Commentary: Celebrating Black Excellence In The Automotive Industry

Ten years ago, I met Ralph Gilles at the Chicago Auto Show. He was both the design boss at, then, Chrysler, LLC, and the head of the Dodge and SRT brands. My first impressions in person were his passion for the automobile and his thought process on how to push the envelope of performance in them. 

I knew about Gilles for years. He was the guy who stood next to one of his creations, the 2005 Chrysler 300. His pen – and computer – was responsible for the company’s design since 1992. When Fiat and Sergio Marchionne arrived at Auburn Hills, Gilles was elevated to the lofty position as Head of Design for the combined Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. His responsibility was to oversee the design of vehicles ranging from small Fiats in Brazil to the $215,000 Maserati MC20. 

Ten years ago, I met Ralph Gilles at the Chicago Auto Show. He was both the design boss at, then, Chrysler, LLC, and the head of the Dodge and SRT brands. My first impressions in person were his passion for the automobile and his thought process on how to push the envelope of performance in them. 

I knew about Gilles for years. He was the guy who stood next to one of his creations, the 2005 Chrysler 300. His pen – and computer – was responsible for the company’s design since 1992. When Fiat and Sergio Marchionne arrived at Auburn Hills, Gilles was elevated to the lofty position as Head of Design for the combined Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. His responsibility was to oversee the design of vehicles ranging from small Fiats in Brazil to the $215,000 Maserati MC20. 

Gilles’ passions also include motorsports. At one time, he led the charge for SRT’s efforts on the track, whether it was the Viper at Le Mans or Dodge’s NASCAR teams. I remember one discussion at the Chicago Auto Show about the Viper’s issues at the St. Petersburg, Florida street race in the American Le Mans series (the name for IMSA when the Panoz family ran the racing series). Gilles has no qualms talking about the problems his team had during the race and what they are learning for the next one that season. 

Welburn would play a major role at my visit to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit back in 2013. He was the man who signed off on the C7 Chevrolet Corvette and took pride in the creation of their signature sports car. A few years later, Welburn retired from GM with one more contribution to the automotive world – the trophy for the North American Car/Truck/Utility of The Year. 

At the same time, Ed Welburn held sway at the General Motors Design Center in Warren. Twenty years Gilles’ senior, Welburn would become the Vice President of Global Design at GM. He cut his teeth as an intern in 1971, with a portfolio of designs that still resonate today. 

I never met Welburn. But, I have seen him at major auto shows in Detroit and Chicago. Always professional and surrounded by his team. The complete opposite of the stylish Gilles, but Welburn was on equal footing in terms of influence and power at their respective automakers. 

However, I am very concerned about the role Gilles will play after the merger into Stellantis. The company’s CEO, Carlos Tavares has Gilles paired up with his former-Groupe PSA counterpart Jean-Pierre Ploue. At least he will still be in charge of the former brands of FCA under this arrangement. 

These two gentlemen are a reflection of an industry committed to diversity across the board. They are also two of the icons among black automotive professionals. 

However, there are a lot of other black men and women that should be celebrated. Not just during Black History Month, but every day this industry is in operation. Men and women who are in decision-making positions, creatives, engineers, assembly-line workers, communications professionals, and fellow media members. 

Photo courtesy of Ken Chester/Roadworthy Drive Productions

You've already met Vehicle of The Year Award panelist Ken Chester. He is one of many automotive media professionals who cover our industry who I have been fortunate to have worked alongside over these past ten years or more. I also look to other great scribes and influencers, including Crystal Lewis (another Vehicle of The Year panelist), Kimtani Rawlins, Brian Armstead, Roosevelt Gist – among many others.

I also had the fortune to see other industry people who are making their inroads at their respective companies. Sabin Blake was presented to me on a video produced by GM during the "It Gets Better" awareness campaign towards LGBT youth. I meet him in 2013, when he was at Cadillac. Now, Blake is manager of Business Operations and Heritage at GM and is involved with the LGBT employee resource group, GM PLUS.

There are plenty of names and faces I was honored to meet in this business, representing nothing but black excellence in their field. These are the movers and shakers that need to be recognized and honored not only during Black History Month – but, every day.

This is not a political statement. Rather it is a reminder for us to celebrate those who have given us depth through diversity, community, success, and leadership. Their work stands above all else. That is how you honor the great black men and women who are a part of this wonderful industry we work in!

All photos by Randy Stern, except otherwise noted

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