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It was Ralph Gilles's aunt who first told Chrysler that he sketched a mean car and should be a designer in Detroit.

Never mind that he was just 14 at the time and not far removed from playing with Hot Wheels and Formula 1 race car models.

" 'My nephew sketches cars, you guys should hire him,' " she wrote to then-Chrysler-chairman Lee Iacocca, recalls Mr. Gilles, now 35 and in charge of the Chrysler design studio responsible for developing the auto maker's hottest-selling cars.

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Chrysler's 300 and 300C sedans, the Dodge Magnum station wagon and the Dodge Charger sedan, which was unveiled this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, are all the result of Mr. Gilles's now-refined pen, and were designed from the wheels up under his leadership at Studio 3. The 300 series and the Magnum have caught fire, so much so that the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler AG will soon add a third shift of workers at a plant in Brampton, Ont., to keep up with demand.

When Mr. Gilles was growing up in Montreal in the 1970s and 1980s, there were thousands of other children of Haitian immigrant parents playing with cars.

He's likely the only one, however, whose career was kick-started by a response to that letter from his aunt, with a senior Chrysler design executive suggesting that the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit was an appropriate place for a young man who wanted to turn drawing cars into a career designing them.

So it's hardly a surprise that when he graduated in 1992 from the prestigious downtown design factory -- after being one of the handful of students chosen annually to study transportation design -- he chose Chrysler.

Nor is it a shock that the man who eventually came to run Studio 3, and was thus mainly responsible for recreating the Dodge Charger, was a childhood addict of The Dukes of Hazzard, the good-old-boy television series that featured an orange Charger called the General Lee.

"I used to watch Dukes of Hazzard like my life depended on it," Mr. Gilles said. "I loved that show. I'd get a bowl of cereal and just stake out the television."

The Gilles look features powerful grilles, clean lines and aggressive stances, all of which go back to the Viper, which is why he chose Chrysler.

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The Viper was the macho, in-your-face muscle car that Chrysler developed in 1991 to show the automotive world that it had rebounded from its latest financial crisis and was going to claim design leadership. He eventually became primary interior designer for his beloved Viper.

Since that design is finished, he has switched hats. On weekends, he plays with the Viper (hitting a top speed of 275 kilometres an hour during a race in Virginia) and his two young daughters, while running the studio during the week.

The car he drives to Studio 3 in Auburn Hills, Mich., from his home in nearby Lake Orion, is a Chrysler 300C SRT-8, a high-powered version of the 300C whose initials stand for street and racing technology and which is not yet on sale to the general public.

It's at Studio 3, with its close-knit crew of designers, engineers and clay modelers, that Mr. Gilles tries to put into reality the cues he receives from other cars (Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among those he praises) as well as furniture magazines and even cellphones.

"You blink your eye and there's a new model. I find that very fascinating and we try to apply some of that to the interior design especially."

When it came time for the biggest leap Chrysler has made in the passenger-car side of the business in decades -- switching to rear-wheel-drive sedans from front-wheel-drive -- inspiration wasn't far away.

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He turned to the 1950s and 60s, the heyday of Detroit iron. He considered the 1955 Chrysler 500 and liked what he saw.

"In its day, it was the least ostentatious of those cars. The wings were not crazy like some of the Cadillacs. They used to call it the bankers' muscle car."

The design of the new Chrysler family of rear-wheel-drive cars speaks to the "fabulous automotive heritage of Detroit," said Imre Molnar, dean of the school from which Mr. Gilles graduated, now called the College for Creative Studies.

"We haven't seen anything like that from American brands since the [Ford]Taurus back in the mid- to late-1980s," Mr. Molnar said.

He points to such groundbreaking Chrysler designs throughout the 1990s as the PT Cruiser and others, as vehicles that gave U.S. designers permission to push the envelope.

When it came time to resurrect the Charger, Mr. Gilles could also draw from the 1968 movie Bullitt. The 10-minute car-chase scene between a Ford Mustang and a black Charger through the streets of San Francisco is perhaps the most famous in movie history.

Predictably, it's one of Mr. Gilles's favourite movies. "The car looks so mean and sinister. And that attitude of Charger is really what's important."

Both Mr. Imre and Mr. Gilles argue that the design of the new line sets a standard for others to top.

Mr. Gilles says his own studio will also have to surpass that bar.

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