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Driven by Design, an Interview with Dodge and SRT's Mark Trostle

Dodge and SRT Head of Design Mark Trostle.
Dodge and SRT Head of Design Mark Trostle.

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

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Over the last two years I’ve gotten to know the Head of Design at Dodge and SRT Mark Trostle. From walking car shows like Autorama and SEMA to racing Vipers and Hellcats at Bondurant, it’s pretty cool to talk and experience form and function with someone who’s intimately involved at both ends in the car creating process. It’s especially cool when he’s within a company pushing the envelope of performance and design. From PR to engineers to designers to executives, the folks at Dodge and SRT are truly passionate about what they create. Passion is almost impossible to fake. Passion gives life to talent and brings joy to hard work.

They’re also a group not afraid to take a chance to get their story told. Not the least of which was to hand a welder from Detroit the keys to an Extreme Aero Viper ACR for a 5,100 mile road trip, or to slide me the Red key to multiple Hellcats for burnouts from here to Las Vegas. Dodge/SRT has given me the access and opportunity to tell interesting stories, and I’ve tried to take advantage of that.

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No road trip I’ve written about has been a car review, it’s always been about the experience. As much as anything, that’s what a performance vehicle should be about. Mark gets that.

Mark with his 2017 Viper, VIN 00001
Mark with his 2017 Viper, VIN 00001

Josh Welton: Where did the roots of your design career take hold?

Mark Trostle: My father was a huge influence, he really put the gas in my veins and helped me learn to draw.

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Back in the day there was an automotive design contest for local high schoolers featured at the Detroit Autorama, which awarded a scholarship to attend the city’s College for Creative Studies. Winning this as a youngster kind of kick started my career. I interned at GM and Chrysler while at CCS; Chrysler was really where I wanted to be due to what Tom Gale was doing at that time. Tom and, ironically enough, the Viper show car I saw during my sophomore year at CCS. That drew me to this place...I started in 1992 at the age of 22! I spent time in production studios my first few years. I worked on the 1996 Chrysler LHX concept vehicle, then the following year the Chrysler Phaeton concept, and then the 1998 Dodge ESX. I later spent time in our Advanced design studios, both in California and Auburn Hills. I also spent 4 years in Jeep Design and the Dodge Ram studio as a Manager. Other vehicles I was able to put my stamp on were the Ram SRT-10 truck and the LX cars: the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Challenger. Then of course most recently the Viper. For the past 5 years I’ve been the head of SRT, taking over all of Dodge and SRT Design (while still reporting to Ralph) within the last 2 years.

2002 Sketch of SRT-10 Ram
2002 Sketch of SRT-10 Ram
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JW: Is there an observed motto for your team? And how much does it differ from brand to brand? What’s the biggest different between your behavior towards a Dodge product versus a SRT project?

MT: We definitely separate ourselves from the other brands at FCA, as they do from the Dodge/SRT brand. We are the American performance brand of FCA. We want to keep our brands pure and I think you’re seeing that in our latest products. Every Dodge product has the ‘bones’ to become an SRT. Every Dodge vehicle has the image, style, and performance to separate it from others in its class. The SRT versions take that performance and visual attitude to the next level. We always think of both products while we’re designing them.

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JW: As a designer, how much thought regarding safety, efficiency, and performance versus beauty or styling is given at the genesis of a vehicle? Or is it more important to elicit emotion from the word Go, and then fill in the rest later?

MT: Certainly; at the beginning of any program the idea is to put as much emotion and beauty into our sketches and concepts as possible. Obviously safety, performance and efficiency will all play into it, but it’s important to push the design up front. That being said, there is recognition of aero/wind tunnel inputs and manufacturing requirements throughout the process, and safety is of the utmost importance.

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When designing a vehicle such as the Viper and Viper ACR, we know from the word go that it needs to not only be beautiful and compelling, but it must also perform at the highest level.

ACR Viper wind tunnel; this is the car SRT tested at the track in plain sight.
ACR Viper wind tunnel; this is the car SRT tested at the track in plain sight.
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JW: How difficult is it to retain form while maintaining and/or introducing function? 

MT: In demanding our vehicles be beautiful and sculptural while still integrating function, we separate ‘styling’ vs ‘design’. Working side by side with our engineering counterparts, both in the wind tunnel and on the manufacturing side, allows us to keep both. Now as designers we are able to create “forms” like the Viper ACR’s wings, dive planes, and splitter that not only look like pieces you could hang on your wall as art, but are also extremely functional.

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JW: Design for form, deconstruct for function, re-introduce form. I know you mentioned that most of the time you can keep both. Is this a tedious process or something you enjoy? Just as an example, Are you hands on right in the tunnel or do you need to go back to the board?

