I wanted to be a car designer, but my parents convinced me to go to engineering school instead. After a semester, I switched majors to business and marketing. It was in college over 20 years ago that I began writing about cars.
Over the years, I’ve had many automotive-related experiences, but none as exciting as having breakfast with GM V.P. of Design, Ed Welburn a few years ago. The 65-year-old Welburn is set to retire July 1, ending a 44-year career with General Motors.
Welburn’s career was inspired by the Cadillac Cyclone concept he saw at the 1960 Philadelphia Auto Show. He famously sent a letter to General Motors asking how to become a car designer and actually received a response. We can assume it was really good advice. Welburn honed his skills in the '70s and '80s sculpting Pontiacs, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles – including the Aerotech that A.J. Foyt drove to world speed records.
Welburn led North American design from 2003 and globally since 2005 – the first GM designer with global responsibility, and the automaker’s first African American design chief. He oversees 2,500 designers at 10 studios in seven countries. His empire spans from Detroit to Shanghai.
When Welburn became design chief, GM was building cars like the Pontiac Aztek that lacked any sense of elegance. Under his guidance, teams developed global design languages for all brands – themes like Cadillac’s “Art & Science” with stacked headlamps, strong shoulderlines, and trademark thin vertical taillamps. Chevrolets look like Chevrolets wherever you travel. Same for Buick and GMC.
And, think of the cars that came from his studios – cars like the 2006 Camaro Concept, C7 Corvette, Cadillac CTS, and Buick LaCrosse. Concepts like the convertible Cadillac Ciel and sporting Buick Avista surpass even previous design chief Bill Mitchell’s best work.
“GM Design is among the most respected and sought-after oragnizations in the industry because of Ed’s leadership,” said Mary Barra, GM chairman and CEO. “He nurtured a creative, inclusive and customer-focused culture among our designers that has strengthened our global brands.”
Only GM’s sixth design chief, the soft-spoken Welburn describes cars in terms that allow you to envision every curve, line, and stitch of leather in his mind. Welburn is special – one of the auto industry’s giants. His talent and kindness are immeasurable. Fortunately, his work will be on the world’s roads for decades to come.
Welburn will be succeeded by Michael Simcoe, a 33-year veteran of GM Design with a long tenure of international assignments.