Edward T. Welburn became chief designer of General Motors Corporation, the world’s largest automaker, in 2003. The appointment made him the first African American to rise to what is considered one of the most prestigious jobs in the automotive industry. Welburn’s mission for the dozens of GM models he oversees is to lead their styling and concept teams into an exciting and visually distinctive brand identity for the twenty-first century. “I feel very fortunate,” he said in an Automotive News interview not long after taking the job. “I am coming in at a time when the corporation has a real understanding of the value of design and its importance to the future of the company.”
Welburn was born in December of 1950 and grew up in the Philadelphia area. His father was a co-owner of a body shop with his brothers and instilled in a very young Welburn an appreciation for automotive design. The two would spend hours drawing cars of vintage design, with Welburn tracing over the sketches his father had done of 1930s Dusenbergs and similar classics. Welburn grew intensely involved in the hobby as he grew older, and even wrote to General Motors when he was eleven asking about a future with the company as a car designer. The company replied with a helpful letter that recommended what he might study in school to prepare for such a career, and provided information about its internship program. This bid for a job, coming as it did in the early 1960s, seemed all the more remarkable given the fact that the profession was an elite one and minorities were nonexistent in such corners of the automotive world during the era.
Welburn followed the suggestions of that response, and studied fine arts and sculpture at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He won a slot in the GM internship program while still in school, and worked tirelessly from his first day forward, churning out sketches and posting them for all to see. “It was the first time somebody black was putting sketches up on the board,” he recalled in an interview with Newsweek ‘s Keith Naughton. “I quickly realized I was representing more people than just myself.”
Welburn was hired full-time after graduation, and spent his three years with the company in the design studio of GM’s Buick division. As a newcomer, fresh out of college, he joined the ranks at the right time, for a major shift was taking place in the design studios of the Big Three domestic automakers, with veterans suddenly forced to come up with smaller vehicles as the gas-guzzling automotive-behemoth era ended. In 1975, Welburn moved over to the Oldsmobile studio, and would spent the next two decades of his GM career there. He had a hand in the design of a top-seller during the early 1980s, the Cutlass Supreme, but also worked on a car that was a one-shot project, not for the consumer market: the Oldsmobile Aerotech. Knowing that GM was eager to make a new high-performance race car to compete with a 1,000-horsepower Mercedes model, he sketched out what became the teardrop-shaped Aerotech one day on a napkin and gave it to his boss. His design chief looked at it and said, “‘This is it,'” Welburn recalled in the Newsweek article, but Welburn told him, “I have other ideas.” His stunned boss replied, “‘What are you talking about? This is it.'”
Met A.J. Foyt
Welburn’s Aerotech was built by a special GM team, and in August of 1987 was taken out to a track in Fort Stockton, Texas, with racing legend A. J. Foyt behind the wheel. It set a new world land-speed record for a closed course at 259 miles per hour that day. Foyt had long been one of Welburn’s idol, he told Automotive Industries writer Gary Witzenburg. “Nothing made me happier than the day when…Foyt first drove that vehicle,” he asserted, and recalled that the Indy 500 champion “teased me about my ‘Detroit shoes.’ After setting the record, he went to his transporter and came back with a pair of Tony Lama ostrich skin boots. He said, ‘Here, I don’t want to see you ever wearing those Detroit shoes again.’ I still have those boots, and I love them.”
Welburn worked for GM’s Saturn division for a time, and spent a year overseas at the company’s Opel facilities in Russelsheim, Germany. By the mid-1990s, he had been elevated to chief designer at Oldsmobile. There, the Oldsmobile Antares concept car he over-saw, a hit on the auto-show circuit, morphed into a production vehicle that debuted in the 1998 model year, the Oldsmobile Intrigue. It was another top seller for GM and sealed Welburn’s reputation as a designer with a sharp eye for consumer preferences. That same year, he was made director of GM’s Corporate Brand Character Center (BCC), a relatively new design-management concept where all of the stylistic elements for the fleet of cars among GM’s various divisions were closely monitored so that a strong brand identity could be forged. Detractors named the BCC the “brand police” and deemed Welburn the “brand cop,” but he defended the strategy in an Automotive Industries profile by Lindsay Brooke. “The various chief designers are all building their brands, and they want to keep them separate,” Welburn explained. “To have a location where they can congregate and see where the opportunities—and potential overlaps between brands—exist is important to all of us.”
