Posts Tagged ‘Chrysler’


Over Hill, Over Dale In the Baby Jeep

May 23, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

It was supposed to be spring and, according to legend, a time when the apple trees were full of fluttering white petals waving over a horde of white and pink azaleas flanked by marauding multi-colored bands of wildflowers.

By all accounts, it was supposed to be a great time to drive through a sun-draped Hudson RiverValleyalong winding roads through the Catskills. It should have been a perfect time to put Hiroshima’s One World in the stereo hard drive, crank up the bass in the boom box built into the rear of the compact SUV and rock and roll all over the Hudson River Valley.

But the climate never got that memo.

So the spring road run came as the temperature dropped into the upper 30s, the wind bolted into the 40 mile per hour zone and the rain – which hadn’t been seen in these parts since January – came down with pent up fury, causing somnolent streams to roll over their banks and cover the roadways and turn packed gravel and dirt roads into gravel and mudways.

In other words, it was a great time to be in a Jeep.

The 18-inch, wide track wheels rolled over water, dirt, mud and rocks with equal aplomb as the Jeep’s independent suspension and gas-charged shock absorbers smoothed out any changes in the road surface. And the Compass’ four-wheel drive and traction control meant that there was never a hint of loss of control, regardless of what the weather did.

The compass is an interesting addition to the Jeep family of on and off-road vehicles. It is much smaller than the boxy, rugged-looking, go-anywhere Jeep Wrangler, but offers a lot in terms of comfort instead of off-road driving capabilities. It is still a Jeep, however, and can roam through small streams – or large, deeper ones if you spring for the optional “Freedom Drive” off-road package – or get you through all sorts of unpleasant road conditions.

On the outside, the Compass stands just a shade over five feet tall and looks like a smaller version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee with its same trademark, wide-toothed grill, extra-wide stance, sculpted sides, and flat, black, inset door handles.

Under the hood, the Compass has a modest 2.4-liter, four-cylinder aluminum engine producing a modest 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. That’s not going to turn the Compass into a race car like its 150-mile-an-hour big brother, the Grand Cherokee SRT-8. But it is more than enough power for a compact like this to stay ahead of traffic. And in locked 4-wheel, low gear it is powerful enough to tow 1,000 pounds and pull the car through sucking mud or deep snow, and roll easily up wet, bumpy, 30-degree slopes.

The Compass is primarily an all purpose car, good for a family or anyone with an active lifestyle who wants enough room to haul either stuff or friends. In that category it competes with the Kia Sportage, GMC Terrain, and Hyundai’s Santa Fe and Tucson. It has also been pulling motorists out of small cars like the Toyota Corolla, who are looking for a low-cost vehicle in the $25,000 range with the space associated with an SUV.

Chrysler put a lot of thought into the interior of the Jeep, which has no hard surfaces. The seats are thickly padded, double-stitched leather. The front seats are manually operated, but fully adjustable and heated. The rear seats are also mobile , and can be slid forward several inches so the back can recline enough for a comfortable nap There is also enough leg and headroom for four average basketball players. The doors are also padded so you don’t come away from a bumpy, off-road trek with an armful of bruises.

For entertainment, the Compass comes with a Boston Acoustic sound system with nine speakers, including a hinged pair built into the trunk door which can swing down and out to provide more than enough sound for the average block party. There is a 40-gigabyte hard drive to collect a few thousand of your favorite jams, as well as Sirius satellite radio and connections for a USB drive, iPod, or MP3 player. There is a CD player and Bluetooth – the latter will let you play music directly from your Smartphone.

            As a thoughtful addition, the Compass has a 115-volt outlet with a standard electric plug – which is great for running a game or powering a laptop – in addition to the standard 12-volt power port used to recharge phones. There is also soft lighting embedded in the cup holders, making them easy to find in the dark.

On an off note the Compass – and the entire Jeep line – offer a Garmin navigation system with a built in, 7-inch color screen. Garmin has its admirers, and its quirks. If you set the system at 200 feet so street names are legible on the screen, the Garmin will abruptly change to setting to a half mile or more shortly after you enter a highway. The longer view may be fine in general on a highway – but it is too long to be able to navigate a complex exit interchange.  Spokesmen for Garmin said in a statement that the automatic zoom feature is intended to save the driver the trouble of adjusting the map. They did not explain why they felt the built-in robot should tell the driver what settings to use instead of the other way around.

