Eric Mayne's Blog

The Main Objective: Stars and Cars

Ralph Gilles shows his passion for the '12 Dodge Charger SRT8

Ralph Gilles shows his passion for the '12 Dodge Charger SRT8

Plucking Ralph Gilles from the top job at Dodge and giving him control of Chrysler’s burgeoning SRT brand is the latest sign that Sergio Marchionne knows what he’s doing.

Whispers of a falling-out between Gilles and Chrysler’s CEO began within minutes of the announcement. (Hollywood has nothing on Detroit when it comes to gossip.)

Echoes can still be seen on the Internet. Says a poster to one enthusiast forum: “This seems like a demotion. Can someone explain?”

Allow me.

Gilles, who also has responsibility for Chrysler design, has long been pushing the auto maker to elevate SRT from trim-line status to something more significant. How long?

“Since 2003, probably,” he tells me during the auto maker’s recent full-line ’12-model media preview at Chrysler’s proving grounds in Chelsea, MI.

Back then, Gilles was putting finishing touches on the Chrysler 300 as director of Chrysler’s large car studio. That design now ranks among the most iconic in the storied company’s history,

But in his off-hours, Gilles was dreaming up cool ways to go faster as co-conspirator of a Chrysler skunkworks operation now known as MOPAR Underground.

That enterprise has churned out concepts such as the Charger Red Line, which inspired the ’12 Dodge Charger SRT8, launching currently.

Fast-forward to today and I ask Gilles: “Are you OK with leaving Dodge for SRT?”

“Heeeell, yeeeah,” he says.

The drawl is fake. (Gilles grew up in Montreal.) But the accompanying smile is genuine.

What was Marchionne thinking?

First, to better align Chrysler’s brand structure with that of alliance-partner Fiat -- which Marchionne also runs -- the pentastar company needed a high-performance marque to match Fiat’s Abarth. Hence, SRT.

Second, a good general endeavors to keep his troops happy. Gilles has the street cred to work for almost any auto maker in the world, industry insiders tell me. So why not cement his relationship with Chrysler by making his nine-to-five more fun?

* * *

And speaking of Hollywood gossip, who will win the weekend drag race between Fiat-vehicle Cars 2 from Pixar and Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, which spotlights Chevrolet?

“Transformers 3 will easily win,” says Brandon Gray, creator and president of ticket-tracker, Box Office Mojo.

Cars 2 suffers mainly because it’s in its second week of release, Gray tells me. “Neither picture, though, is boasting exceptional acceleration,” he adds.

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