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Ralph Gilles — SRT boss, Chrysler vice president of design, curator of something called the “Man Van,” has become the public face of Chrysler performance, carrying the legacy of Firepower engines and 428 Coronets and the Dodge Viper RT/10 into the future with the Challenger, Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8s.

Since “unofficially” helping form it in 2003, Gilles has seen SRT transformed into Chrysler’s most coherent performance strategy since Plymouth Rapid Transit, a company-wide force so much greater than the flagship Dodge Viper. He was there from the beginning. He’s in charge now.

“Obviously I had more roles the last five years,” he said, modestly, “but still designing. Better parking spot every once in a while, but the rest is the same.”

Gilles came to Chrysler by way of Montreal, where he survived freezing East Coast Canadian winters in — of all cars — an Austin Marina, which British Leyland never had the good sense to sell in America. “Horrible car,” Gilles reminisced with scorn. “I almost don’t talk about it. The only good thing about it was it would do burnouts backwards.” From an early age, he drew not cars but animals: dogs and cats, until his father brought home a model of the John Player Special Lotus Formula One car. All of a sudden, he said, he started paying attention to cars. He was 6 — and just starting to lay into the car designer cliché of spending his waking hours plastering his schoolwork with drawings of cars, from notebook to notebook, to the inevitable ire of teachers and parents.

Gilles can thank his aunt Giselle for jump-starting his car-design career. She sent a letter to Lee Iacocca (“because she knew he was in charge,” said Gilles) suggesting that her nephew might have a knack for this car design thing, because look at these sketches! Iacocca was busy. But would you know it, chief designer Tom Gale wrote back. Gale, who led Chrysler design from 1985 to 2000 — when Gilles would work with him on the LH Cab Forward cars — suggested a list of universities for Gilles, then 14 years old, to check out.

He took Gale’s advice to heart. He attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, graduating in 1992. He interned at coachbuilder Heuliez, despite having “no idea who they were,” he confessed, “I just wanted to go to France.” He upgraded his horrible Marina to a 1981 Scirocco, then a Corrado where he “got his ass spanked at autocross.” He grew his hair out, then shaved it off. He went to Chrysler because they were daring; they were the underdog in the face of Ford and the General. And by the time he was 30, Chrysler had promoted him to manager of its rear-drive program, lashed together with Daimler and Mercedes-Benz. He was “terrified.”


The press photo that launched Gilles to stardom. Photo by Chrysler

Gilles never intended to take credit for the Chrysler 300, it just sort of happened. Chrysler designers run in packs, he said, and he worked closely with Trevor Creed and Mark Hall to form one of the most memorable American cars in recent memory. But then, at the forefront of the press photos was Gilles in his “designer’s uniform,” a black blazer and no tie, posing confidently next to the badass Chrysler, and the media “latched on to me as the face of the 300C.”

Suddenly, his life changed.

“For about three years after it came out there was all this kind of stuff,” he said. The media gave him de facto credit for the 300. Black Enterprise put him on its “Hot List.” Time Magazine called him the “Bling King,” which he took with chagrin. DaimlerChrysler ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, featuring little more than his clean-shaven visage; that shocked the hell out of Aunt Giselle. He started speaking at schools about his own success. Snoop Dogg bought a 300 from him.

Strange times for Gilles, sure, but it cemented his legacy. “Except for a few here and there,” said Gilles, “no one’s ever questioned Chrysler’s design capabilities.”

Few people questioned Virgil Exner, for example, whom Gilles counts as one of his heroes. “Stuff from the ’50s was just beautiful,” he told us. “That whole generation when cars started to respect aerodynamics and they got rid of the fenders, you know, just real sleek. Europeans were just ahead of the curve. Then Virgil, of course, with the Forward Look and this almost ostentatious but beautiful look, kind of balancing the two.

“And then recently, of course, my predecessor’s predecessor, Tom Gale. He put Chrysler on the map in terms of design. He was running design during the great period in the late ’80s, early ’90s when Chrysler was doing these knockout show cars. The 1980s was another one of those transitional periods, when we were going away from those ugly, boxy cars into organic cars — I still today have a big appreciation for cars that look like they grew the way they are.”

“Is a Viper convertible on your radar?” we ask, sheepishly.

“I can’t talk about that.”

“I’ll mark that as a yes.”

“A lot of our owners are asking about that.” Gilles meets owners all the time, goes to SpringFest, drinks tequila with the enthusiasts, talks a little too much. The enthusiasts ask about a revival of the Hemi ‘Cuda: “They want us to resurrect a dead brand!”

But that might even be a possibility — Chrysler, of all the American companies, is most willing to experiment. “That’s the cool thing about Chrysler: we’re not afraid to do low-volume vehicles, scratch that itch and give enthusiasts what they’ve been asking for.” Look at the 1970s-tastic Lil’ Red Express with its bitchin’ high pipes, recently exhibited at SEMA, a personal favorite around the Autoweek offices. Performance is the new premium, we suggested, and Gilles seemed to agree, though more out of necessity than anything else.

“Because of CAFE laws, we have to regulate volume, and they become a little more rare. We can’t make as many to recoup the investment, so we have no choice but to charge more. If you wanna drive fast, you’re gonna have to pay the driving-fast tax.

“But what you’re getting nowadays is unbelievable! You’re getting cars with what I would call duality — cars that do more than just go fast. I would say that 10, 15 years ago, fast cars were just that: just plain fast cars. Now they’re total immersive experiences.”


The ultimate SRT, until the next-fastest Viper comes along. Photo by Chrysler

His white Viper at home, a 2014, is named “Storm,” after — yes — the “X-Men” character. He bought the first ACR made, the potent trackday terror from the last generation. He went to Le Mans with the Viper ALMS team, hung out with Tommy Kendall, had his mind blown by the extravaganza that is the 24 Heures. Jon Bon Jovi bought a red Viper from him and invited him to a concert.

There’s lots of loyalty at Chrysler, Gilles included — French fling notwithstanding, he’s never worked for anyone else. “Thing with being an engineer,” said Gilles, “they love fixing stuff. And at Chrysler, there’s a lot to fix.” And now with Fiat, it seems to work out, slowly but steadily: fortunately for Gilles, Sergio Marchionne loves brands.

No testimony to Gilles’ career is stronger than this: when the second-generation Viper was launched in 2003, it was the first usage of the SRT brand on a Chrysler product. The Viper SRT. Now, it’s on its own: the SRT Viper. And it’s Gilles’ brand — with him as SRT CEO, this time there is no ambiguity. The Viper is his life and he is its public face, in charge of Chrysler’s fastest, most potent, and sexiest car.

We spoke with Gilles at Inside The MotoMan Studio, now at the Petersen Museum, where George the eponymous MotoMan asks designers, executives, and automotive personalities about their upbringing and successes before trotting forth ancient pictures of embarrassing cars and even more embarrassing haircuts.(Last time, we talked to Derek Jenkins.) The next announced guest will be the one and only Bob Lutz, on Oct. 26. Stay tuned as we interview an American treasure.