The woman who designed one of the fastest cars on the road, and made sure her kids would love it, too.
When Alison Rahm was hired for her first design job at Chrysler, her boss told her she’d be designing headliners. She enthusiastically thanked him, excited for the opportunity. Then, she went to look up exactly what a headliner was; she had no idea. (The headliner is the ceiling panel in a car’s passenger cabin). “I couldn’t imagine I’d become the expert,” she said.
In the 17 years since she was first hired by Chrysler, Alison has become an expert in headliners, as well as side panels, aluminum welds, assembly line robotics and everything else that goes into the design and building of cars.
Then, three years ago Alison got the chance of a lifetime: she was given the assignment to lead the redesign of the 2015 Dodge Charger. She was made Charger’s chief engineer.
Dreaming of engineering, but cars, not so much
Alison didn’t start out thinking she wanted to design and build cars. In fact, she never thought much about cars other than the freedom they gave her as a teen to hang out with her friends in Ontario, Canada, where she grew up. But a high school counselor saw her aptitude in math and suggested she major in engineering at the University of Windsor. One of only two women in the program, the imbalance didn’t discourage her, but rather, prepared her to forge an unknown path.
Designing cars wasn’t what she thought she’d do after college. “It was not where my head was,” she says; “I didn’t have a good sense of what I wanted to do.” But she landed an interview with Chrysler and took the job: working at a stamping plant where car parts were made. The experience put her future into focus, she says. “Once I got hat first little taste, I was sold.”
At Chrysler, “there were several women working in interior [design] with me, but I found in the workplace, we don’t recognize each other in terms of gender, it’s just the team; you lose the barrier when you’re working toward the same end product,” she said. This idea of team is one that is embedded in the Chrysler culture, and one that allowed her to grow. It was a male manager who “really took the time time to mentor me, teach me not just technology skills, but the ability to manage and navigate the auto industry.”
This is something that Alison is working to pass on; mentoring others is a formal process at Chrysler. “They connect people who will mentor with mentees, so I’ve become connected with young engineers and women in the company,” she says, “And it’s great to see the evolution, and know that not long ago, I was the engineer who didn’t know what a headliner was.”
A crowning project: The 2015 Dodge Charger
When Dodge decided to revamp the full line of Chargers, keeping the four-door family sedan size but adding the ability to go right from the dealership to the race track, Alison was put in charge. She was oversaw both sides of this equation.
Her first question is: who is the customer? “The customer is me,” she says. “At every decision point, this is a car I drive, I spend a lot of time in it, I haul a family, coworkers, travel for business, and I think about how the car will perform and how I’ll use it.” Alison commutes daily in her Charger, even in bad weather. Her personal car is the all wheel drive model, which, to her chagrin, keeps her on schedule even on snowy days. “There are those days when it snows and I think, I’ll try to get to work but I may have to call and say I can’t come in. But then the car does just fine,” in the snow.
Her two sons, ages 9 and 11 have an impact on the Charger’s design, too. “See those two USB ports in the back seat? I put those there for my sons,” she says. Like most kids, they are much happier when they can charge their devices in the car and not have to debate about who gets to use the USB port in the front seat or beg front seat passengers to plug in their devices.
What a girl wants
Alison also thought a lot about what women what would want women in the car and to her, it starts with the exterior. “Even as I go to the grocery store and see it in the parking lot, it has to make me feel good,” she says. “I want to look good in the car I’m in.” But automotive design isn’t always that way; often the final product isn’t as glamorous as the original idea because of realistic things like safety requirements or passenger comfort. “It was great to see the sketches and know how gorgeous they were, then to meet the aerodynamic requirements and weight requirements and to have it look so good, ” Alison says proudly.
Her pride continues inside the car, too. Her goal was to set up all the car’s function so it’s not intimidating, that passengers don’t have to go through menus just to change the radio station. She also wanted driver to feel confident behind the wheel; traction control, a choice of drive modes and, most importantly for her, all wheel drive, give her the confidence to make it through snow, rain or other challenges on the road.
Designing for those who need speed, too
But Alison isn’t the Charger’s only customer. “Charger has a following out there who want to take the car straight from the dealership to the track,” she says, so part of the goal of the car was to make it so customers “don’t have to change anything to drive it on a track.” But luckily, she’s surrounded by enthusiastic engineers, many “who are racetrack experts who design for that customer too,” she said, since track driving isn’t her passion. “I don’t push it to that point, but we have team who does, and I’ll ride along,” so she can understand what the customer wants and make sure her team delivers.
To that, Alison even brings some old school feel to the very modern, sophisticated Charger. Its shifter, for instance, is designed to ‘throw’ it into gear by grabbing the shifter and pulling it back into drive. But in reality, it’s an electric gear shift; the same function could be done by pushing a button or dialing rotary selector. But she knew her customer would never be happy with a push button gear selector on the Charger, so her team put a lot of thought into the design and feel of the shifter.
Even engineers can get misty-eyed
Like any proud mama, Alison stood tall and emotional when the full line of new Chargers was assembled in a hangar at Reagan National Airport. From the entry level SE and SRX models to the full-roar Hellcat, teams of drivers pulled the cars into their spaces and for the first time she got a look at the whole line all together. She was choked with emotion. “It’s what I love most: to see a car drive down the road and be able to say, I helped to do that; I have my own fingerprint on that car.”
Alison is also proud of much of the rethinking that she and her team were able to bring to the Charger. Unlike many performance cars, whose track-performance characteristics can be stiff and tiring when driving on suburban streets, the Charger’s street performance is comfortable and elegant. She sought out a transmission that would shift more quickly and feel more responsive so passengers don’t feel their head snap or shift shock; she also worked to calibrate the steering so that it’s lighter and easier in places like a parking lot, where drivers make tight turns.
Her favorite thing
As we wrapped up our interview, we had to ask: what is Alison’s favorite feature in the Charger? “Adaptive cruise. I don’t know how we lived without it before,” she says, explaining that “if car in front of you slows down you slow, and it’ll even come to a complete stop. In a traffic jam it will do all that for you. It’s a relief to have the car take over, especially when the kids are in the back seat,” she says.