Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ design chief said he looks to create “beauty for the masses” with his vehicle designs, a philosophy borne out of his childhood in Montreal.
“In Canada, a lot of people don’t tend to buy the top-of-the-line product,” Ralph Gilles told Automotive News Canada.
“My dad was one of those people. We always had the lowest-end version of the vehicle. I’d see the one in the catalogue, and then I’d see the one in the driveway, and there was a huge difference.
“Every level of car should be beautiful. Why should only the top-of-theline one be handsome?”
Gilles, head of design for FCA since 2015, has had a hand in many of the automaker’s most striking and important designs this century, dating back to the highly acclaimed 2005 Chrysler 300 sedan that raised his profile. Gilles recently revealed the Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept, a large, high-end utility vehicle replete with space and luxurious design touches.
Growing up in Montreal, Gilles said, he was “surrounded by a lot of taste,” whether in fashion or in architecture, leaving an indelible mark on him.
“The big building at the time that was impressive as a 6-year-old when I saw it was the Olympic Stadium. There were a lot of things that made me think about how you can take one thing just through design and make it have not only appeal to the person standing next to it but to people around the world.”
In a recent wide-ranging interview with Automotive News Canada, Gilles also discussed:
The Grand Wagoneer
“The inspiration was, yeah, it’s a fortress that protects you, but it doesn’t insulate you from the outside. The windows are a big part of the theme. We have very low beltlines, which is countertrend. A lot of new designs have lifted the beltlines and try to make these vehicles look sleeker and sleeker, but at the expense of making the interior claustrophobic. So, we went in the other direction. I’m very proud of that.”
His favorite designs
“I’m very proud of the Grand Cherokee. It’s been around a bit, and it’s still No. 1 in the segment. So I’m very proud of that and the fact that we launch our vehicles and keep adapting them. As we understand our customers, we adapt the vehicle. We’ve done a lot of evolving the Grand Cherokee. ...
“And then you have the Canadian-built Pacifica, which I’m very proud of. A lot of people ask what’s your favourite design project you’ve worked on, and I said the Pacifica. Why? Because it’s a Swiss Army knife. It’s got so many concepts in one vehicle, whether it’s the Stow ’n Go seating, the hybrid version we did, the panoramic sunroof, the multiple entertainment screens.
“It was such a great product design exercise. We started from the inside out. We had employees bring their kids to work and run around minivans and watch how they behave. We showed them early themes. It was wild to have actual moms and dads contribute to this design. We’ve never researched a vehicle more than that Pacifica because we own that segment and want to continue to own the segment. I really do like products that appeal to the masses.”
“When you get to a dedicated electric vehicle, you can really start shifting proportions around. The cooling requirements are very different. The aerodynamic needs are a little bit more intense as you look for range. And of course, the packaging is very different. The batteries tend to locate themselves very differently than other components in a gas car. All of that is very exciting for a designer ... You don’t have a big grille like a car does. You have a different way of communicating the car’s purpose and car’s brand.”
“We haven’t really skipped a beat [with remote working]. What I didn’t expect that’s happened organically is the morale devices [FCA designers] have. Sometimes they have morning coffee meetings with no topics at all, just to see each other’s faces and joke around. Same thing later in the day.
They call them happy-hour meetings at the end of the day to kind of debrief. “They’re trying to do the work, and the work has been outstanding. The sketch work has been the best I’ve ever seen because, in some ways, there’s no distractions, right? The designers can lock themselves in their room and just draw away without the visits that you tend to get.”
“We’re noticing that [young people] value certain features very differently. Whereas an older customer might have loved a leather interior with wood and a nice grade of materials, younger consumers seem to be all about connectivity. They like tech in the car. They expect almost free tech. They expect it to be part of the deal. They don’t care so much about the leather or the wood grain and all that stuff. The bells and whistles to them are the technology on board.”
How design vehicles with digital retail in mind
“The styling of the car may have to be that much more impactful. There are certain subtleties that you only see when you see a car physically. That’s going to be a little tricky, but we’re trying to make up for it in much more video content and things like that. But at the end of the day, good design is good design. If we can make the car beautiful and make your heart skip a beat, that should work regardless.”