Designed For Performance

Black auto designers set the standard for some of the most popular--and stylish--cars on the road

Lampkin can’t divulge what he’s working on, but says it generally takes three to five months for BMW car sketches to become a full-size mock-up. Secrecy is paramount among those who determine the automotive shapes of the future.

RALPH GILLES, 31
Title: Director exterior/interior Studio 3 and Product Identity
Company: DaimlerChrysler
Latest Project: Currently working on interiors for the new Viper and Jeep Liberty.
Auto designs are often shrouded in secrecy. But the cloak-and-dagger routine is old hat for DaimlerChrysler designer Ralph Gilles, who fashioned the interior of the new Jeep Liberty SUV.

Gilles had been sketching cars since he was 5, but had designs on a career as a doctor. However, a high school calculus course convinced him otherwise, and, to the delight of his parents, Gilles enrolled in a two-year college as an engineering major.

“Every time I was supposed to be listening to a lecture,” Gilles recalls ruefully, “I’d be sketching cars.” Deciding that car design was the best fit for his talents and inclinations, Gilles dropped out of school after one year.

Needless to say, his parents weren’t thrilled. But an influential aunt remained firmly in Gilles’ corner. She wrote a letter to then-Chrysler Corp. Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca, seeking advice on how her nephew could get into the field of car design. A Chrysler vice president responded, advising Gilles to contact the College for Creative Studies. He graduated from the school in 1992.

“Chrysler hired me before I had even gotten my graduation papers,” says Gilles, who has helped create interiors for the Dodge Intrepid and the Chrysler 300M. He dreams of putting together a coffee-table book on auto design so he can generate funds for minority students to attend design colleges.

EARL LUCAS, 31
Title: Design manager
Company: Ford Motor Corp.
Latest Project: Currently working on designs for future Ford models.
Like the talents of most auto designers, Earl Lucas’ talents surfaced early. The Dallas native was just 3 when he began to draw. But unlike most of his contemporaries, Lucas didn’t devote the ink to just sketching automobiles. His passion was jewelry.

“The same design principles that are used to make [fine jewelry] are used to make cars.” He wouldn’t discover that until much later, when he attended the Center for Creative Studies College of Art and Design in Detroit (later renamed the College for Creative Studies). But the school’s international reputation for auto design was lost on Lucas, who majored in crafts. After two years, he switched to industrial design.

Car design turned out to be “a little more competitive than I initially thought,” Lucas recalls. “I stayed up many a night sketching, perfecting my technique. To this day, I still do that.”

After graduating in 1994, Lucas interviewed at Ford and was turned down–twice. So he headed to the Lear Corp. in Southfield, Michigan, an automotive supplier that put him to work designing auto seats and door panels.

Three and a half years later, Lucas returned to Texas to join a firm that designed aircraft interiors. But the car business was “in my blood.” So Lucas reapplied

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