Garmin can also retrace previous trips with a feature called “bread crumbs.” That might be fine for keeping tabs on what the teenage driver in your house was really doing last night. But it does seem a bit creepy and begs the question of why is the robot keeping tabs on the driver and where is that information going?

Chrysler might want to reconsider installing a smart system which could become an expert witness in messy family court proceedings. Or the auto maker could give buyers an option on the types of navigation systems sold. Chrysler’s Fiats use the Tom-Tom system which, like Garmin, was originally designed as a hand-held unit, while their Chrysler and Dodge lines use more traditional, technologically flexible, satellite-based navigation systems designed just for cars.

Jim Morrison, the director of Jeep product marketing, said “the Garmin is a lower cost navigation system for us. The one in the Compass costs $685. There is a premium system, the traditional kind rather than the Garmin, but it costs $465 more and is available with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“The customers for the Compass and Jeep Patriot are more tuned into affordability, and don’t typically get a fully loaded car.  So we only offer the Garmin for those vehicles.”

But that’s a minor complaint about a go-anywhere vehicle which should go far in an evolving, small car market.

Jeep Compass Ltd 4×4


MSRP:                                                                        $28,910

EPA Mileage:                        21 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      1,000 Pounds


Performance / Safety:


2.4-Liter, DOHC, 4-cylinder, aluminum engine producing 172 horsepower and  165 pound-feet of torque; 4-wheel drive; 18-inch painted aluminum wheels; rack and pinion steering; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; anti-lock brake system; stability  and traction controls; fog lights; halogen headlamps;  front and side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Boston Acoustic sound system with 40 GB hard drive, 9 speakers and 2 adjustable liftgate speakers; USB, MP3 and iPod ports; Bluetooth; CD player; leather seats; heated front seats; leather steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; fold flat or reclining rear seats, with 60/40 split;  12-volt and 115-volt power outlets; Garmin navigation system with touch screen.


The Return of the Dodge Dart

May 22, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon


It’s back.

The Dodge Dart, the popular, stylish little car that zipped along the roadways and was a favorite of millions of American motorists a generation (or two) ago, is being reintroduced  as the first American designed and made small car of the rejuvenated Fiat-Chrysler partnership. The Dart is a long awaited venture for Chrysler, which merged with Fiat during bankruptcy to combine their respective strengths: Chrysler design, and the Italian company’s experience with small cars.

But why name it Dart, after a car which was ubiquitous following its introduction in 1960 and sold to more than 3.6 million motorists before being was retired in 1976? And while there are souped-up Darts running on modern drag strips, those are old shells with modern innards.

“It was really the best name out there,” explained Ryan Nagode, the chief interior designer of the 2013 Dart. “We tried a lot of names – names we made up, names we borrowed, letter combinations, letters and numbers –you name, it we tried it. But in focus groups of all ages, the Dart was the most popular.

“For older drivers, they remember the Dart fondly from their younger days. And for the young drivers, who weren’t around back then and had no idea of the old Dart, they thought the name was cool. It implied it was slim and swift and aerodynamic and they liked it. It’s the only name that appealed to both groups – older and younger drivers. So we went with it and brought the Dart back.”

Perhaps he’s right.

“I loved my Dart!” exclaimed Marilyn Elie, a retired, Westchester County, elementary school librarian, who owned the car when she started her career some 40 years ago. I would talk to it, sing to it, and it never failed to start for me and take me everywhere.  It worked for me long past the time when everyone said it was too old and should be traded in.

“Then I went away for a while and didn’t talk to it and by the time I came back, it had quietly died. I still miss it.”

The new Dart is not simply a reprise of the original, in the way that the current Ford Mustang—with an updated engine and electronics – is stylistically reminiscent of the best of that breed from the ‘60s. It is built on the platform of the midsized Alpha Romeo, which gives it the closer wheelbase and turning radius of a compact car, while its interior space is slightly larger than that of the popular, mid-sized, Hyundai Sonata and Chevy Malibu.

