CHELSEA, Mich. — His name is Ryan Nagode.
He's the 38-year-old chief interior designer for Ram trucks who directs the team that created the sumptuous cabins in the latest-generation Ram pickup.
That vehicle is upending the traditional sales pecking order of Detroit 3 pickups, partially on the appeal of the wood, leather and western motif design cues on the dash on the upper-end models.
Ram in the first quarter moved into second place in U.S. full-size pickup sales — ahead of the Chevrolet Silverado.
While Ram wasn't first with a true luxury pickup interior — that honor belongs to King Ranch editions of the Ford F-series pickup — Nagode's team has raised the stakes for all competitors in the segment. And even Ford officials can see Ram creeping closer in their rearview mirror.
Nagode talked about pickup interiors and where they might evolve during a conversation with Staff Reporter Richard Truett at Fiat Chrysler's preview of 2020 models here. Edited excerpts:
Q: Explain the creative process that produced the interior of the Laramie Longhorn. The filigree designs on the dash, for instance, look similar to those on a custom-made horse saddle.
A: It's very unique in that sense, very tailored. The range of the trucks is so extreme. You go from the entry-level Tradesman to the Laramie Limited. You can't have that same truck and just tweak it in little ways, add leather, sort of the traditional things. It's tough because you really want someone to feel as if their truck has been designed for them specifically. The guy that's on the job site wants a truck that can do the job, get dirty and hose it out, for instance. You look at that higher-end level and what things everyone has in their house or are trailering behind them. You start making these inferences. And for Longhorn it's that Southwestern flair and feel. We just really wanted to make each of the trim levels feel almost like they were a brand within themselves and very unique. In many cases it's little touches and little things that takes years of planning and listening to the customer base.
We know Japanese automakers — especially when they are entering new segments — fanatically study how customers use their vehicles. Did Ram's team do that, too?
We've been building upon this. We launched the first Longhorn model in 2011, and in 2012 we launched our Limited version. We've been slowly sharpening that knife behind the scenes. We've been listening, picking up on things by going to owner research events for completely other reasons. But also seeing what owners' trucks look like, how people are using them. We also work off the campaigns the brand and advertising teams have done.
Is 3D printing seen as a way to create even more customized interiors?
We use 3D a ton in the design process. We haven't cracked the code yet on — I wouldn't say mass-market because it is not — you're talking about low volume. There will come a point where it makes lots of sense. I know what we were trying to do as we replicated some of these craftsmen-type design themes. It was a lot of hand-done work. I remember sitting with some of the guys in the studio. We have a lot of artists within our studio who handle the clay modeling, and those guys and gals bring a lot to the table. ... They geek out on some of this stuff. They were saying, "Let's craft it this way," and "Hey, we can do this." It's nice to see the final product have this kind of feel.
How will Ram interiors get even more exclusive and upscale?
This niche market of luxury vehicles, of having something tailored for you — we've seen where when you get higher and higher in trim levels — people want something new and different and that makes their vehicle stand out from the guy next door. We've seen this in the Challenger and Charger, and Viper, when we did our customized model, the ability to put the customer's name in it and that it was built by craftsmen in Detroit. It was a cool feature.
You have raised truck interiors to a new height.
Obviously, I am the little point on the end of a lot of talented people at FCA. It's great to see us all come together and have these thoughts and ideas and then have them be produced. It's nice to be recognized. We realize it's sort of just the beginning. Other manufacturers are going to try and jump on, and we are going to keep our heads down, keep doing what we do and push forward.