Chrysler was barely breathing in 1985 when Tom Gale (1943- ) unexpectedly took over as the company's director of design. He proceeded to give concept cars a luster that they had lacked since the great days of the GM Motorama in the early 1950s, and he saved Chrysler in the process.
Gale grew up in Flint, Mich., during the 1950s and cruised Woodward Avenue in Detroit at a time when a car's custom look was just as important as its speed. (Perhaps this accounts for his ownership of a '58 Chevy, one of the last gasps of the Age of Chrome.) He graduated from Michigan State in 1966 with a degree in engineering, but he had taken art classes in high school and knew his future lay in automotive design.
But when Gale drove his '65 Buick Grand Sport to Chrysler to take a position as a body engineer, he discovered that the great days of Virgil Exner's sleek, rocket-like designs were long past. He says that Chrysler's relationship with Mitsubishi in the early 1980s really made him a designer, as his work with the Dodge Stealth and Eagle Talon let him show what Chrysler's younger generation could do.
Lee Iacocca gave control of Chrysler design to Gale in 1985 just after the company had been rescued by federal loans. As Gale looked at the dowdy K-cars in the company's lineup, he knew that a clean break with the past was required. He made the creation of concept cars a corporate priority, figuring that auto shows gave him the best opportunity to sell the merits of his designs to both consumers and the money managers on Wall Street.
The 1987 Portofino from Neil Walling's group at the Chrysler Pacifica studio introduced the cab-forward sedan, a stunning rearrangement of proportions that stretched the impression of interior space. Its success enabled Gale to let his designers focus on new ideas for cars, not just re-skins of existing hardware. Other car companies followed Chrysler's lead, and auto shows became venues for seeing three-dimensional plans for the future rather than irrelevant design exercises.
Gale and his design partners Trevor Creed and John Herlitz completely remade Chrysler, and the cars they created came to define every market segment, notably the second-generation Minivan, the LH sedans and even the Neon. The 1992 Viper expressed pure aggression, while the 1993 Prowler recreated the American hot rod. The 1994 Dodge Ram pickup forged an imaginative link with big rig trucks. The 2001 PT Cruiser not only captured the retro look in a brilliant way, it also brought extreme style to low-cost family transportation.
Gale retired from Chrysler in 2000, not long after the merger with DaimlerBenz. He built a '33 Ford highboy roadster with a hemi V8, and formed a design consultancy that created a line of instruments for Classic Instruments Inc. Much like Harley Earl, Gale revolutionized the role of design in the automotive industry with his leadership and guidance rather than his pencil. You have only to look at the recent offerings from both Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz to think that we would be better off if he were still in charge.