MT: I enjoy this part of design for sure; being in the tunnel we can help problem solve in real time. It can be a long and tedious process. Some of the best ‘team’ moments I’ve experienced are working with Scott Krugger, Mike Shinedling and Jeff Reece late, very late, at night, in the wind tunnel developing the front end of the Viper to get the right aero balance needed for a 200+ MPH car. It’s amazing what slight surface tweaks in the right spots can do to a car’s aero balance. Again, meeting the performance and functional needs of our vehicles while still making them fresh and beautiful to our customers is always my goal. I love that challenge.

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Viper ACR developmental car in the wind tunnel.
Viper ACR developmental car in the wind tunnel.

JW: Do you think 3D printing/rapid prototyping will ever replace the clay model?

MT: I think using both allows us to develop a vehicle more efficiently; we currently combine the techniques when designing a vehicle. We can utilize a 3D printed component and still make adjustments in real time by adding clay. I think it will always be an important step in the design process to create a 3D verification to verify a design. Clay adds is another tool that our sculptors, many of whom I consider artists, can use to refine the surface. To me a beautiful shape or form is one that a person wants to touch (I love nothing more than washing a car by hand!) and developing a clay model allows us to add a human touch into its surface development. There is a lot of back and forth from clay, rapid prototyping and electronic surface creation throughout the design development.

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Working the body in the tunnel.
Working the body in the tunnel.

JW: Do you still sketch on paper or is most of your drawing done now with a stylus?

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MT: Most of us still start with the old school pen to paper to create rough concepts or ‘napkin’ ideas. We still sketch on any piece of paper we can find when inspiration hits. From there it’s scanned or re-drawn in either Photoshop or Alias with a stylus and tablet. The stylus/tablet is definitely an efficient tool in generating a lot of sketches quickly as variations such as DLO (day light opening) shapes, unique front ends, or even body sides can be created by adding another layer over your drawing and hitting print as versus, say, having to re-draw and render a sketch to show another idea.

Evolution of a ‘Cat
Evolution of a ‘Cat
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JW: How closely do you and your team work with engineers throughout a project’s cycle?

MT: We work very close with engineering from beginning to end. In fact, we have engineers that sit within our design studio. It’s excellent to have them within our team, as they help us to communicate our needs to the larger engineering community. Design is able to directly challenge engineering in order to retain the theme of our design. In doing this nothing gets lost in translation. Within SRT I have a very close relationship with the engineering team. We have a mutual respect for each other, as they want our products to have a visual and emotional appeal and I want our products to be functional and perform the best they can. I think we have a unique relationship because of our collective ‘passions’ for the Dodge and SRT products.

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Illustration for article titled Driven by Design, an Interview with Dodge and SRTs Mark Trostle

JW: A couple of my “artist” friends who I’ve known for years (Chris Piscatelli & Keven Carter) now work in design at FCA, and I’ve more recently met a few more (like Jeff Gale and Ren Stone). The common thread is that, beyond the 9 to 5, they love the car culture. I’m guessing that isn’t an accident. When you’re looking at hiring talent is that something you ask about, is it something that’s important, or does it pretty much just go hand in hand that a car designer is gonna be a gear head?

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MT: I think most car designers have an underlying passion for the automobile and, of course, design. The designers that we hire are usually the ones that live cars as their life. I truly believe that the best car designers are the ones that never turn it off. Ralph Gilles, Head of Global design for FCA, is a perfect example: he’s a racer and car fantastic who is always taking up for the car community. I believe that passion is a very important key to being a successful designer. In attending every type of car event, whether it’s a Concourse, road race, or local hot rod show, it’s seeing creativity...the good and bad and old and new cars that spark ideas and thoughts that I can use every day in designing future vehicles. It’s never just a day job. Designers are always looking for inspiration.

Mark, myself, and Jeff Gale looking for inspiration in Mark’s ‘17 Viper and ‘32 roadster.
Mark, myself, and Jeff Gale looking for inspiration in Mark’s ‘17 Viper and ‘32 roadster.
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JW: What do you do to nurture a creative culture? Is there anything that’s just way out of the box you’ve tried to get juices flowing?

MT: Sometimes I’ve gotten into trouble by trying to inspire my team!! It involved some gravity racing… LOL. Creativity is something that can’t always be turned on, but creating an environment that people are passionate about helps. My personal philosophy is that every day could be a ‘shit’ day, if I allow it, whether it’s not getting a design the way I want or having to make changes because of an engineering issue, so on and so forth. But if you embrace the challenge and take the opportunity to still do the best with your team it keeps the momentum going and the creative element there. Enthusiasm breads enthusiasm, and if we’re all inspired we keep that excitement within the Dodge and SRT design studio. I’m lucky that I work with some of the most driven, talented, and passionate designers in the industry.

