A few weeks back I got the opportunity to meet Ralph Gilles at a Southern Automotive Media Association lunch in Miami. I recapped my meeting with him here, but Gilles also sat down with the SAMA officers before the meeting kicked off. With their permission, I’m reprinting some of the questions and responses, because they’re relevant not only to Dodge but to the automotive industry as a whole. If Gilles is correct (and I believe he is), expect to see some impressive product coming down the pipeline.
First, here’s a little background on Gilles. His full title is President and CEO, Dodge Brand, and Senior Vice President, Product Design, Chrysler Group, LLC. Gilles is a die-hard car guy with a passion for racing and motorsports, and has competed in such events as the Targa Newfoundland Rally and One Lap of America. He’s been a judge at such events as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Meadow Brook, Cranbrook and EyesOn Design, and is responsible for the design of such cars as the 2005 Chrysler 300. In other words, he’s one of us and he’s in charge of a car company, and that’s a very, very good thing.
SAMA: What are you most excited about when you look at the next three to five years?
Gilles: The Americans (car companies) in general. The American car companies are building some really good product right now as we speak. I think there is always a perception lag. We’re doing clever things. You saw the 200 commercial which was sort of starting the discussion. The data will soon back everything we’re saying up. In a few years, we’ll look back and say, “Wow, their quality really was (up)” because we know internally we are seeing huge strides in quality. Our bays at the average dealer are doing maintenance work, not warranty work. Very, very steep drop in warranty claims.
Long term, I think everyone’s portfolio is going to be filled out. I’ve already seen it happen. The Koreans are having full portfolios. We’ll have the bottom of our segment, the entry level cars, filled out, which we don’t have it today. We’re just starting to get there. We have some great things in store that are coming that will round out our portfolio. It’s everybody. It’s going to be an interesting knife fight out there because everybody’s cars are almost going to be head on. Everybody’s going to have a small car. Everybody’s going to have a medium car. Everybody’s going to have luxury brand. It’s going to be interesting. The ones that will win will be the brands that actually mean something to people.
SAMA: What are your targets? From your ads on the Super Bowl, which are still running, it’s almost like you are focusing more on a younger, more performance-oriented audience. Some of the styling in your new cars seem to bear that out.
Gilles: We need to. The new, younger buyer is somewhat unpolluted yet. They’re still out there, and their mind has yet to be formed. We do okay with our loyalty in terms of current buyers. We’re kind of growing with them. So it’s time to kind of fish in fresh waters, so to speak.
SAMA: How difficult is it? You’ve got an obvious love of performance cars and racing and such. For you to come in and in your position, on one hard you’re a stylist and you know what you want. The other hand over here you’ve got the penny pinchers, the counters. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Is that one of the big challenges?
Gilles: The way we are set up now is if it makes sense, it makes sense. Everything is heard. There’s not an idea that doesn’t get its time at the committee, so to speak. Our internal committee. We debate everything, and we look at a long wheelbase. Everything we look at is a two-, three-year strategy, not a near-term strategy. If it makes sense for the brand, nine times out of ten it gets a nod. It’s really about how it fits with the brand.
The penny pinchers are not — they really trust us. We have to do our homework. When we present something, it’s a pretty succinct business case. We don’t just go on the opinion of one or the executive’s opinion. In the old days it would be a flamboyant executive who would say, “Make it so,” and that would be it. Nowadays it’s really the whole machine, as my boss calls it, has to be in sync. That’s what we strive to do.
SAMA: Is that a younger generation making decisions?
Gilles: It’s all of us. The management team. The twenty-five of us, we sit together very often. Almost like we have Thanksgiving dinner twice a month. We debate the future of the company all levels.
SAMA: How are you progressing on the development of an electric vehicle?
Gilles: Electric vehicles make sense if what we call vehicle demand has to be right. If you put the right power train in the wrong car, it doesn’t make sense. So we’re the Fiat 500 is going to be our electric. All the work we did over the last three years has not gone to waste. We did a lot — you remember the MV program — we had a lot of programs going together. The thing about electric power trains is they are very scaleable, very easy to kind of move around. We’re going to use the Fiat 500 as a perfect donor. It’s a very low energy demand type of vehicle, very efficient. That will be out in less than two years time. So that’s well under way.
But let’s face it. That type of vehicle does not make money yet. It’s experimental. It’s in the early stages. We’re learning. We have the staff in place. We’re gaining knowledge about. But to say we’re going to do a mass-market electric car in the coming years is not the case. And no automaker is saying that.
SAMA: By the way, how is that partnership with Fiat progressing?
