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Greg Howell: 2015 interview with the head of Ram exterior design

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Greg Howell: 2015 interview with the head of Ram exterior design

by David Zatz

The launch of the Laramie Limited and Ram Rebel brought the opportunity to speak with Ram's head of exterior design, Greg Howell - within a Ram Rebel, whose sound insulation did a fine job of blocking out a nearby Honda presentation.

The Laramie Limited and Rebel grilles

I just saw the Laramie Limited and the first thing that came to my mind, and you'll have to excuse me, was 1968 Baracuda.

Oh, wow. That's not what I would've thought.

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Dodge recently used A-body Plymouth
Barracudas for gauge cluster inspiration.

That's not your intention?

No, it's not what I would've thought.

Completely unrelated?

Yeah, completely unrelated for sure.

So what were your inspirations for the new grill?

Really, it was keying off the truck we're sitting in [Ram Rebel]. It was yet another departure from doing the crosshair. And we were inspired really just to tie the front end together. It was, again, this interlocking design similar to this grill, but done in a fashion that keyed off of the headlamps this time. you'll see that interlocking design come out of the headlamps and go towards the Ram badge that's in the center of the vehicle. So it was really getting that prominent name, but this time in bright.

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We had one piece of inspiration … this one image, and it was actually the lines off some old furniture. They were just beautiful lines. I don't even know where the furniture came from, but they were just beautiful. It was simple lines, and that was it. Then we wrote Limited at the top.

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It was really simple, because something as prestigious as that vehicle wants to be clean and pure. And it was really to keep it clean and pure, add the name to the front, have the bright work, and kind of celebrate the Ram name but this time in bright as opposed to this vehicle in which everything is blacked out. So yeah, that was kind of the story.

I didn't personally sketch it. The artist's name is Mike Gillen. He's the designer responsible for the grill. We asked the designers, looking at the inspiration, that one simple image, just to sketch on it and see what they came up with.
It's my job - I'm the chief designer, so it's my job to make sure everything is getting done and executed to the sketch. You don't ever want to lose that sketch. If that's what was inspired, you get that sketch and you get it and everybody likes it. you've just got to make sure it goes all the way through, especially on a grill, because it's a functional piece of equipment; obviously, you have to cool the engine, so if you're not careful, it can go away from the sketch quickly.

That was my job. I watched over it and made sure it made it all the way through to production pretty much the way he sketched it, and it did. It looks exactly like the sketch.

I'm looking forward to seeing it in person. You can't judge from photos.

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I know. They did do some good photography down in Nashville, so they captured most of it. But it is always good to see it in person just to get your feel. And then even seeing it inside the vehicle with that much bright work, you really have to see it outside in person to get your final judgment.

That's usually true, although the lights here are better than usual.

Yes, the McCormick Place is actually pretty good, in terms of the lighting. It's pretty vast isn't it? I mean it's just a big place.

I wish I could be here every year.

You're not able to come to this every year? Because I'm not. I probably was here in 2005. That was the last time I was here. That was when we rolled out the Caliber SRT4 and the Rampage show truck. Caliber SRT4 was why I was here. I worked on that car.

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How about the Rebel grille? I'd like to know what inspired you.

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Again, it was celebrating the badge. Celebrating the Ram logo. We did a lot of work to get that Ram logo to align on the center line. I think people look at it and think it's the same logo that's on the dealership, but it isn't. We've never really put the R, the A and the M on-center. It took a lot of juxtaposing and rearranging the letters so it looked good, [though] the A lined up for the most part right on center-line.

So first things first, it was really about getting the badge corrected, because we knew we wanted that badge right there, right on-center. Then the rest of the grill was really inspired, again, [by the] same designer. Mark Gillen basically abstracted a lot of things around that. He did some really simple sketches at the beginning that were interlocking design, that framed the badge and then came down into the bumper so it all worked together. It was interlocked.

It was kind of an unbreakable appearance; I would say that would be the best description of the front end design and what inspired it. Something that would be unbreakable. I think he did a good job too. I think it really comes out that way. It's a strong look, and it's unmistakably ours. Something that would be unmistakably Ram that no one else would do. And I think he succeeded.