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FCA Design teams ready to race. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission...”
FCA Design teams ready to race. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission...”

JW: You’ve been with the company a long time. So have Ralph and Tim Kuniskis (Head of Passenger Car Brands-North America). As a guy who was a millwright at Chrysler through some of its darkest years, I’m not gonna lie...it’s satisfying to see the people who stayed now calling the shots.

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I’ve talked to engineers, brand managers, executives, and PR who legitimately believe in (and love) what they do. It feels like there is a core of passionate people within FCA that have pushed an “emotional” agenda from both a style and performance angle for years, no matter what kind of turmoil or craziness is happening at the ownership level. It’s perhaps taken a while, but how do you feel about it all coming together in regards to interior and exterior styling, performance, efficiency, and quality?

MT: In my 24 years at Chrysler, now FCA, I can honestly say that these are the best times for our products. The attention to detail and passion that our leadership has is outstanding. Tim and Ralph are definitely an inspiration to the Dodge and SRT products and teams. I think that we have all seen and been through a lot over the years, but we’ve never lost the passion and desire to create products for our passionate customers. There is a good chemistry that exists between the Dodge brand team, Engineering and Design. We all want to create exciting and wonderful products and it’s now happening.

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SRT Hellcat looking forward in Detroit.
SRT Hellcat looking forward in Detroit.

JW: As a tradesman I understand substance, and as an artist I think I understand style. Do you value one over the other?

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MT: Of course I love the ‘style’. However I think that to truly have something great you need both. I look at the Hellcat Challenger and Charger and the Viper; they have beauty but they have also accomplished the things they were designed to do among the best in their respective classes. A good designer or artist should have both, and I think it will show it the work when they do.

JW: How does it feel to drive a thing or use a feature that you maybe once thought into existence with a pen and paper? Is it ever exactly like you imagine it?

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MT: It was my dream as kid to be a car designer. No one person can ever say they were the only person that made a vehicle look the way it does, but to be a part of the team and lead a vehicle design from a concept sketch to a production vehicle is unreal. I always find it interesting to gauge people’s reactions when we introduce a new vehicle, a vehicle I’ve been looking at for 3 to 4 years, one I know like the back of my hand. Seeing the reaction of our customers when they catch their first glimpse is the best. We know that a design will evolve from that first emotional sketch that gives you goose bumps to a final production vehicle. We’ve done our job well when that final product has the ‘soul’ and emotion of the first sketch and you still get goose bumps looking at it.

Viper ACR, the soul and emotionmade it to production.
Viper ACR, the soul and emotionmade it to production.
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JW: What excites you as a designer, and are they the same things that excite you as an enthusiast?

MT: I love creating a car that makes the hair stand up on my arms, on others’ arms. I love to problem solve an issue while still keeping the emotional quality of a design. I love the process of inspiring and developing my designers and their work. Those are the things that excite me every day. That’s why I think I love my job so much. The fact that I still get excited by sitting in my garage and staring at one of my cars for hours at night is why I want to help design and build vehicles that impact our customers the same way!

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Mark, his Viper, and the infamous barn...
Mark, his Viper, and the infamous barn...

Ralph Gilles graduated from CCS in the same small class as Mark, and has now worked with him for over 2 decades. I asked Ralph about Mark’s influence on Dodge, SRT, and FCA as a whole:

“Mark is a people pleasing leader, a practicing enthusiast, but also a true tastemaker. He has a great feel for what is trending and how to capture it from an OEM’s point of view, but he also has the ability to consciously set out to start an altogether new trend. Working with the brand and his team he’s able to push Dodge in a new direction while balancing that with a careful respect of our past.” -RG

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JW: Now for a few final thoughts from Mark. What are your personal goals for the future? Are there specific Dodge/SRT products that you’re looking forward to? Where do you see the brand in 5 years, if you had your way?

MT: My personal goals are to continue to design exciting vehicles, and to enjoy the ride along the way! It feels good to be a part of an era and a company that is creating some of the most epic Dodge and SRT vehicles ever produced. Without giving anything away, all I can say is that I love working in the future!

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This interview was done early last year. I took a long time to finish it. Mark’s still not giving much away...
This interview was done early last year. I took a long time to finish it. Mark’s still not giving much away...

The competition that helped ignited Mark’s career had gone away for a good number of years. With so many high school counselors telling car-obsessed-would-be-artists “no, there’s no good prospect in drawing cars,” much like Mark himself experienced, he and FCA felt it important to bring the contest back. They renamed it the Drive for Design and over the last few years the winners were announced and awarded at Detroit’s Autorama. This year’s victors will be presented at the EyesOn Design show hosted at the glorious Edsel Ford estate. A $50,000 scholarship to Lawrence Tech, and perhaps the jumpstart to another architect of automotive design’s future, is at stake.

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