TheGrio's 100: Ralph Gilles, a creative drive for cars

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The name Ralph Gilles may not be as recognizable as famed carmaker’s Henry Ford or Lee Iacocca. But mention of the Chrysler 300, Motor Trend magazine’s 2005 Car of the Year, elicits images of a beaming Gilles who led design team towards the stylish four-door sedan that combined boldness and refinement.

When Chrysler rolled out the head-turning 300, Gilles, who joined the company in 1992, was director of the automaker’s design office. Today, at age 40, he serves as Dodge Car Brand’s president and chief executive officer, and senior vice president of design at Chrysler.

Gilles’ fascination with cars goes back to his childhood, when he and his brother made a game of trying to guess the names of various cars by listening to their engines. The youngster, who was born in New York, also had a flair for drawing. By the time he reached his teens, Gilles was smitten with the idea of becoming a car designer. He wrote a letter to Chrysler’s then-chief Lee Iacocca for advice. Iacocca didn’t respond directly, but the head of design did write encouraging words to Gilles, according to published reports.

Gilles honed his artistic and design skills at The College for Creative Studies in
Detroit, from which he graduated in 1992. Ten years later, he earned an MBA degree from Michigan State University.

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Besides the popular 2005 Chrysler 300, Gilles’ imprint also can be found on the Dodge’s 2005 Magnum, a hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine, the 500-horsepower 2003 and 2005 Dodge Viper, and the 2002 Jeep Liberty.

Active in and outside Chrysler, Gilles is the executive sponsor of the Chrysler African-American Network and has a lead role with The Chrysler Global Diversity Council, according to the company’s Web site.

An avid car enthusiast who enjoys spending time at the track, go-karting and watching Formula 1 auto racing, Gilles has participated in the Targa Newfoundland Rally and the Car and Driver One Lap of America.

Gilles is an example of someone who is not only creative, but able to execute his ideas, notes Dennis Kimbro, Ph.D., who co-authored Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice. “We all have an epiphany, an ‘a-ha’ moment,” he says. “Anybody can see down the street and recognize something unique, but you’ve also got to be able to see around the corner.”