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From dropout to Chrysler design whiz

By Sarah A. Webster / The Detroit News

Celebrate Ford's 100th

AUBURN HILLS -- Fifteen years ago, Ralph Gilles was a college dropout in Montreal, living in his parents' basement, watching cartoons, eating cereal and giving his father heartburn as he struggled to find a path in life.

Today, Gilles sometimes takes his cereal bowl to his garage in Lake Orion, stares at his 1997 Dodge Viper and takes stock. It was his love of the Viper that convinced him to reject offers from other automakers for a design job at Chrysler, where he has risen from sketching interiors to overseeing the birth of the Chrysler brand's new flagship vehicle: the 300C.

Last week, the 33-year-old Gilles introduced the premium sedan -- with its long hood, low roof and high belt line -- by driving it onto a brightly lit stage at the New York Auto Show.

The change in course still is difficult for Gilles to believe.

"I'm one of the few people who can say I pinch myself every day because this is exactly what I wanted," Gilles said in a recent interview at the Auburn Hills headquarters of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group. "The first 10 years have been pretty, pretty cool."

It's been a strange trip from that basement in Montreal.

Gilles' Haitian immigrant parents encouraged him to find a traditional career in law, medicine or engineering. Gilles, who was born in New York City and moved to Montreal as a child, had other ideas.

His father bought him miniature Formula One race cars when Gilles was a child, and he always was taking his father's cars apart -- whether he was allowed to or not. So enrolling in engineering at Vanier College in Montreal seemed a natural move.

He quit before his first semester was through.

"I hated it," he said.

It didn't help that his brother, Max, was on the path to medical school and making the family proud. Gilles stewed in the basement until Max came home on spring break from college and reminded him about an old letter.

When Gilles was 14, an aunt noticed he was talented at sketching cars and wrote to former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca to tell him so. A reply came from K. Neil Walling, Chrysler's design chief at the time, suggesting Gilles attend one of three design schools.

"I filed it away and never thought much about it," Gilles said.

One of the schools was the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and Max called the school. Gilles needed 10 examples of his work to apply, and the deadline was in a week.

"Well," Max said, "let's start doing them."

The acceptance letter came quickly.

While his father wasn't sold on the idea, Gilles said, "I knew right away this was it."

While most students do exterior models for their final thesis, Gilles did a full-sized interior sculpture.

That led to several job offers. He ended up at Chrysler, doing interior work on concept and production cars, including the 2002 Jeep Liberty and 2003 Viper SRT-10.

Soon, Gilles was earning enough money to buy his mother a PT Cruiser and indulge his hobby: buying, customizing and racing vehicles.

Along with his Viper, Gilles owns a 1969 Alfa GTV; a souped-up Dodge Caravan that he races; and a Chrysler Town & Country minivan that his wife, Doris, uses to drive around their two children, Tia, 4, and Sidney, 3.

Longtime Gilles friend and Chrysler designer Scott Griesmann said when it comes to cars, Gilles "may be one of the most immersed people I know. He really get his hands dirty in all aspects of it."

Along the way, Gilles has achieved a minor level of celebrity.

In 1998, after Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. joined to create DaimlerChrysler AG, he was one of several employees selected for a series of advertisements promoting the union. Gilles' light green eyes, framed by a black turtleneck and his dark skin, leaped off the page in print ads.

People magazine took notice, naming Gilles one of the sexiest men in Detroit in 1999. Gilles made sure his wedding band was featured prominently in the photo spread for the article.

A year later, at age 30, he was promoted to one of Chrysler's few design director posts.

"He's done a string of hits for us," said Dave McKinnon, vice president of Chrysler design and Gilles' boss. He credits Gilles for mastering the complicated world of auto interiors when so many designers like to focus on exteriors.

"He's very good inside and outside the vehicle," McKinnon said. "He's gifted on both ends."

Last May, Gilles earned his master's degree in business from Michigan State University -- fulfilling a promise to his now-deceased father, who came to admire Gilles' achievements but worried he should get an advanced degree for job security.

Gilles manages about 30 designers and major projects, such as the Dodge M80 small pickup that was unveiled at the 2002 North American International Auto Show and the Chrysler 300C -- his favorite project to date.

"When I first saw it all dolled up -- usually I saw it in clay -- my heart literally started to thump," Gilles said.

He's disappointed that management doesn't leave him with much time to sketch anymore, but he finds joy in influencing what eventually becomes a concept or production car, and he's looking forward to teaching a senior design class in the fall at the Center for Creative Studies.

"I really, really care about these cars to the point of obsession," he said. "I have so much fun."

You can reach Sarah A. Webster at (313) 222-1463 or [email protected]

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We should all be so lucky. 8) That's one of those jobs where you can't really be educated in it, 90 percent of it is pure talent.

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