Under the long, sloping hood, the Dart’s power plant comes in three, performance flavors:

  • Rallye: 2.0-liter , aluminum engine cranking out 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque; and Rallye, sportier 1.4-liter turbocharged engine producing 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque.
  • Limited: For an additional $1,300 Dart lovers can get a sportier model with a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged, aluminum engine producing the same 160 horsepower, but jumping the all-important torque to 184 pound-feet. There isn’t much difference in regular commuter driving. But on the open road, the turbocharger makes a mark. Driving up the steep grade of the Hudson Highlands rising just past West Point the Standard model struggled to move the speedometer into the high 80s. But the Ltd easily surged up the winding, open road.  Both cars have speedometers topping out at 120 miles per hour. On the Rallye, that’s not wasted space.
  • Sport R/T: Dart’s performance model, with 18-inch wheels instead of the 17-inch wheels on its two automotive siblings, has a 2.4-liter aluminum engine cranking out 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque.

The Dart, in all models, is a front-wheel drive car that comes with a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode. A manual transmission in a car used primarily for urban commuting – complete with regular traffic jams – can make the motoring experience seem as if one is going to a gym to continually exercise the right arm. And that is more punishment than motoring pleasure. The electronic manual mode is appreciated on long hills, however, as it is easy to tap into a lower gear for more power and then tap back into automatic mode. They also project an EPA mileage of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 MPG on the open road using regular gas.

Inside, Chrysler gave considerable thought to the riding experience for both old and young drivers. The seats are wide, Nappa leather, padded, manually adjusted, but heated in the front. In the rear, there is more than enough leg room for passengers  in the range of ta small NBA forward standing six-foot, five-inches in his new Nikes.

For sound, the Dart has AM/FM and Sirius Satellite radio, as well as a 506-watt Alpine surround-sound system with nine speakers and a subwoofer, which is more than enough to awaken the average neighborhood. Chrysler is offering an installed, quirky, Garmin navigation system with Sirius traffic and weather guides as an option. The standard, 8.4-inch information screen – which also is used for the crystal clear backup camera – makes it easy to see the navigation or other systems.

Then, there are interesting touches.

The front passenger seat folds out to reveal a hidden compartment about three inches deep. It’s big enough to hold a iPad, though one wonders who would choose to sit on their expensive electronic tablet? 

“What’s with the marijuana compartment,” Nagode was asked at a press preview.

When he stopped laughing at what was obviously a common nickname, he said “that’s not its purpose. It’s a place to hide small items which you have to leave in the car – like a tablet – but don’t want to leave in public view where it might encourage someone to break a window and grab it.

“It’s not intended to stash drugs.”

Good intentions aside, there are slots on either side of the center console to hold cell phones, placing them about six inches from the power outlet. The glove box is about 18 inches deep, enough to easily hold an iPad.  Inside the deep storage bin under the center console arm rest are the connections for the USB, MP3, and iPod ports, as well as the CD player.  In most cars, the small holes for the auxiliary music connections are hard to find in daylight – and impossible to locate at night when one is driving. On the Dart, however, the connecting ports are backlit, providing at a glance an instant locator. There is also a soft backlight around the dash, cup holders, and door. One can also utilize the Bluetooth for both cell phone communications and to play 1,000 or so of your favorite tunes. The, phone, navigation and entertainment systems can all be voice activated and controlled.

Chrysler is taking a chance by coming out with the Dart as its first entry into the small, crowded, sharp-elbowed, fuel-efficient market with cars priced under $25,000. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the sleek little Dart can slip past the established models and lodge in the front of the pack.

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye

Midsized Sedan


MSRP:                                                                        $21,475

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          36 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      1,000 Pounds


Performance / Safety:


2.0-Liter, 4-cylinder,fuel injected, aluminum engine producing 160 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; antilock, 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control;  front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; 17-inch cast aluminum wheels; 10 standard airbags; Halogen projector headlamps.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/Sirius Satellite Radio; 506-watt Alpine premium surround sound with 9 speakers and subwoofer; Bluetooth; CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB ports; heated front leather or cloth seats; folding rear seats; backup camera; leather, telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls;


Red Ink and Black Crayons: Drawing the Future at GM and Chrysler

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was the picture of a man who was right where he always wanted to be.

The setting wasn’t spectacular. This was the 2010 New York Auto Show and General Motors, just climbing back from bankruptcy, did not splurge on space or amenities.  But there was Welburn, a quiet Black man whose bald pate was reflecting the overhead spotlights, seated on a plain stool between two of the latest products from his creative palate.

On his left, glistening on a slowly moving turntable, was silver, supercharged, 556-horsepower, Cadillac CTS-V; on his right, the new edition to his growing rolling flock, was a silver CTS-V station wagon.

