Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The man behind the Viper

Designer Ralph Gilles explains his passion

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MONTREAL -- Quebec, and especially Montreal, have long had a passion for automobiles and racing, the pinnacle of which is the yearly running of Formula One's Canadian Grand Prix.

It's thanks to that race and the events surrounding it across the city that got Ralph Gilles, the president and CEO of the Chrysler's SRT Brand and SRT Motorsports, hooked on cars.

"I was around five or six years' old and I started to notice Formula One. It was a big deal every time the race would come into town each summer," said Gilles, who was born in New York City and moved to the Montreal area with his family when he was 10 months' old.

When his father came home from work one day with a scale-model of an F1 car, "it just captivated me. I just p layed with it and played with it, and started paying attention to cars more."

It wasn't long before Gilles began sketching cars in his free time. In his youth, summers were spent in New York with family, but the neighbourhood he was in didn't have many young kids to play with. Instead, he spent his time sketching, a talent that was noticed by one of his aunts. When he was 14, she took the bold step of writing a letter to Lee Iacocca, the longtime CEO of Chrysler at the time, describing Gilles's talents.

"In her mind, I was a prodigy of some kind," he recalled with a chuckle.

The aunt received a reply from the automaker, but it wasn't much more than an acknowledgment of the letter and a list of design schools that might be of interest for Gilles.

The letter went into storage for a few years until Gilles dropped out of Montreal's Vanier College after just one semester at 17, taking a job at a hardware store instead.

"I forgot about that letter, to be honest with you. I went about my life. I thought it was a pipe-dream to go all the way to Detroit. It seemed like it was on the other side of the world for a young Montrealer," said the 43-year-old father of two.

After a few months at the hardware store, Gilles' brother came home and spurred him into finding the letter. That's when he applied to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

After graduating in 1992, Gilles joined Chrysler as a designer and quickly moved up the ranks -- faster than would normally have been the case, he said.

"I started being one of those guys that spoke my mind a little bit more and got involved in things," Gilles said of his experience at the company after the first five years. "They started to recognize that, and I got promoted a little quicker than normal.

"I was 30 years' old when I became a director. That scared the crap out of me."

It was at that time that Gilles got involved in the iconic Viper, which debuted at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and in many ways set the groundwork for Chrysler's Street Racing and Technology division that Gilles now runs.

"The studio I was working in happened to be the same one that was involved in the next-gen Viper, so I got involved in that," he said, taking over the project after his superior retired.

Over the years, Gilles has held various positions within Chrysler and has worked on numerous show cars and production vehicles, including the popular 300.

In 2011, he was named president and chief executive officer of SRT Brand and Motorsports, a group within Chrysler that was only formed in the summer of that year.

While Gilles is undoubtedly busy running a team of at least 60 that is constantly working on developing the latest and greatest cars, he still finds time to connect with car enthusiasts on Twitter.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A1

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