In Ralph Gilles's 1000-HP "Hellucination" Dodge Charger, We Fight Temptation

·7 min read
Photo credit: FRANCO GUTIERREZ
Photo credit: FRANCO GUTIERREZ

Ralph Gilles's 1968 Dodge Charger, "Hellucination," is a two-seater. The removal of the rear bench just one of many modifications from its stock muscle-car origins. Yet, despite the roll bar blocking access to the back, there were four personalities along for the ride: Gilles, me, and the angel/devil battle taking place on my shoulders.

Never has a car been built to be more of a temptation than this high-horsepower, carbon-fiber-bodied pavement striper. The whine of the supercharger is like a Thanksgiving dinner left on a table at shoulder height to a Labrador retriever. The slim leather-wrapped steering wheel sits delicate in the hand like a champagne flute at a bridal shower. "Go on," it beckons. "Toss it back and have another." The throttle pedal is firm underfoot: damp sand at the beach, waves incoming. "Press it more," cries the devil, who, in this scenario, looks a lot like Gilles himself. "It really doesn't get good till 4000 rpm. See if you can find an underpass and really get on it." The angel, who appears to be a conglomeration of Car and Driver editor-in-chief Tony Quiroga and the entire Hearst legal department, shakes its head. "This is how your career ends," the angel says. "In a cloud of carbon splinters and shame."

Photo credit: Franco Gutierrez
Photo credit: Franco Gutierrez

Back to reality, I solved the problem by getting stuck behind a semi truck on a winding road—a grave disappointment to the shoulder devil but a good opportunity to talk to Gilles about what prompted the build and how hard it is to design the perfect hood bulge.

Gilles is an automotive industry favorite. He's stylish, poetic, and ever enthusiastic, whether discussing his own work on such vehicles as the Chrysler 300, the SRT Grand Cherokee, and the Dodge Viper, or his and wife Doris's love of vintage Alfas, Viper track days, and classic-car rallies.

Photo credit: Franco Gutierrez
Photo credit: Franco Gutierrez

Gilles started work at Stellantis (then Chrysler) in 1992. He's currently global president of product design, overseeing new vehicles across the product lineup. This Charger was a personal project, a partnership with Wisconsin-based custom shop SpeedKore. The team at SpeedKore specializes in composite work but also in 3D printing and CNC machining, so in addition to the body, various aluminum trim pieces, like the smoothed out flip-top fuel-filler and the sleek door handles, were designed and made in-house.

The car sits low like a channeled NASCAR racer, which gives it a wide stance, although the body lines are unchanged aside from frenching in the bumpers. The car's final weight is around 3990 pounds, with a 55/45 weight bias. The interior features leather-trimmed Recaro buckets and custom door panels, rear package tray, dash, and roof liner—all colors and materials approved by Gilles via Zoom calls and FedEx packages during the three-year build.

This is the fifth carbon-bodied Charger SpeedKore has built. Surprisingly, for a man who worked on the design of the new one, it's the first classic Dodge in Gilles's garage.

"I've never had an old car. I've always wanted one," said Gilles, quickly adding the caveat—after I made argumentative noises about his ownership of classic Giulias—that he has "never had an American beast." Like many Charger desirers of a certain age, Gilles got the bug for a Coke-bottle Dodge as a kid, watching The Dukes of Hazzard. "It's controversial now," he said, "the flag, but I don't think it came across that way back then. Well, my dad didn't like it, but I just noticed the car." He laughed and gave me a cheeky grin. "It would be quite the flex for a Black man to drive a General Lee . . ."

Photo credit: Naveed Yousufzai/FCA
Photo credit: Naveed Yousufzai/FCA

If Gilles considered orange paint and welded doors on a '69, he resisted in favor of a more subtle flex with a modern interpretation of the '68 model. "To me, the '68 is the most elegant of all of them. I admit the taillamps in the '69 are more interesting, but as a designer, typically the first version is the purest statement. After that it's a marketing thing. The original clean front end of this one, I love that. Understated."

That's Not a Wrap

Understated might not be the word you'd first come up with for an unpainted carbon-fiber body with trim in matte bronzes and grays, riding on custom HRE wheels in a 19- and 20-inch stagger, but somehow the final product is both sophisticated and subtle, while still promising downright feral performance from the crate 7.0L under the hood. From a distance, it appears all black. Only when you get closer can you see the weave, under deep layers of amber-tinted clear gloss. "A lot of people give me a thumbs up, like just, "Cool Charger," and when they get closer, you can see it in their eyes the moment they realize it's a one-of-one thing.

"Some of them can't comprehend it. They think it's a wrap. I had to stop a guy who had his thumbnail at the corner of a fender, trying to peel it back. Overall, people get it, though, they get the work that went in. I've had other cars, I had a Ferrari 458 for a few years, and it got respect, but this gets . . .[he mimed the look of a muscle-car enthusiast who's just had their mind blown.]"

Number 1

While Gilles has wanted a Charger since he was a kid, the Hellucination build started with an engine and no car at all. When Mopar Performance announced it would offer a 1000-horse version of its Hellcat V-8, Gilles was first in line to place an order. "I bought it as soon as they were available. I bought it before I even had the car. This happens to be number one, the very first public one." It took years to get the crate engine into a Charger's engine bay. There were COVID issues, parts delays, and design discussions. "We went back and forth on a hood about four or five times. They actually made two different scoops. I hated them. Too boxy, Kleenex boxes. I ended up doing sections by hand until we got it right."

Somewhere around this point, the truck in front of us turned off, and the next few minutes of the recording are just supercharger howl, various swear words and laughing, and finally Gilles saying, "Oh hey, I found this rattle that's been bugging me, it's the fire extinguisher pin."

Driving the Hellucination, especially as the owner of a stock '69 Charger, is like meeting someone as an adult whom you previously hung out with as a teen. The same personality is there, but chiseled and refined. Corners where a classic muscle car would lean and squeal can be taken with confidence, thanks to both the Detroit Speed coil-over suspension—which replaces the original torsion bars and leaf springs—and the jam-sticky Pilot Sport 4S rubber. The rear 345/30Z-20 tires take an unexpected amount of power without breaking loose, although there wasn't a straightaway in town long enough to floor it and stay in it. Gilles had SpeedKore detune the engine, perhaps in planning for media drives, but even with an estimated 800 ponies, one feels no sense of restriction; most drag races could be won without ever cracking past half-throttle.

Photo credit: Naveed Yousufzai/FCA
Photo credit: Naveed Yousufzai/FCA

It's not accurate to say that it drives like a new Charger, although the Brembo brakes and eight-speed ZF automatic transmission do feel familiar to anyone who has piloted a Hellcat or a Redeye. It has new-car crispness, but the view is all classic. The carefully worked hood scoop, the landscape of dash and front end, the breeze from the triangular wing windows: it melds together with the modern engine and suspension to make something that allows for more vigorous driving than a vintage car but feels special at any speed, like a cartoon rocket zipping past a clutter of floating satellites.

"It's actually pretty civilized," said Gilles as we pulled back into the parking lot. "Doris and I wanted something we could take on trips, really enjoy."

The shoulder devil perked up. "We could also take this on trips and really enjoy," it said. "Don't give him back the keys."

And truly, I was tempted.

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