By Jeff Gilbert, WWJ AutoBeat Reporter
A legendary automotive career, which is now being capped off with an important "Lifetime Achievement Award," began with a letter to a legend – and an encouraging response.
"I've looked over your portfolio and believe you have the potential to have a career in automotive design."
It's quite a career, and 35 years after getting that response from Chrysler, to his letter to Lee Iacocca, Stellantis Chief Design Officer Ralph Gilles is being honored with the 2023 Eyes on Design Lifetime Design Achievement Award.
"It seems a little premature," he told WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert. "I still feel I have a chunk of my career ahead of me. Is there something I don't know?"
Gilles, 52, feels he has a lot of career ahead of him, as he heads a team working to re-invent a portfolio that will be greatly changed, due to electrification.
"I'm in nirvana right now. I'm having a blast."
Gilles was nominated by one of his predecessors, Tom Gale, who has also received the award. Other recipients read like a “who's who” of major designers, including Ed Welburn, Giorgetto Guiglaro, and Chris Bangle.
"I look back at the list of previous winners," Gilles said. "They are my heroes. Every one."
Gilles became an instant automotive icon when he shepherded the design of the Chrysler 300, and – for a time – made big cars cool again. He's had his hand in a number of products, from Dodge Vipers to Ram pickups.
“Ralph is a respected leader within the automotive design community and his creativity and passion is reflected in his work. His understanding of the market, trends and car culture strategically positions him at the forefront of his profession,” said Philip C. Hessburg, MD, Medical Director, Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, Department of Ophthalmology, Henry Ford Health.
But Hessburg, founder of the Eyes on Design car show and awards, says Gilles is more than just a talented designer of vehicles.
“At Stellantis, Ralph champions diversity and inclusion while promoting a work environment that encourages mutual respect and integrity. We’re proud to honor him with this year’s award.”
It's rare for an auto executive to stay with one company his entire career. He joined Chrysler on July 6, 1992, and has kept going through DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler Group LLC, FiatChrysler and now Stellantis."
"When I hire new people, they are shocked," he said. “You've been here how long?"
For young people who want a career in auto design, lesson No. 1 is to take their love of drawing vehicles, and make it a well-rounded love of the auto industry.
"It's more than just art," Gilles said. "It's packaging. It's science.It's aerodynamics. Even marketing, there's a marketing component."
It's also a career that can take you around the world. Gilles has traveled to a number of countries and is constantly in contact with his Stellantis counterpart in Europe.
A 1992 graduate of the Center for Creative Studies, Gilles took his own advice, and went back to school at Michigan State University, where he got his MBA in 2002.
His proudest accomplishment? That's easy – keeping the company going through the tough times when it nearly went under in 2008 and ‘09.
"If you look at what design does in a company, it's the Grand Central Station of everything. Marketing, Engineering, it all comes through there. So, we have to be believers in the company. The next 'best thing' is coming from our office,” he said.
More big things are coming, and many of them are electric. That gives Gilles a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the way products and people interact.
"That's my favorite part of design, the unsung part of design," he said. "It's pushing and pulling the wheels around, the h-points, the overhangs. All those things that will allow us to make beautiful cars off these platforms for years to come."
The awards will be presented at a dinner on Friday, June 16, 2023 to kick off a weekend of events related to the annual Eyes on Design car show.
Gilles says the whole experience can be summed up in one word.
"Humbled. Honestly, humbled, honored, overwhelmed."