GM’s sixth design boss Ed Welburn announces retirement. Mike Simcoe will succeed him as lucky number seven.
The auto industry’s first automotive styling/design department was founded in 1927 as the General Motors Art and Colour department by the iconic Harley Earl. Only five other men have held the vaunted position of vice president of design since then: Bill Mitchell (1958-1977), Irvin Rybicki (until 1986), Chuck Jordan (until 1992), Wayne Cherry (1992-2003), and Ed Welburn. GM Design’s third-longest-serving VP started his career at GM at the age of 21, upon graduation from the Howard University College of Fine Arts. He’d been gunning for his dream job since he wrote to the company at age 11 asking what he needed to do to design cars for General Motors. The encouraging reply he received motivated both his education choices and his keen interest in mentoring and talent development once he landed at GM.
He started out in the Buick exterior studio working on post-boat-tail Rivieras and a Park Avenue, then moved to Olds where he got to work on the Aerotech car that A.J. Foyt drove to set a 267.88-mph flying mile record in August, 1987. As chief of the Olds studio, Welburn presided over several generations of Cutlasses. Subsequent assignments at Saturn and GM’s Russelsheim Germany studios led to his 1998 promotion to executive director of GM’s Advanced Design Center and his 2003 elevation to VP of GM Design North America. Two years later, that title was expanded to VP of Global Design, a role in which he presently oversees a staff of 2,500 people working in 10 design centers in seven countries.
Welburn has presided over another of GM’s several “golden ages,” in no small part due to the fact that under his tenure, responsibility for product development was placed back under the control of design and engineering, with Welburn and his engineering counterpart always working collaboratively. He also managed to reopen the Studio X skunkworks, shuttered after Bill Mitchell’s administration, where unofficial projects can take shape without management oversight. The 2009 Camaro started out there, for example. Welburn also established a pattern of having three of his global design studios compete for each program, resulting in a much better initial proposal to which early engineering analysis can be applied. This was a big improvement over the previous system, which required one studio to continually iterate as engineering work progressed and hard points sometimes solidified before the design was complete, potentially compromising the end result.
Probably Ed’s greatest contribution to GM’s design resurgence was his move away from engineering-led and customer-focus-group influenced design. His style has been to encourage his designers to simply be creative, dream, and share ideas that might not conform to a current project initiative. This approach certainly gave us the CTS Coupe, and who knows how many other cool designs bubbled up from doodle pads without a specific product-planning assignment? Mike Simcoe clearly has big shoes to fill, but he will assume control of a tightly run ship steadily heading in the right direction.
1959 Cadillac Cyclone Concept
Welburn’s world was rocked when he saw this futuristic turbine-powered dream car at an auto show in Philadelphia at age 9. It inspired him to pursue a career in automotive design.
1965 Buick Riviera
Ed Welburn senior bought a 1965 Riviera new because of its spectacular styling, and this was one of the first cars Ed drove upon getting his license.
1978-88 Oldsmobile Cutlass
Spending two decades in the Oldsmobile studio gave Welburn plenty of opportunity to work on some of the best-selling cars in the nation, the many flavors of Cutlass.
1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech Concept
This ultra-aerodynamic design was built from Welburn’s very first sketch. He was eager to pen some more, but his management was already sold on this look.
1995 Oldsmobile Antares Concept
Named for the brightest star in the southern hemisphere, this concept introduced Olds’ new logo and its design gave rise to the acclaimed 1998 Intrigue production car.
2003 GM AUTOnomy & Hy-wire Concepts
As boss of advance design, Welburn presided over all concept vehicles, including these hydrogen fuel-cell showcases.
2003 Chevrolet SSR
Welburn’s love of and respect for classic vintage design found a home in his oversight of this unusual design, which paid homage to Chevy‘s “advance design” pickups of 1947-1955.
2004 Hummer H3T Concept
Immediately before ascending to the design vice presidency, Welburn presided over the body-on-frame architecture group, gaining valuable experience in the truck realm with the H3 and GMT900 Escalade production models, and this SUT concept with a tiny side-access door.
Cadillac CTS Coupe
His designers were tasked with penning a sedan, but Bob Munson doodled this angular fastback coupe. It looked too cool not to at least mock up, after which it was deemed too cool-looking not to build.
2010 Chevrolet Camaro
The concept leading to this design was born in Welburn’s Studio X, and harks to the original Camaros (a 1969 example of which Welburn has much more recently called his own).