling. They are all branded so it’s like going through a time machine when you go through the Jeep studio to the Dodge studio because everything is so different. The colors are different, the vibe, even the music they play is different. It’s fun to hang around the designers and I come back to my office recharged.
The highlight of my week are what we call walk-throughs. It’s more organized than when I just roam around. My direct reports and I walk from studio to studio and they present what’s going on.
I really miss designing. I do little doodles in my office when no one’s looking, but I don’t have time to really go downtown like I used to. When I was a designer, I would come into work around 7:15 a.m., put my headphones on around 7:30 a.m… and it would be 4 p.m. The day would just go whoooomp and I loved it. Just sketching away.
But I still get to design a bit in clay. I love the full size clay. We put knife lines on the car and debate design. In design you typically only touch a part of one product at a time. But in my position I get to push and pull all of them. It’s fun that way and I get to influence a lot more. As global head of design I’m flying to Europe twice a month to oversee the design happening there.
EH: What is the most tedious thing about your current job?
RG: I call them Village Issues. If I look at all the people that work for me, or with me I should say. I hate saying work for me. I can’t stand that phrase. About 400 people work with me across all disciplines and there is usually a little bit of human conflict, which is natural. Or if someone’s quitting, which is rare but it happens. I feel like we’re family, we really have a good bond, so it hurts when someone leaves. But that’s about it. I even like meeting with engineers, dammit.
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EH: How does tech affect the future of your job?
RG: Well, we are a mix of things we do internally and things we buy from the outside. Those outside companies are constantly bombarding us with the latest stuff. They are working sometimes two, five or 10 years into the future. They are educating us constantly on the future and technology, so I have a pretty good understanding of what’s out there.
There are two kinds of tech. The tech we use to develop the programs has really compressed time. We can do things in literally half the time as we could when I started at FCA. We are early adopters. We aggressively use CAD and CGI technology, the same stuff they use in Hollywood. We’ve been using it for years to simulate interiors and exteriors.
At FCA we can offer technology on pretty everyday cars. It’s great to have technology in a $100K car, but how about in everybody’s car. So that’s what I’m focused on.
EH: What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
RG: That’s simple. Overly done daytime running lights. I just shake my head when I see that.
EH: What is the one project you’ve always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?
RG: Wow. I hope one day the boss (FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne) asks me to come over to Ferrari and help him out. To design a Ferrari, that would be the dream. He (Marchionne) runs Ferrari as well as FCA but they aren’t related companies any more.
But it’s just as much fun to work on Maserati and Alfa Romeo. I grew up with a deep respect for those cars. I’ve always loved Alfa Romeo and now I work with that company. I get to run over to Europe and discuss design with the Italians, I mean, oh my god for a designer like me it’s like heaven.
EH: If you weren’t working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?
RG: You’re going to think this is weird but I am fascinated by weather. I always wanted to be a weatherman. I was the happiest guy when the Weather Channel started. I thought it was the coolest thing, 24-hour weather. I’d be like, just planted in front of the TV watching the radar patterns and the isobars (a line on a map connecting points having the same atmospheric pressure at a given time or on average over a given period) and all that. I love weather patterns. I watch the Weather Channel shows of course but I watch the forecasts like how people watch regular cable. So that’s one thing.
I like fashion a little bit so I would probably dabble in that and I love general product design and medical stuff. I would love to design prosthetics one day. Why not make it cool-looking?
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