Was it limiting at all to fit within the constraints of the existing sheet metal when you did the grills for the Limited and the Rebel?

Any time you've got boundaries, I guess you could refer to that as limiting. But in terms of being able to express the design, there were no limitations at all. Really, again, the designers were given a lot of freedom to come up with whatever fit best for their brand in the truck. Overall, I would say it was a strong exercise. It was a good exercise. It was successful. And then, again, there's more to come. But I wouldn't really necessarily say [Laramie Limited was] limiting, no pun intended.
Moving forward / how designs are created

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So looking forward, 2016s are coming out fairly soon according to the master plan.

The 2016 model year is around the corner.

Are we seeing the crosshair relegated back to Dodge again?

Time will tell. you'll just have to wait and see. I'd just tell your readers to stay tuned. There's a lot of exciting stuff going on. But this truck in particular [Rebel] is really our first step away from a crosshair design. The theory was, let's try to experiment a little bit in a limited volume and see what the reaction is. See how people react to the name being on a vehicle instead of the animal [the ram logo] and just kind of take it in and we'll go from there.

So really, to be perfectly honest, we're early in the process of understanding the reaction. This truck's only been out for a few months now, in the public for a few months, and the Limited will be the same way. So it'll be really interesting to gauge the reaction of everybody and see how successful they are. But anything beyond that, I really can't talk too much.

Do you have multiple designs waiting in the wings depending on the reaction to these?

No, not at all. We're committed. It's good. We're having a lot of fun. I guess you could say it this way: once we commit to something, we're committed to it. But in terms of designs, there's always multiple designs. We don't just put one sketch on the wall and fall in love with it.

We call it wallpapering. We just put up a lot of sketches and see what works. There's always multiple designs to choose from. I don't think I've ever seen it where the first one was the one. It's usually competition between a few designers, at least a few designers, that are putting up multiple ideas. That's what we look for, a lot of ideas, quick ideas, and we go from there.

Ram Communications' Nick Cappa: Think about trucks and how competitive they are and the people who turn them, especially on trim levels. You have to constantly make change to keep the truck interesting. Otherwise when they go to the lot, they say "Oh, that's the truck from last year." You constantly have to make changes to keep the product fresh.

This truck is a good example. I remember Ryan and these headliner pieces, turning them black. Now it doesn't seem like a big deal, but I'm waiting for this truck so I can have a black headliner. It didn't change the whole truck, but some of these pieces, parts and pieces, they mean a lot to people. When they come back, there's something unique to the model year. So something as simple as a headliner, to me this makes all the difference in the world. I love black headliners.

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And they're easier to keep clean, I'll give you that.

Yeah, for sure.

Although the plastic ones are easy to keep clean regardless.

Something as nice as this headliner in the lighter colors, it's a little more difficult to keep clean. I just love the feel of a black headliner. It just feels to me more . . . I don't know, there's a sporty element to it. It's perfect for this interior. So kudos to Ryan. They fought really hard to do something, to push the limits

There was a point in the '90s where people were saying sketching and clay models and all that would go away. Did that ever happen?

No, quite the opposite, actually. The sketching and clay modeling has remained as analog as it ever has been, and we supplement it with the digital era. We supplement it with laser scanning and rapid prototyping, milling. . . we've got a new twin tower mill. It's amazing. So we've got tremendous capability both ways now, which is having the best of both worlds.

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Everybody said in the '90s we would walk away from the analog or the tactile stuff. Sometimes digitally you can't solve something. It needs to be done by human hands.

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So we are both sketching by hand on 8.5x11 sheets of paper then we scan those designs in and the guys will render them in the computer. It's really kind of the best of both worlds, because then they can really make a lot of realistic-looking renderings very quickly.

I think everybody thought once we had the computer, well we would just do everything on the computer because you can do it much faster. Well, really, sketching by hand can be done anywhere and then you can scan them in and you've got the best of both worlds. you've got the ability to render it quickly. That's what the guys do, and I still dabble in it myself from time-to-time just to stay fresh. But I also go to a lot of meetings.


How about the aerodynamics of the new grills? Is that a major influence, or is that something you . . .

Yeah, we have a very aerodynamic truck.

Nick: Best-in-class.

I think we're still best-in-class, right?