Which prompted the question: “Ed, why would you make a 150 mile-an-hour station wagon?”

“Because we can,” replied Welburn, grinning. “Besides, does that look like a station wagon to you?”

In fact, the functional station wagon did not look like one at all. The rear was more tapered, the windows were trapezoids under a sloping roof reminiscent of Acura’s crossover, the ZDX, and the front was the aggressive grill of the Cadillac cat.

“Who wouldn’t want one?” asked Welburn.

The question was not really rhetorical. Buses and trains are modes of transportation. Cars are the largest form of utilitarian art most families ever invest in.  It is how a potential buyer feels in or next to a car which closes a sale.  And while news from the various 2010 auto shows was that GM and Chrysler are coming back from the brink and again competing in the marketplace, success will not rest on the existence of small cars, fuel efficient hybrids, the use of quality materials, and the latest electronic gadgets. That technology is widely known and every car company has them.

To sell cars by the millions, GM and Chrysler will need fleets with pizzazz, with flair, with allure, with styles that will bring buyers back into the showrooms saying “wow!” as they reach for their check books.

The future of these two troubled, historic, American automakers now rests largely with the fertile imaginations of two Black artists: the sculptor, Ed Welburn, Vice President for Global Design at GM; and the graphic designer, Ralph Gilles, Vice President for Design at Chrysler LLC.

The two men are cut from different cloths.

Welburn, the 60-year-old Philadelphia native, is a generation removed from Gilles, whose Haitian parents stopped in 1970 in New York to visit relatives and give birth to him on American soil before immigrating to Montreal, Canada where he was raised. Welburn grew up in the era of the 1950s “hogs;” those long cars with huge tail fins whose styling cues came from lumbering, big-winged, Air Force bombers. Not surprisingly, while his wife tools around in the sleek, Saturn Sky roadster – one of Welburn’s favorite designs – Welburn prefers to tool around in his vintage, yellow and black, 1969 Camaro.

Giles, on the other hand, is a product of the 70s and 80s, when stealth jets and sleek, fast, fighters dominated the design cues of transportation artists. While his hand is in all of Chrysler’s cars and trucks, his wheel of choice is a black on black, 640-horsepower, 200 mile per hour, Dodge Viper.

And they are artists with different missions and starting points. General Motors came out of bankruptcy a slimmed-down giant with four successful, ongoing brands – Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet – which Welburn had been developing new cars for. He was most sorry to lose Saturn, a line he had just finished completely redesigning.

“But I understand it fully,” he said. “It is a business, like they said in The Godfather, which is still my favorite all time movie. I’m still proud of those designs.”

At Chrysler, on the other hand, Gilles is starting from scratch with no new cars in the showrooms and in the immediate pipeline. Chrysler ended a stormy relationship with Mercedes by bringing in a new CEO, Robert Nardelli, whose chief qualification was having spent the previous five years running down Home Depot, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s worst chief executives, and walking away with  a $210 million severance. Nardelli cut cars he didn’t like, including the aggressive Dodge Magnum, the signature Dodge Durango and the iconic, retro-styled, PT Cruiser. But he did not green light a new set of winning wheels.

Chrysler, which went bankrupt and become the partner of Italy’s Fiat, is primarily a domestic auto maker. It is the weakest of the three American car companies and, historically, it has concentrated on large sedans and trucks – and area where Gilles made a name for himself. He now wears two hats: president of Dodge cars and vice president of design for all of Chrysler. His mission is to take Fiat’s expertise with developing small, fuel efficient cars, and make those little boxes appealing to American tastes in addition to ensuring that Chrysler’s remaining brands turn out an arresting fleet of high performing, eye catching sedans, SUVs, and trucks.

That requires something of a race against the normal three-year development timeline. Chrysler introduced a new Grand Cherokee in June – characterized chiefly by a remarkably upgraded interior – and hopes to produce modified or new versions of the rest of its line by the end of the year. But it will take more than tinkering with the interior to keep Chrysler in the black.

General Motors is still the world’s largest auto maker and Welburn, as design chief, controls a variety of crayon boxes to meet the world’s disparate motoring tastes. He is the sixth design chief in GM’s history, with his stamp on every vehicle conceived by the more than 1,600 designers at the company’s 11 design studios in eight countries.

“I don’t think what I am doing is the same as what Ralph is doing,” mused Welburn.  “I have a lot of respect for Ralph. But I am dealing with a global design organization dealing with a lot of different cultures. I am in and out of a lot of places I never thought I would be in and out of, and leading teams of people from cultures I never thought I or any one else of African American descent would be leading.

