How a car-crazy Canadian kid became Fiat Chrysler’s head of design

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Ralph Gilles is global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and oversees more than a dozen brands ranging from Jeep and Ram to Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Ralph Gilles was just another bored teenager, sketching hot rods to pass the time during a visit to his aunt’s home in suburban New York in the summer of 1987.

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He’d clearly shown an aptitude for drawing, and a particular talent for drawing cars, while growing up in Montreal as the son of Haitian immigrants. It could have been nothing more than a hobby, but Gilles’ aunt on a whim suggested that he send his sketches to Lee Iacocca, the high-profile chief executive of Chrysler Corp.

Today, Gilles, 46, is global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA), the US$10-billion company that emerged after Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne rode to the embattled U.S. automaker’s rescue in 2009. In this role, Gilles oversees more than a dozen brands ranging from Jeep and Ram to Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Making cars has dramatically changed in the 30 years since Gilles sat sketching in his aunt’s house. Quality is no longer a concern for the vast majority of nameplates since most cars are well made, so design is increasingly what differentiates them. And as cars become increasingly connected and automated, design — both inside and out — is essential to making them as user-friendly and safe as possible.

In 1987, though, Gilles was just a kid who loved cars with an aunt who saw his potential. Much to his surprise, Gilles got a response to his letter, not from Iacocca, but from Neil Walling, who was the No. 2 in Chrysler’s design office at the time.

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