Nick: [the coefficient of drag is] 0.360.

Because our competition have added frontal areas. So I think we're still best-in-class, and that's always important, absolutely. But on the Rebel it was really more about airflow. Does it cool? Because this is going to be [doing more] low-speed offroading. You want to make sure it performs well in a hot climate while offroading. So airflow was paramount. It wasn't really necessarily drag; it was more can it breathe?

So you actually went in and thought about the functional aspects as opposed to just say computer-limiting your power output after a while. [This is a reference to the high-performance Camaro.]

Absolutely, it is functioning. In a truck, function is right up there with form. We found that on the Rebel, making the grille thicker, not in front view but in its depth, made the grill perform better. It's the first time I saw that happen. It was neat to kind of discover that you could make something look robust and then actually have it cool better. So that was kind of a neat day. It wasn't what we thought would happen at all. But a lot of times aerodynamics is not what you think. You would look at something and be say, "Wow, that's really going to work well," and it doesn't. Then you think something that you see, "Oh my gosh, this is never going to happen." Then lo and behold, it performs awesome. It's amazing. I haven't figured it out yet.

Nick: And the active grill shutters give you a little more leeway too, right?


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You do have active grill shutters on this?

Nick: Any Ram truck with an eight-speed does, standard.

Yeah. Do the skid plates actually increase aerodynamics?

On this particular truck [again, Rebel], yes, it will help aero. But that's really a lucky strike, I guess. It's there for functional purposes, for protection, to be . . . again, there's covering of the vulnerable things on the frontend. Really that's its primary purpose.

Other products

So what else are you responsible for? Is it all Ram, all the time?

All Ram exterior, all the time. And there's plenty. So everything from the ProMaster, the ProMaster City that's next to us here . . . and then DS, so this is a light-duty DS, then the heavy-duty trucks all the way through the Chassis Cab. So anything that's going on, anything that the customer really sees from the exterior point-of-view, really comes across my desk for approval or denial.

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It's a lot of parts. The ProMaster Van, which was built in Mexico, it had to be completely retooled. Even though everybody thinks it's the same van, it really isn't. It had to be completely redone, so all the parts had to be reapproved and everything. So I do a lot of that type of work. And then, again, sketching and making sure the designs that are sketched make it to production. That's a large part of my job as well. So yes, a lot of different things on a daily basis. But all Ram, all the time.

ProMaster City, that doesn't look too different from the European version but I suspect that there's underlying things that I'm missing.

Well for them and us, there was a front - we call it a front clip, so from the front door, cut forward, redesign, for Fiat and us as well. And then from basically the tail lamp, we redesigned. So it would look different than the previous Doblo, so that it was an update of the Doblo for them and all new for us.

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We collaborated quite a bit on the front end design. Really, that was another one where the scope of change wasn't going to be the whole body but we had to make the most of what we had to work with. And we did. It was I think another success. We've shown that you can turn it into a Ram and make a robust front end. We did that all through the wire, so it was designed through the video conference room, and our big screen. It was really cool. It was neat to collaborate with the guys over in Italy. I think it turned out well for it.

Okay. So the American front is different from the European front?

Yes. It's very different. It's similar headlamps, but they're specced differently. Similar fog lamps, but they're specced out a little bit different. It's very North American specific material used on that vehicle.

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The ProMaster, its larger brother, had to be configured for spec in the United States as well. So when that was brought over, there was a lot of work done. Even though it looks relatively the same, a lot of work was done on it to make sure it met our specifications for here in the United States.

I was kind of surprised to find out exactly how much it changed.

Nick: Sometimes people think that the roads in Europe must be rougher. But actually the roads here are rougher. There's more stress on the vehicle on the roads in normal driving conditions here. So that piece of it. And there's some other restructuring thing, that our customer is just a little bit different. But yes, there's quite a few changes.

We very much benefit from the fact that the Fiat Professional is involved and we have that candy store of platforms and vehicles to be able to choose from and realize. Because imagine the alternative would be to develop it ourselves and have to come up with a plant and everything else. A lot of the hard work has already been done, and especially the expensive work. So it really benefits us to have that relationship with Fiat professionals.

Also see: 2015 Chicago Auto ShowRam RebelLaramie Limited

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