“I’m working with Australians for that market; folks from China or Korea for the Asian market; or Brazil or here in the United States. I don’t dwell on that, but it doesn’t escape me at all that it’s a long way from Philadelphia.”

For a young Ed Welburn, the 1958 Philadelphia International Auto Show was the key to his future. It wasn’t the eight-year-old’s first exposure to the intricacies of cars. His father, Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in nearby Berwyn, Pa., and young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out.

“The ‘50s were a very car-oriented period,” Welburn said. “And it was a period in which cars had a lot of flair. You could easily identify different brands by their looks. They all have very strong character.

“It was a very exciting auto industry, and I grew up in a family where there were always new cars around.”

But the Auto Show was special. Designs were changing as American society shifted into a mobile culture. The automakers were experimenting with new designs, configurations and bold styles.

“I like a design that has flair,” said Welburn, “that is very expressive and has character that can mean very different things on different types of vehicles. Some designs need to be expressive, and others need to be quiet.

“But they all have to be contemporary. And that is what the big fins on the cars – especially the Cadillacs – were all about. They were built on the new technology of the time.”

His parents encouraged him to read everything he could about car design and by the time he was 11, he said, “it was my dream to be a designer, and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African American designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in.”

He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors “and I just let them know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa. , who was interested in auto design and wanted their advice.  What courses should I take in high school and what other preparation would I need to go to a university?”

GM responded with a high school curricula and a list of the competitive colleges they recruited from. Welburn followed their advice and went to Howard University, which allowed him to design his own course of study, specializing in sculpting. He joined GM’s design center in Warren, Mich., in 1972 and began a steady progression upward.  In his early years, the Cutlass Supreme, 1977 Buick Park Avenue, and the Oldsmobile Riviera sprang from his creative pad. Then, in 1985, GM asked him to design a 1,000-horsepower car for the legendary race driver A.J. Foyt to pilot in the Indianapolis 500. His 1987 Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, set a world land speed record, averaging 257 miles per hour and topping 300 on the straightaway.

In 2003, GM promoted Welburn to vice president of design, making him the highest ranking black executive in the auto industry. Two years later, the title was expanded to head of global design. In that capacity, if he is not globe-trotting, Welburn is in his office facing the equivalent of a giant video parlor.

“The screen I am looking at,” he explained, “is 18-feet wide. Today, the studio in Brazil is working on a car for their emerging market, and it’s like I’m in the studio with them – but I’m here in Michigan. The guys in our studio in Australia are part of the design review because I asked for their input. Every studio has roughly the same equipment. It is fast moving, full of energy and very creative.”

The participants in these global video design conferences depend on Welburn’s artistic feel for the strengths of his staff. “It really depends on the project,” he said. “I know my people and I know them all around the world. I know that the team in Australia has the emotion I was looking for.

“The team in Brazil is doing a fantastic job. But to give a different perspective, I didn’t want a team that was just like the team in Brazil. The team in the UK, for example, where they are strong, they are really strong with Cadillac – something edgy, something stealth like. They are not the studio I would have gone to for this assignment.”

Welburn sees the world as a global palate, with cultural changes in styles, tastes and textures. Asian artists, trained in intricate brush strokes and shades in jade, provide softer interior design cues for cars than the more brash Australian designers.

“I see the entire world more than anyone else in our organization,” he said. “I was in Korea, China and Australia, and while I enjoyed the time I spent in the studios, I also enjoyed walking the streets, riding the cars, seeing the automotive landscape and seeing how people use and personalize their cars.

In Dubai, the architecture is very edgy on the exterior and very light in color. Inside, it’s a shock when you see all the rich colors; brilliant colors that contrast to the exterior. We need to understand that taste as we sell cars in the Middle East.  In other parts of the world, it may be colorful outside the building but dark and quiet inside.  It is a way of looking at what artistic sense connects with people.”

An example is the critically acclaimed Buick Lacrosse, which was put together by a team from Warren Michigan, taking lead on the exterior, and a team from Shang Hai, China, taking the lead with the interior. The car is a hit in both countries, particularly China.

“The design is much better than what either of those teams would have developed on their own,” said Welburn. “There is an emerging design language coming out of China and it comes from their art, whether it is jade sculpture or cut paper.

