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  • Interview: Joe Dehner, Head of Ram and Mopar Design

Interview: Joe Dehner, Head of Ram and Mopar Design

Bitten by the Mopar Bug

Gary Witzenburg
Jul 14, 2016
Photographers: Courtesy Of Ram
Joe Dehner grew up in Indianapolis and still attends the Indianapolis 500 every year with family and friends. As a kid, he enjoyed building model cars and sketching cars and racecars, and he studied fine arts, commercial art, and photography in high school.
He discovered auto design in a catalog for the Cleveland Institute of Arts, where he ended up going. "Flipping through this catalog, I saw a student designer modeling an exterior clay model,” he recalls. “That was one of those aha moments where you say, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Following graduation, Joe hired in at Chrysler as a designer in 1988. He was named passenger-car exterior design manager in 1997 and promoted to design director of small, family, and premium vehicles in 2000. He moved to director of Jeep and truck design in 2006 and then was named vice president over car, minivan, truck, and Jeep design in 2007. Following the 2009 Fiat merger, he became head of Ram and Dodge design and, in 2015, added Mopar design.
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Truck Trend: Why Chrysler?
Joe Dehner: I was firmly committed to working for an American company, not interested in working for an import. The economy was a little shaky at the time, and not everyone was hiring, but there were openings at Chrysler. I sent my portfolio in and went up for an interview. After looking at a few pieces of my work, the Design VP at the time [Tom Gale] made me an offer on the spot, which blew me away. Chrysler was in a renaissance, reinventing themselves, moving from an era of K cars to new stuff, and their show cars—Viper, Slingshot, Intrepid—were the most advanced out there. They set the world on edge. That's really what attracted me. Plus, Chrysler is smaller, so things happen faster here. When we get feedback and information on things we need to do, it's not from a big, red-tape–infused bureaucratic process.
TT: What was your first assignment?
JD: I was in an advanced studio. One of the first things they had me working on was the Optima show car that was a precursor to the LH sedans. That was scary. I had never worked on a fullsize property before or with such a large team. It was exciting times, but I would be lying if I said there weren't a few sleepless nights. It was an awesome, memorable experience.
TT: Did you own any interesting cars as a kid?
JD: I had a ’49 Ford pickup that sat idle more than it ran, and a ’64 Dodge 318 that was my first attraction to Mopar. My friend, whose dad worked at a Dodge dealership, used to bring home demonstrators, including a Dodge Charger Daytona with the big wing, and what attracted me to Mopar stuff were the colors and stripes. They were not just aurally loud but also visually loud, so I got bitten by the Mopar bug in junior high and high school. The fact that I ended up working for Chrysler was really cool because I kind of had it in my blood.
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TT: Were you attracted to trucks?
JD: Once I got through all the show cars and car stuff, trucks appealed to me because they are very modular and functional. They mean different things to different people, from the base tradesman working truck to premium luxury trucks that may never go off-road. Trucks are one of the last American homegrown design projects. They are becoming more global, especially Ram as a brand, but they are born, bred, designed, and engineered here in the States.
TT: What is new and exciting in Ram design?
JD: I can't speak about future product, but it's hiding right in front of you. In the last year, we've introduced the Rebel with a unique front end with no crosshair or ram's head. Instead, we've gone to the word "Ram." We did that on the light-duty Limited, then on the 2500 Limited, then the new Power Wagon. So all of a sudden, we have four vehicles in our lineup that don't have a crosshair or ram's head. What's going on? We're experimenting. We know this is polarizing and some are not fans of it, but a vast majority are, and that's reflected in our sales. We can't keep Rebels on the shelf. So we're on to something. Trucks are probably the most conservative products in the most conservative market, but we're not going to sit on our hands and rest on our past. We own the big-rig look, and we're going to continue to capitalize on that, but it's time for a change, time to move beyond the crosshair and ram's head. It's an experiment that's playing out, and we're listening and seeing where to go from here.
Remember that Dodge and Ram were together, then separated and went their own ways. Maybe the Ram is still a Dodge in some customer's minds, and maybe that ram's head perpetuates that thought. When we put the word "Ram" on there, hopefully they think of Ram, not Dodge. It won't happen overnight, but I think we're making progress. With those four vehicles, we're trying a new aesthetic and getting the brand's name out there in big letters. Maybe even getting some new customers who have never thought of Ram in the past.
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TT: What is Mopar design?
JD: We have a myriad of interior and exterior components for all of the brands—Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep, Fiat—that have upfit and aftermarket components, and I have a handful of designers and a manager in my studio who are dedicated to Mopar 24/7. Last year at SEMA, 10 concept vehicles came out of my group. And for Moab this year, two of seven concept vehicles—the Trailcat and Trailstorm—came out of my shop. The Trailcat is a Wrangler with a 707hp Hellcat engine, which may be the craziest combination ever, but it's very custom built with the wheelbase stretched 12 inches. A very unique aesthetic.
TT: What is your design philosophy?
JD: My design philosophy is really about proportion. To me, styling is a component of design, but it has to look good proportionally because no amount of styling is going to mask bad proportions. And every American brand has design heritage. We don't want a redesign to be a retro statement, but I think there has to be a nod to heritage to show a strain of DNA from the past that makes its way to the future. I like to be very open-minded when designers are sketching on projects, but ultimately we have a hint of Ram DNA coming through.

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