Welburn was said to enjoy good rapport with GM chief executive officer Rick Wagoner as well as the company’s design chief, Wayne Cherry. After 2001, Welburn oversaw the trio of studios that brought out trucks and sport-utility vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade, Hummer H2, a retro hot-rod Chevy pick-up called SSR, and the top-selling Chevrolet Avalanche. Nearly all of the models in which he had a hand at the design stage were excellent sellers for the company, but GM did take a hit for the overly plastic-cladded Pontiac Aztek. “It’s controversial,” he conceded, in the interview with Brooke in Automotive Industries, “and yes, it’s absolutely right for the Pontiac brand. I say that with total confidence. We saw an opportunity and we went after it. Aztek’s a vehicle that will take a bit of time with some people. Others may never embrace it. That’s OK. We have other products for them.”
At a Glance …
Born Edward Thomas Welburn, Jr., in December 14, 1950, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Edward Sr. (an auto-body repair shop owner) and Evelyn Welburn. Education: Howard University, BA, fine arts, 1972.
Career: General Motors Corporation, design studio intern, early 1970s; General Motors Corporation, Buick division employee, 1972; GM Oldsmobile division employee, 1975; GM, various management positions 1980s-90s; GM Corporate Brand Character Center, director, 1998; GM executive director of body-on-frame architecture, 2002-03; GM chief designer, 2003.
Addresses: Office— General Motors Corporation, 300 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48265-3000.
Welburn’s job also entailed the supervision of the concept cars, which debut at events like Detroit’s North American International Auto Show and serve as a harbinger of future design trends industry-wide. But his track record on the sport-utility vehicles and trucks that are the profit center for GM was unparalleled, as Phil Patton asserted in the New York Times; eschewing “brand cues like fake exhaust ports on the sides of Buicks and flaring nostril grilles on Pontiacs, Mr. Welburn was taking a more thoughtful view of Chevrolet’s tradition and character. The resulting concepts helped shape the Cheyenne pickup, a powerful but restrained design study displayed at auto shows this year and a likely precursor of Chevy’s next-generation pickups.”
Rose to Chief Design Post
On September 26, 2003, GM announced that Welburn would succeed Cherry as GM’s chief designer, making him only the sixth person to hold the job in company history, but also the first African American among any of the Big Three domestic automakers to be promoted to such an influential post. His duties included overseeing the work of some 600 designers for GM, spread out across eleven studios. There were, however, an entirely new set of challenges for anyone who came to the job, and Welburn’s first responsibility was to work to strengthen brand identities among the GM lineup. “GM design is at a crossroads,” noted Naughton in the Newsweek profile. “Over the three decades that Welburn has toiled in GM’s studios, a burgeoning bureaucracy has sapped stylists of the almighty power they had back in the days of tailfins and gleaming chrome. Engineers and focus groups have dictated design. The result: blandmobiles that GM marketed on price rather than style.”
Welburn is a low-key executive who seems to lack the press-courting ego of many of the predecessors in the GM chief-designer job. Those he succeeded were legendary figures in the automotive industry, such as Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, under whom Welburn worked when he first started at GM. As Patton wrote in the New York Times, Welburn had “a daunting job, as implied by Buick television commercials that feature a Harley Earl character whose impersonation of the original is a somewhat loose reading of reality. The advertisements suggest how deeply G.M. is both haunted by the achievements of its past and intimidated by the challenge of matching them.”
Inside the design studios, he remains “Ed,” not “Mr. Welburn,” among designers working on the company’s next highly anticipated new model, the Buick Velite convertible. Welburn’s own car is a classic, a hot rod 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. Though he has participated in a media campaign aimed at African American buyers, Welburn downplays his role as the first black to steer GM’s design process into the next few decades. “It’s interesting because it’s something I don’t celebrate,” he reflected in an interview with Ward’s Auto World writer Drew Winter, “because to celebrate it means there are so many years it didn’t occur.… But I know it is very important. It can’t be ignored. I know it isn’t ignored, and I know there are a lot of people in the African-American community that really, really consider this something very significant, so I don’t take it lightly. If it has an effect on young people, then I think that’s great.”
Automotive Industries, December 2000, p. 31; December 2003, p. 14..
Automotive News, January 5, 2004, p. 28.
Newsweek, May 31, 2004, p. 54.
New York Times, October 13, 2003, p. D13.
Ward’s Auto World, February 1, 2004.