Ed Welburn restored General Motors luster with provocative design

Ed Welburn, left, is only the sixth head

Ed Welburn, left, is only the sixth head of design in GM's history. Striding around the new seventh-generation Stingray is hauntingly reminiscent of Bill Mitchell and the first 1983 Sting Ray. (Credit: Wheelbase Media)

The new Corvette Stingray is the talk of the auto-show circuit, with hundreds of thousands of people paying to get a look at it in person.

The design chief responsible is no stranger to hits at General Motors, whether it's the Cadillac ELR or the current Camaro.

"Not only are we introducing this amazing car," said Ed Welburn at the Stingray's unveiling at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich., "We are giving it the name that is synonymous with emotional design and incredible performance."


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He might know all about emotional design now, but not even the shy 11-year-old boy, who was given the same name of his father in 1950 could have envisioned sitting where he is today.

The ghosts that wander through that office are legends. Their presence can still be felt on the street and in the very fabric of the country where they flourished.

The creations that came were legendary.

Isn't it amazing to sit there, inside the corner office, inside the still-chic General Motors Design Center in Warren, Mich., and be the kid from suburban Philadelphia, Pa., whose father owned a repair shop? It all began with the stroke of a pen.

To be just the sixth design king in the history of GM and finding the pinnacle of your career after just innocently asking the company in a letter penned when he was 11.

How do I get a job in this company, the kid wanted to know?

"I wanted to be a car designer," Welburn remembered during a conversation with various media members upon his appointment as styling boss nearly a decade ago in late 2003. "I wanted to know what courses to take in school, what university to attend and what I needed to be that car designer. They sent me information and I followed their lead."

Welburn couldn't have imagined where he would land, now sharing the head designer office with the ghosts of Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell and many others. All were design greats. And Welburn, now 62, has taken his rightful place, designing cars that GM has needed to pull through tough times.

"There's a lot of responsibility sitting here," he said. "And I am trying my best to live up to that."

When Welburn replaced former designer Wayne Cherry as vice president of North American design in October of 2003, business journalists thought he would be just as conservative. What they got was completely the opposite.

Welburn set out to create interesting and provocative cars to take GM to a new level and he created processes that sparked a revolution at a time when the company began valuing its designs again.

Welburn was so confident about the future of GM and the importance of raw expression that he reopened the automaker's Studio X, the legendary secret lair where designers could work on special projects without management interfering. One of the first cars to come from Studio X was the reborn Camaro, which has been a runaway success.

Welburn also sought to integrate GM's 11 design centers in eight countries around the world, globalizing the process and allowing the company to work around the clock, from Detroit to Brazil to Europe to Asia and Australia.

Design and engineering became a closer unit and product development became king.

Suddenly things changed. Plastic dashboards were replaced by softer surfaces. Interior fabrics were as important as engines. And proportions were more closely in line as the vehicle went through development.

"I was here through it all," Welburn once told Motor Trend magazine. "There was a period of time in which other areas of the company pretty much set up the parameters of the car. Everything was nearly set before design was able to get involved in the development of the vehicle."

Welburn got things right. He helped create the Pontiac Solstice, the Chevy Malibu, the resurgence of Cadillac and the strength of GM's full-size trucks, which became a huge source of pride and profit as the automaker turned itself around at the start of this century.

Not bad for a kid from Berwyn, just outside of Philadelphia, which was located down the street from racecar owner Roger Penske's first four-bay shop and Bill Jenkins' drag racing operation.

"I was always hanging around my father's auto body repair shop," he told Motor Trend. "It was all around me."

The young Welburn was hired by GM straight out of Howard University in Washington, D.C. and immediately went to work in Warren, Mich. When he began in 1972 there were no other African-American designers. He was the first.

He worked with Oldsmobile, Saturn and Opel and eventually found his way into the global lead position, all the while keeping his casual style - his designers still call him "Ed" in the studio - and he still loves driving vintage GM cars to work.

The 11-year-old letter writer had exceeded even his own dreams.

Today the role is revered. He still receives letters from young people. And of course he writes back.

"I feel very fortunate so I send them back the same information," he said. "Every kid should have the same chance I had."

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