“There were a couple of people who switched locations to help the blending process. Through virtual reality, we were looking at each others designs all day, every day, so it was a pretty seamless process.”

The process is far less smooth across town, where Chrysler is working to blend its American staff with those of the new Italian partners. But coming up with eye-catching designs is not a new task for Gilles.

In 2004 Gilles, then head of Daimler Chrysler’s creative Studio #3 was tasked with developing a new breed of cars to distinctly define the company’s major brands. His Jeep Liberty had already proved to be a successful link between Jeep’s comfortable, full sized, Grand Cherokee SUV and its small, off-road, warrior Wrangler.

“Dodge and Chrysler were separating themselves into different types of vehicles, with different customers in mind,” explained Gilles. “Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude.

“But Chrysler is more aspirational, more graceful with more high-end products. We’re going to a premium market where the main competitors will be Volvos, Audis and other imports.”

They had scored with the Dodge Magnum, a hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine masquerading as a family station wagon. They led the track with the 200-mile-an-hour, 500-horsepower Dodge Viper. And they added the Dodge Charger, an updated version of the muscle car of the past.

But it was the Chrysler division where Gilles’ studio needed to shine. Chrysler needed a high end sedan, with a classical look reminiscent of a Bentley, a rear wheel drive like the best from the company’s heyday, and a head turner engineered soundly enough to be parked next to a Jaguar or Mercedes without embarrassment.

The car, said Gilles, “would redefine us as a car company and it would be the kind of car the valets would park out front.”

What they came up with was the Chrysler 300. “That car was a perfect storm of all our ideas,” said Gilles. “That car really resonates.”

And when he sat in the drivers’ seat and stepped on the gas “I was almost in tears driving the car. It felt so right. It’s one thing to make it look good, but the engineers brought it home.”

Critics thought so, too, and Motor Trend Magazine named the Chrysler 300 its 2005 Car of the Year, beating out 24 competitors including Porsche 911, Lotus Elise, and BMW 6. Together, Gilles’ cars led the way in an amazing turnaround for DaimlerChrysler, whose bottom line went from an $806 million loss in 2003 to a $1.3 billion profit in the first nine months of 2004. In all, 2004 was a banner year for the 34-year-old artist from Montreal, Canada’s black community.

And it all began with crayons on a kitchen table.

Gilles was five when his parents took him to visit his Aunt Gisele on Long Island and she watched him drawing.  What differentiated Gilles from kids at that early age was the fact that his drawings were clear and made sense.

“My aunt saw my sketches,” Gilles, recalled, “and she turned to her husband and said ‘Hey Mike! My Nephew can draw! Give him some paper to draw on.”

So he began sketching wherever he went, passing dull moments in school with fanciful drawings of cars and other modes of transport. At 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, asking what it would take to become a design artist for the giant car company.

“And wow, they wrote me back,” he said. “I was so impressed. They wrote giving the different names of colleges they hire from, and that was all I needed.  I felt a certain loyalty to Chrysler because they wrote me, and it changed my life.”

Gilles attended the College for Creative Studies  in Detroit, which trained about 40% of Chrysler’s designers, and went to work for the firm after graduating in 1992. Within a decade he had worked his way up to head Studio #3 in Auburn Hills, Michigan, one of the company’s seven design studios. Gilles equates the design studio with a movie lot.

“I direct a studio to draw,” he said. “We get together with the other team members and exchange ideas. It’s like when you make a movie, and you talk about the scenes in the movie before you film the thing.

“It’s like that with cars. No one person designs a car.”

In the short term, Gilles is primarily repackaging the cars in the existing Chrysler fleet. “We are spicing up the Dodge Caravan,” he said so it would not simply be a lower cost version of the Chrysler Town and Country. He is adding 20-inch wheels to the sprightly Dodge Nitro and made 19-inch wheels standard on the muscular Dodge Charger.

But, he acknowledged, this year “We are just playing with cosmetic changes.”

That will change. There will be a new edition of the 2010 Viper “and we will have a replacement for the Durango in the fourth quarter. It is all new and redesigned. It has not a stitch in common with the previous Durango and is a thoroughly modern crossover.”

And his team is working with the Italian design shops to redesign the Fiat 500, a popular small, European car, to meet American tastes later this year.

