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 autoTRADER.ca 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. Watch the Youtube clip for the whole story.)
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.
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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?
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.
LW: What are your favourite classic car designs? pick one from FCA and at least one from another brand.
RG: It's hard not to love… I just came from Barrett-Jackson, and the old Challengers, the E-bodies… those things still turn your head, they’re timeless designs. I like them – a lot.
LW: They drive like boats, though.
RG: Yesss. And the ‘Cuda – when I see a ’69-70 ‘Cuda, I become like a child. [chuckles]
LW: Which celebrity car collector's collection would you steal? Leno's? Seinfeld's?
RG: Well, I do like Leno's, because there's a lot of variety there. He has no Ferraris, which is interesting. And obviously, Seinfeld is more Porsche, which I respect, but I would say Leno's. But it's a little overwhelming because he's got almost too many cars. And actually Jeff Dunham, one of the celebrities most people don't know about [as a car collector], but he's got a great, great collection. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to have – well, eight cars is already too much for me.
That's kind of my secret, I live in the country, so I have a huge-ass shed (laughs). Living in the country, that's why I can afford those cars, because I chose not to live in the city… I live in a "cost-effective house" that allows me to play with toys. I don't have a boat, I don't have a house up north, I don't have an extra girlfriend… I just have cars. [laughs]
Guys my age spend a lot of money on cars. [laughs]
We get Ralph to talk about his career, his place in the company and the cars he loves and drives.