Modern car design is a difficult balancing act that weighs style against substance and price against performance. Safety, fuel efficiency and other government regulations also must be considered, resulting in vehicles that too often fail to inspire.
Ralph Gilles has tasked himself with bringing the sexy back to Chrysler. Responsible for two of the company's most eye-catching modern vehicles — the brutishly elegant 300 sedan and slinky Viper supercar — the 44-year-old senior vice president of design for the Detroit automaker is turning his eye to more organic, alluring shapes.
In a recent interview, he chatted about the future of Chrysler design.
Q: In your opinion, what's the sexiest car ever made?
A: The convertible E-Type Jag.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the sexiest Chrysler ever made?
A: Very tough question. I think the modern SRT Viper is the epitome of sexy. That was our goal. However, I feel strange drawing from my era. I love the Chrysler Ghia Falcon Concept. I have a huge sweet spot in my heart for the beautiful '68, '69, '70 Dodge Charger.
Q: You use some of the real estate in your Twitter bio to say, "Love how cool cars bring great people together." Why is that important?
A: It's the idea that a vehicle makes you have something in common. You could have been a geek in school or a football star, but if you own a car, it belongs to a club. As a designer, it's horrifying to think of a car as an appliance. That's the No. 1 most sickening thought to me.
Q: You oversaw the redesign of the Chrysler 200 sedan, which has a far more elegant profile than the outgoing model. What were your design goals?
A: It was the company's goal, not just mine, to create an absolutely legitimate vehicle in the segment. We've always been chasers. The 200 has feature content second to no one in terms of safety and creature comfort, so it was taking all that and wrapping it in an exterior that looked more expensive than it was.
The interior was inspired by the Eames chair, which is beautifully simple and still looks good to this day. We want the interior to be something that looks good for 10 to 15 years.
Finally, we designed it with America in mind. I know that sounds patriotic, but we know we represent this country's competencies, so if we're going to campaign that we're from Detroit, we want to make sure it's good stuff.
Q: Is the exterior or interior design of a car more important?
A: That's tough. Pushed to the absolute, the interior, believe it or not. The exterior can't be bad. It has to be competent and handsome, but the interior is where you spend all your time. The exterior is the conversation starter. The interior is the deal closer.
Q: Now that Chrysler is fully owned by Fiat, how is Italy influencing the Chrysler lineup in the U.S.?
A: Just because we consummated the relationship recently, people forget we've been dating 4.5 years. We've been together a long time and have come to know each other very well. We're very like-minded and having a blast.
Q: Talk about the Jeep Renegade introduced last month in Geneva.
A: It's very exciting. The Jeep Renegade is a love child of the two companies — engineered in Italy but built in the U.S. In terms of design, it was meant to really create a new DNA strain of the smallest Jeep we've ever worked on.
It was a challenge, because we have these expansively huge interiors, usually. We had to have a great conversation with our friends in Italy about how to package a small car. It was meant to have an immediate nostalgic effect but also be extremely modern.
Q: That always seems difficult — progressing an iconic design so it resonates with multiple generations.
A: Men and women have been attracted to each other for hundreds of thousands of years. There are paradigms in the human mind that make certain things happen. I'm a big believer in organic design. Look at Viper, 200 — they're shapes that look like they grew the way they are. They aren't necessarily mechanical. You contemplate a mechanical object; you don't lust after it. A car is a limiting box. Trying to give a vehicle personality, it's in the details. It's an unexpected flick, a negative section on the door handle of 200. It's a very difficult time to be a designer with federal regulations, safety requirements and mass production challenges, but at every turn, there's new technology. We love the challenge.