Chrysler, which skipped the 2010 auto shows, is playing catch-up, which puts extra pressure on Gilles and his artisan crew. “Everyone is confused by our new business model,” he said. “Had it been a normal year, the practice would have been to have had 14 to 16 models at the Detroit Auto Show.

“The products are still coming. The level of work is being done – but we are not pre-showing them like we used to. There will be a much shorter lead time. But we are certain we can keep the excitement.”

Gilles has a track record of producing exciting, crowd-pleasing cars. Chrysler’s future rests on his ability to do it again.


Rich Man’s Jets and Family Sedans: The Creative Crayons of Earl Lucas

August 6, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

When July 1 rolled around and the sales figures for the first half of the year began rolling in, it was obvious that Ford and Earl Lucas were having a good year. Sales of the Taurus, the completely redesigned, full sized, family sedan had more than doubled over the first half of 2009 and tripled over the previous June to a respectable 36,000 units. That meant money for Ford, which earned record profits in the first half of the year, and internal recognition for Lucas, who had risen through the ranks to be the Taurus’ chief designer. That recognition – inside Ford and in the showrooms – meant a lot to a kid from Dallas who grew up toting a sketch pad around. His parents encouraged his fledgling art talent, he said, and so did adults in church and teachers in school. “Every place I went,” he recalled, “folks kept telling me ‘you should keep that up. You should go with it.’ At every major moment, there was someone there to steer me in the right direction. My middle school did not have a great arts program, but I had a great art teacher who steered me to the Arts Magnet.” Lucas graduated from the Arts Magnet with a scholarship from Ford, and entered the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, a primary training ground for automotive designers, where he was classmates with Ralph Gilles, now the vice president for design at Chrysler. Many of the Black students made it through the program with the assistance of  pioneer in the car industry, Sam Meyers. “He used to work at Ford for 25 years,” said Lucas, “and he decided to visit the campus of CCS and introduce himself to the admissions department and asked about minority students. “He took all of us into his basement and gave us supplies which we couldn’t afford, and he would teach us. You could bring him a sketch and he wasn’t always nice about it, but he would work with you and teach you what to really do.  I learned so much from him about how to be prepared and how to excel in this environment.” Upon graduating in 1994, Lucas took his pencils to Lear Jets in Texas for two years, working on interior design. From there, he went to Reese Design, a specialty jet design shop “and what a wonderful job that was” he said. “They designed aircraft interiors for the jets of the Sultan of Brunei. I flew all over the country to see that design through. Money was no object, so if I wanted to propose platinum silverware, we would do it. “It’s a different world designing aircraft interiors for the world’s richest man to designing for a car company known as a value brand.”

But Lucas really wanted to be a car designer and, in 1999, joined Ford, working as the senior interior designer for the 2000 Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition., and then for the 2003 F-150 pickup truck. Ford’s F-series trucks, were, and are, the company’s largest selling vehicle. For the first half of 2010, the F-series trucks sold 240,345 units – more than half of all heavy duty trucks sold in America and the best selling vehicle of any type on the road. From there, Lucas moved on to the interiors of the Ford Edge and its Lincoln counterpart, the MKX, as well as the distinctive Ford Flex SUV ( ). “The Flex is structured and purposeful,” he said, “and has a different type of aesthetic. But it’s a clean, utilitarian shape.  For the interior we wanted a quiet horizon. When you stepped inside there is calmness, a safe haven.” The work on the Flex earned him a promotion to design manager for the exterior of the new Taurus. The boxy Flex SUV and the sleek Taurus sedan had little in common.   “You take a different approach when you design the Flex and when you design the Taurus,” he explained. “The Flex was practical. It was there when I need to take the kids to soccer practice. “The new Taurus was to be a ‘Me’ sedan – something you look good in if you have the kids or don’t have any kids. It needed expressive styling that comes from thinking of people going out to have a good time, rather than just hauling kids and stuff around.  My wife won’t let me go too fast in it, but with a 365 horsepower engine, it’s as fast as a Mustang GT.” It’s an easy comparison for him to make. At home, he tools around in a Mustang, but uses the Taurus when out with his wife and two children. But he chose to drive the Taurus to a reunion of his class of auto designers at CCS. “I was feeling really good when I got there,” he recalled, laughing. “I’m a designer at Ford and I feel great. I’m in my new Taurus and when I walk on campus people are going to recognize me. “Then Ralph shows up in the all new Ram truck, and he is hauling his black Viper. So I realized I’ve got a little ways to go.”

%d bloggers like this: