“When we almost hit rock bottom, those were the times when there was the most opportunity."
Looking back, perhaps the industry was always in Tom Gale’s genes.
When you cruise the streets of historic Woodward Ave. in downtown Detroit, Mich., night after night as a teenager, it’s easy to believe that gasoline and oil flow through your veins.
When you’re a professional drag racer at age 16, it’s natural to think the future has four wheels and that you’re steering it.
And when you take off for your first solo cruise at just 18 months of age, maybe there’s some destiny involved?
As the story goes, the child who grew up to become one of the auto industry’s great designers of his time, got away from his mother one afternoon outside a Flint, Mich., butcher shop. For some reason, the 18-month-old boy was attracted to the roaring engine of the city bus parked outside. Why not take a ride? Had little Tom not waved good bye to his mother at the last moment, had she not stopped the bus in a panic, and had the boy not felt the rush of engines pulling away from that store, who knows where the future would have taken Tom Gale? “I guess I was always fascinated with vehicles,” Gale once told trade publication Automotive Industries. It never wavered. In more than three decades in the auto industry with Chrysler, Gale led with a charge that was all his own, from the way the business used concept cars to the way Chrysler reinvented itself. His design and leadership was the tip of the sword for a product revival. His creativity and risk-taking led a company in a bold new direction.
Cab-forward design. Viper power. Ram toughness. And PT Cruiser hysteria. It was mostly Gale’s doing. He set the industry’s design standards for the 1990s the way Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell did for their eras. The desire was always there. It was there when a young Tom used to obsessively draw in the margins of his Grade 4 tests or when he would enter his clown paintings in contests at the Institute of Arts in his hometown of Flint. Maybe he had General Motors to thank for all of it. Gale’s passion could have come from his father, a lifelong GM employee in town. Gale began his career at Chrysler in 1967 after graduating from Michigan State University and spending a few summers working as a student at General Motors to help pay off school.
GM had offered Gale a job as a designer and Chrysler was looking for an engineer. But Gale chose Chrysler because he “could move from engineering to design, but I might not be able to move the other way,” he remembered.
But right off the bat, something wasn’t right.
Gale, a car nut who owned a Buick and used to spend those summer nights cruising down Detroit’s main drag, was appalled at Chrysler’s lineup.
“Chrysler didn’t have anything I really wanted,” he said.
Gale worked to change that.
After rising through the ranks, he would endure the best and worst of times at Chrysler: the near-bankruptcy a couple of decades ago; the government bailout; and, finally, his own quiet revolution.
“When we almost hit rock bottom, those were the times when there was the most opportunity,” he said.
He began by encouraging Chrysler management to make one-third of his design staff “Advanced Product Designers,” or concept-car designers. It was a radical change from the days of K-Cars.
“We had to ignite passion,” Gale once said, “and design is at the heart of that emotional fire.”
Gale saw strength in the design team he helped create and in the concepts that presented opportunity. Both set Chrysler in a better direction.
Gale is best known for leading a series of concepts and, later, production-vehicle introductions that began to transform the Chrysler and Dodge brands into something more aggressive.
In 1987, his four-door Portofino concept was the vehicle that sparked the revolution that led to the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Neon vehicles.
It was Gale’s first crack at “cab-forward” design, a phrase that came to define the company in the 1990s. Push the wheels out farther for more interior room, more stability and a better ride. The windshield and the rear window were steeply angled and the appearance was sporty and futuristic.
Launched at the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany, it stunned many who thought of Chrysler as the “K-Car company.”
Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca was so impressed, Gale’s design influenced many more vehicles.
In 1991, there was the 300 concept, the first in a string of big, powerful concepts. Then came the Cirrus, another cab-forward product that was a preview of future models.
By 1992, the Viper sports car helped establish Dodge as an out-of-the-box thinker.
Gale added the Prowler roadster, the Ram truck and the PT Cruiser, the first vehicle launched as both a show car and production vehicle.
After 33 years and one enormous stamp on the industry, Gale had left his mark and decided to spend more time with his other passion: his own cars.
As a product of the 1950s, Gale always loved performance cars. His personal collection included a 1970 Barracuda and one of the first Viper roadsters and a coupe.
He restored Porsches from the 1950s. He has longed to own Corvette Stingrays, BMW 3-Series, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
It’s no surprise, really. Cars and Gale.
Think of that kid who left his mother’s hand to board that bus.
Think of the possibilities.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.