Who knows what the automotive landscape at Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, and Buick would look like today if GM had not hired an aspiring designer from Philadelphia in 1972.
Would we still love the lines of the Chevrolet Camaro? Would heads turn at a passing Cadillac Escalade? Would we still be wowed by the interior of a Buick Enclave?
Fortunately, Ed Welburn got the job at GM’s Buick design studio. It’s been an epic career, during which he has moved through Oldsmobile, Saturn, Saab, Hummer, and GMC to become vice president of GM Global Design.
Think of the distinctive GM products in the last three decades. They probably have Welburn’s fingerprints on the inside or outside. Cars like the Olds Cutlass Supreme, Chevy SSR, Hummer H3, Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Silverado, Buick Enclave, Pontiac Solstice, Cadillac CTS, and Chevrolet Corvette, as well as many vehicles the North American market has never seen.
Come July 1, Welburn will retire from his 44-year career at GM. Before he does, he is being honored by the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) at its annual dinner and conference on technology and design May 26 at MIT in Cambridge. NEMPA has selected Welburn as its designer of the year.
But Welburn’s NEMPA accolade is more than just a reflection of one year’s work. It’s an honor that reflects a long body of work on both automotive exteriors and interiors. Craig Fitzgerald, NEMPA’s president, says it’s an award well deserved for a distinctive career. “The short answer is that twice as many people have walked on the moon as have had his job.’’
Since starting as an intern with General Motors at the age of 21, Welburn has put his stamp on a generation of great cars. “The proof of his success isn’t in fantastic concept cars,’’ says Fitzgerald. “It’s that Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac products became interesting, desirable, and relevant under his leadership.’’
Even as he nears retirement, Welburn is looking ahead. Ask him to name his five favorite cars over the years, and he says, “Five cars out of hundreds? And 100 hundred concepts? It’s tough to name five. What’s in the studio right now is pretty exciting,’’ he adds, referring to the design centers GM has spread throughout the globe.
Welburn insists there is no distinctive design element that is his signature. “It’s not about my look for the vehicle. It’s all about developing clean designs that age gracefully,’’ he explains during a recent conversation from GM Global Design headquarters.
“Designs that are radical and trendy can quickly look dated,’’ he explains. “If you have a great relationship with engineering, you can develop good proportions. Then styling the vehicle becomes a lot easier.’’ Great development must be shared among engineering, design, and marketing while determining a clear understanding of the customer.
One thing Welburn doesn’t believe in is rebadging, a practice in which three similar GM products would be badged as Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. “A brand fails if they chase the design of another brand,’’ he says. “Understanding the brand and the unique character is very important to all of us at GM. It has been a priority to have clear, distinct brands so we can develop strategies around the esthetics of the portfolio.’’
Welburn has the challenge of designing for many markets. “At the root of all is a strong identity for your brand,’’ he says. “Design has become quite global. The internet has brought us all closer together.’’
Even with that closeness, GM has to deal with subtle differences from country to country. A product like the Chevrolet Cruze may be sold in 140 countries, but you need to dial it into the individual markets, he explains. “For me, it’s fun. It’s an exciting challenge to understand what customers are looking for in each country.’’
As a top executive, Welburn is never going to discuss future product in detail, but he is willing to discuss the future of design. There’s been a trend toward homogenous exterior designs because only so much can be accomplished with sheet metal in the hunt for better fuel economy.
The exciting work is being done on the inside. “Designers really want to develop interiors,’’ Welburn says, something that has not always been true in the past. “The value of the work in interior design is appreciated by all of us. We understand that the interior is a high priority with our customers.’’
Interiors have their unique challenges, according to Welburn, with so many components vying for space and convenience. It’s an interesting design challenge to take on. “Just think of the console and all its components and trying to arrange them so it’s easy to operate the shifter and the cupholders,’’ he says.
So, what does GM’s top designer drive? His garage includes a 1969 Camaro, a 2016 Corvette Z06, and a 1995 Corvette convertible that never has its top up. “I like that car. It’s fun to drive,’’ he says.
A recent trip to Germany found Welburn at the Opel division of GM. The visit ignited a desire to own an Opel because one of his first cars was an Opel Cadet Rally. “I’ve had a soft spot for the brand for many years,’’ he says.