Thursday, February 14, 2008

You can't mess too much with an icon

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

I doubt if they'll run 120 longhorn cattle down the street in front of the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto the way they did at the Detroit auto show, but the Dodge Ram pickup truck, which was in the spotlight of that stunt, will be on display at the Canadian International AutoShow, which opens to the public tomorrow.The chief designer for this all-important Chrysler product is Ralph Gilles from Montreal. He skyrocketed to prominence for his design work on the Chrysler 300, although he is always careful to point out he's just part of the team.

Chrysler lives or dies on its trucks, minivans and SUVs, which currently account for about 70 per cent of Chrysler's sales; of the products in that category, the Ram pickup is certainly the most important.

The Ram line of trucks has been around since 1981 and the first generation had fairly typical, squared-off body lines. But in 1994 the exterior got a big redesign to give it the look of a big rig truck. It was an instant hit with a huge front end and grille that looked nothing like Ford or Chevy. Sales soared.

So when time came for a new one, Gilles and his team knew they had to keep an aggressive look, but wondered whether to make a knock-off or try something fresh.

What they came up with for the 2009 Ram was fairly subtle. Most apparent is the new "head-down" grille, which makes the truck's front end appear to stick out. They also added some features like the Ram Box, which is a quarter-panel bin that can carry "up to 10 cases of 12-ounce beverages." There are also storage compartments all over the place on the interior.

Ralph Gilles became vice-president of Chrysler's Jeep/Truck Design in 2006. He grew up in Montreal after his parents immigrated via New York from Haiti.

He holds a bachelor of science degree in transportation design from the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and a master's degree in business administration from Michigan State University.

Vaughan: Ralph, when the Ram came out in '94 it was a startling statement. That, surely, is a hard act to follow.

Gilles: Absolutely.

So how did you approach it?

Well, we looked at it as an icon.

We figured the C 100, you know the one everyone remembers, had that big over-the-road look …

That big over-the-top-look.

Kind of like the Jeep Wrangler, which became an icon, the Ram also became an icon. Even Chevy and Ford owners told us that.

But we actually looked the other way when we were trying to redesign it.

We looked at extreme themes like the PowerWagon concept and the Rampage concept. These were hinting at different directions, but clearly we were told by our customer base that we should evolve the icon one last time.

But this one is not as over-the-top as the previous one.

True, but it's aggressive in a different way.

We couldn't afford to make the grille bigger and more monstrous because that equals inefficient aerodynamics. So we went with an aggressive look with a forward canted grille like the Dodge Charger.

So we have aggression in a more athletic way than that classic, over-the-top way.

You also designed in some functional stuff like the bins on the sides of the truck.

You need space to put your stuff and we thought the best solution was in the dead space over the fenders.

Our customers have always said, "When my crew cab is full of people, I have nowhere to put my stuff." So the Ram box was a natural evolution.

That dead space, as you call it, over the wheels has been there forever, but nobody's taken advantage of it.

It's a bit of a pain in the butt, but with our simulation technology we're able to work on solutions without cutting a bunch of tools or bending metal. We're able to figure it out in computer space first.

And our manufacturing guys really joined forces with us and said we can do this in-house, we don't have to go to a supplier with all that expense. It's going to be built at the plant.

We're trying to turn ourselves into a customer-centric company. The customers might not tell you exactly how to do it, but they tell you they need it.

They wanted dry, lockable storage so we interpreted that and put it into a design.

You did the same thing inside on the floor. There's more storage in there.

Yeah, that comes straight from our minivan experience — Stow 'N Go.

People are using these vehicles as family commuters as well, so they want DVDs, they want heated seats, they want storage, they want all that stuff, so why not.

What is the personality, the identity of the Ram pickup driver as opposed to the Ford pickup driver or the Chevy pickup driver, because they're almost like cults? They don't tattoo the logo on themselves like the Harley owners, but they're loyal.

It's deep. The Ram guy has an image need. He's just a little more conscious of the look of his truck, he's the guy who waxes his truck a little more often.

We came out with those 20-inch wheels and still, to this day, there's almost a 30- per-cent take of 20-inch wheels. So they're a bit fashion-conscious, but they still need durability and ruggedness.

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