Gilles: It’s phenomenal. It’s well under way. We’re almost two years into it now, and it’s great. The transparency is incredible. The back-and-forth between engineers, we’re already doing co-mingle projects. The Fiat 500 as we speak is being built in Mexico, engineered by Americans for this project. The engine is being built in Dundee, Michigan. So it’s happening real time.
SAMA: Are we going to see a Fiat 500 with a Hemi in it running the Targa Newfoundland?
Gilles (laughing): If I could shoehorn that thing in there, I’ll find a way!
SAMA: Speaking of racing, Kurt Busch and Dodge have gotten off to a pretty good start in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Where does racing fit in with Dodge?
Gilles: It fits in well. You look at the kind of vehicles we make. We make rear-drive, V8-power vehicles, and that’s what we race. We’re one of the few automakers that actually build what we race. A lot of guys have front-wheel-drive bodies or ideas on a NASCAR. There’s not quite the linear relationship there. But (racing) fits in well. We’re right-size.
I want to diversify in our racing. You see we’re sponsoring AMA Motocross now. We’re doing a lot of different things. I’ve got my eye on a lot of youth motorsports. action sports. So I’m looking at that. But NASCAR, we’re happy with the setup we have now. We just expanded it a little bit. We’re sponsoring Robby Gordon as well. So he’s in — not full schedule, but we’ll see how that works.
SAMA: Does the old “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” theory still apply in racing?
Gilles: I get asked that quite a bit. It’s hard to say, but it’s hard to ignore the reach that NASCAR has. Eight-and-a-half million people watch every weekend. So you’ve got to be there. If you’re not there, you’re almost suspiciously absent, especially for a brand like ours, which is all about performance. One of our pillars is performance. So I think so. In the Challenger we saw a huge interest when we raced the Challenger in Nationwide. We raced it twice last year and are going to race it full season. We had our best sales year ever, so that tells me something.
SAMA: So it’s “win on Saturday” as well.
Gilles: There you go.
SAMA: In addition to electric, what other technologies are under consideration.
Gilles: We’re looking at everything. We’re looking at natural gas. I know the Ram guys are looking at it quite heavily. Fiat has got a pretty good knowledge on natural gas use in Europe. They’re using that, developing that technology. But we’re still developing the gas engine. We’re looking at multi-speed transmissions.
There’s still a lot left in traditional propulsion and aerodynamics. One area all the new cars we’re going to talk about (at the luncheon) make huge gains in aerodynamics — aerodynamics, transmissions, multi-schedule transmissions where you can actually select an eco mode. Minivan has that. It really changes the personality of a minivan and forces you to drive in a more economic way. So there’s a lot we can do yet.
SAMA: Fuel cells, too?
Gilles: Everything. If you look at it, most companies are really multi-pronged right now. No one is really committed to any one technology yet. Electric is quite expensive. The battery technology is quite expensive. Natural gas is very intriguing to me because there is such an abundance of it and it burns very clean. So that’s something that all of us have to pay attention to.
SAMA: Does diesel still fit in?
Gilles: We know a lot about diesels. We do a lot of diesels in Europe. We know it very well, and our trucks, we’re dominating there. We do it very well. The diesel technology is still very expensive because of the after-treatment. It’s something we’re looking at closely, but I can’t comment beyond that. I like diesel personally. I think it makes a lot of sense. I just wish it was more cost-effective.
SAMA: With your background in design, and Fiat has such flamboyant designs, do you work closely with them on future projects? Can you take anything from them? It’s always seemed that European design never quite makes it over here and conversely, they don’t really accept American designs all that well.
Gilles: That’s about to change, especially in the Jeep brand. With my design hat on, I’m designing the next generation of Jeeps and I’ve got to keep the world in mind, not just Europe. The Jeep brand has been very vocal in that “Hey, this is the next big step.” It’s interesting to me. I speak every other week with (Lorenzo) Ramaciotti, the guy who leads the design center in Turin. We get along famously. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s been in the industry forever. He’s one of greats. We talk a lot. I can’t tell you a lot beyond that, but it would be foolish not to share.
SAMA: What kind of things do you look for when you are designing cars? How did you get into it?
Gilles: I look to build an icon. Every designer’s dream is to build something that stands the test of time where you don’t have to look at the grille to know who makes it. That’s part of the thing. The other thing is to be true to yourself, be true to your brand. If your brand kind of has something going, let’s develop it. So that’s one thing I look for. Then finally it’s designs that force you to look at them, even if you’re not a car person, if you’re not a big fan of cars. You walk by a car on the street and you see a car and you turn around.
SAMA: What inspires you in your design? Do you look at something and say, “What an interesting building?”
Gilles: Always. Always. Like the little wooden house up there. I’ve been looking at that. Everything inspires me. Culture inspires me, too. The thing about America people don’t understand, especially people in the outside world, they don’t realize how diverse America has become. It’s unbelievable the amount of culture here.
Even traveling — I travel so much now — it changes from state to state. What people are into, what their beliefs are, what they like, it’s unbelievable. My agency is in Portland so I spend a lot of time in Portland. It’s a different world in Portland. Different types of cars they drive. Here in Miami, it’s very flamboyant compared to most. You see super cars here. You see a lot of exotic cars you don’t see anywhere else.
America is a puzzle. It is really difficult to design for this country. So we’re actually looking as we go forward almost like anthropologists. We’re looking at the country as business centers. Think about America as eight different countries. That’s how we see it. California is a whole other thing. It has a population bigger than Canada so it’s almost like its own colony. And they have a different mindset, too. Going forward, we’re a small company with a lot of brands, a lot of nameplates. If you actually look where the nameplates perform, they tend to index where it matters. So that’s something we’re going to push much more.
SAMA: So in your design you’re thinking about those different segments and those different pockets of population? In larger areas of sales you design kind of with that in mind.
Gilles: In Texas, for example, they love trucks. They love SUVs. You go to New England, they couldn’t care less. They love crossovers more. You go to Portland, they love small cars. It’s mind-boggling. Not to mention designing for Europe and designing for Canada and all that stuff.
I try not to look at my competitors. I know that sounds kind of intuitive. I look at them for basics, but I don’t really worry about it because everything that they’re doing was done four years ago, in a design way. So I just need to worry about trying to intercept where the culture is going. I’m always thinking about what’s going to be on people’s minds two or three years from now and how can we be there when they are there. Chrysler has been famous for that.
In the good old days, so to speak, we used to invent segments. We invented the three-row crossover. We invented the PT Cruiser. Even the 300 was a bit of an — how do you bring a car with that much style to the common man? So that was kind of an invention in a way. So there’s a lot of things like that. Because we’re so small and had to be so scrappy, we had to always come with something different. So that’s what we’re thinking again. We’re kind of getting back into that mode.
The last three years have been tough. Sometimes it’s been about swimming. But I can assure you right now we are really going back into our groove again and making something truly new.
SAMA: Is it fair to say, then after the fifties and sixties we kind of hit a bland period in auto design and now for the last decade we have been coming out of that?
Gilles: Yes. You see what’s going on, not to criticize the Asians, but for a while there the Koreans didn’t know what Americans wanted. They just kind of designed what everyone else was designing. What they have done in the last couple of years, I would say in the last decade, they have really listened to their American studios. They’re had studios in California for years but I now from experience — a lot of their designers we would hire them — after they spent two or three years there they would be frustrated because their designs were never used. They would design stuff and then take it back to Japan and there they’d redo it and then plop it on the market.
If you look at where Hyundai was three or four years ago, their designs had nothing to do with anything. Their designs were just all over the place. Now their cars are quite nice. The new Kia Optimia I have to admit is nicely done because they are using American designers. They’re using people who understand the culture. That’s interesting to me. It’s also very, like, whoa! Everybody is getting their groove on, and that’s a big part of it — being in the culture you’re designing for.
SAMA: When you were a young student or design school or child or anything, was there one car that was like a catalyst for you?
Gilles: There were so many. Living in Montreal, Formula 1 is so big there — I lived there 18 years — so in the summer all these people would come from all over America to come see the race. There would be these exotic cars. I remember the first time I saw a 911 Turbo, a black 911 whale-tail Turbo with a wide body I was like — it was gorgeous.
The first time I saw a Lamborghini. A Lamborghini Miure is one of my favorite cars of all-time. Even the first time I saw a Porsche 928. It was way ahead of its time. That car was twenty years ahead of its time. That car was a fantastic design in terms of fascia, bumperless, aerodynamics. So that was in my head.
The simplest cars, really the Volkswagen Rabbit. That and the Scirocco. That era from VW was so pure, so simple, but it didn’t look cheap. For a small car, it had a smartness about it that I really appreciated.
If you go back beyond that, when I go to car shows, I love the fifties American cars with the wings and all that. They’re so outrageous it’s hard not to put a smile on your face.
SAMA: When you were 14 or 15, what did you want to be? Did you always want to be a designer?
Gilles: I joke about this because I grew up in the ugly eighties, right? So think about the era. I’m 40 years so, so in 1980 I was ten years old when I really first started to pay attention to stuff. There were some really ugly cars on the road. OPEC was going down, the Americans were confused, everyone was confused. The car were ugly as sin. ….
So it was dark period in there in general. Only a few European cars were notable in my opinion. And that’s when I said I’ve got to be a car designer. I mean, how could this be? I had posters of Porsches and old American cars in my room and I was like, “What has happened?” From that point, I said I’m going to be a car designer.