Mark Trostle is Detroit born and bred.
His dad (also named Mark) is a legend in the automotive industry, which means the younger Mark grew up around cool car stuff. On the weekends, he would often tag along to work with his dad, here his mind was drawn to one thing immediately.
“I remember seeing the clay models, and I put my finger — what everyone wants to do is put their fingernail — into a clay model,” Trostle says laughing. “I remember screwing up a clay model they had.”
Trostle was preparing for a career as a designer, though he didn’t know it yet. “I would draw. I would sit and pretend I was a car designer, sitting at the real designer’s desks.”
“I’ll never forget going to the counselor at Plymouth Canton my junior year of high school and they asked me what I wanted to do,” said Trostle. “‘I want to be a car designer!’ They told me I didn’t have the math skills for it. I told them it was drawing. They told me no, it was engineering. And they were adamant that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I was going down the wrong path.”
It’s funny how fate sort of has a way of working itself out and, despite the odds, Trostle did end up on the right path. “The serendipity, I had to become a car designer because my art teacher was a former clay modeler at GM.”
Trostle moved to downtown Detroit to attend school at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). The newfound freedom that comes from moving out of mom and dad’s house, coupled with his bonkers schoolwork schedule (plus the downtown college social scene), took Trostle off his path and pushed him into academic probation after his first semester. The impending review that led to his probation was all it took to become a more serious student, and he went “full throttle” after that.
Foot in the Door
When Trostle graduated from CCS in 1992, he landed a job at Chrysler Group LLC. It was the perfect landing for a young designer trying to make a name for himself with one of the big three.
The Dodge Viper concept debuted in 1989, and in 1992, it was going into production. That car, and his experiences with guys like designer Tom Gale, left an impression on Trostle.
“I thought ‘this is the place to be!’” said Trostle.
The company, at the time, had no idea they would be hiring the future design dream team that would, ultimately, shape their vehicle lineups for years to come. Because, as fate would have it, Trostle wasn’t the only CCS class of ’92 graduate who came on board. That was the year when both he and classmate Ralph Gilles (Current FCA US LLC Head of Global Design) started their journey at Chrysler Group, an epic adventure that would see many peaks and valleys over what’s turned out to be 25+ years and counting. It’s been both laborious and rewarding, both adventurous and arduous ever since.
“I’ve ridden so many roller coaster rides at FCA US,” said Trostle, but right now, these are the best, best days and it’s because of the people, the right mix of people doing things. We’ve always been the underdog, you know, we’ve always been the scrappy ones, we’re always lean, we’re always efficient.”
The appeal of working at a juggernaut of car design was influential in locking Trostle in at Chrysler Group. So was the idea that he’d be able to work on some iconic vehicles. “I mean, they came up with the minivan; it was this groundbreaking thing and we still rock at it! The 300, even the Magnum, I think the Magnum was ahead of its time. The Challenger, it came out in 2008, and it’s still evolving, still capturing people’s imagination. I think that says a lot about the importance of design, and timeless design, if you get it right and you evolve it. Porsche with the 911 and the Jeep® Brand with the Wrangler are perfect examples; they stay relevant, and I think maybe the Challenger kind of falls into that.”
Trostle himself plays a large role in keeping FCA US vehicles relevant now. According to Gilles, “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.”
Form and Function
In so many large car companies, the relationships between engineering and design run the risk of becoming antagonistic, even to the point where one side is trying to “get one over” on the other. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, Trostle has been instrumental in bridging the gaps between the two departments and building relationships on both sides.
“They’re my friends,” said Trostle. “They’re not adversarial, it’s not like ‘oh, those engineering guys, I can’t stand them!’ I respect them and I think they respect what I’m trying to do as well, and I think that’s what gives us the ability to make things like the Viper ACR that are not only functional but they look cool. Just having a respect for the other person’s discipline. I’d be a horrible engineer, right, because I’d make everything just have form, but it’s the balance of the form and function, and that mutual respect.”
As the lead at Dodge and SRT®, Mark’s design sense has been very distinctive. “Ralph likes to tell me ‘Every car that comes out of your studio is angry.’”
Angry in muscle car design is a good thing. Like the mad Dodge Challenger SRT Demon’s gigantic hood scoop, which Trostle calls “a middle finger to the competition”.
“If I think about it, each designer has a style,” said Trostle. “Some people are very tight, everything is thought out perfect. It’s still a beautiful piece of art, but it’s like ‘OK, yeah, it’s all there.’ But then I think back to my sketches; my sketch work, it was very empathic, it was emotional, it was the gesture, like I wanted to look at it and be like, ‘oh, that’s cool.’ You can probably read into it a little bit, but you don’t solve everything, you leave a little bit to the imagination. And I think that emotion goes into both of those cars [Dodge Challenger SRT Demon and Dodge Viper], right? The emotion is still there, even though both cars are very defined now.”
“You can’t just will a car to have a soul; to me, it has to be there from the inception all the way through,” added Trostle. “My goal is to design cars that when you get out of them and walk away, you look back at them. It’s that emotional connection to a car that is so important to me.”
Trostle believes both he and his designers “work in the future.” The group’s past work (his in particular) is a good indicator of what’s to come, especially in spirit, as they’ve been particularly influenced by the nostalgia surrounding the brand. Form and function, cars with character, vehicles with soul. Aggressive and timeless. Built to create enthusiasm. Built to create a brotherhood.