Fun fact: In its 107-year history, General Motors has had just six design chiefs, and current top dog Ed Welburn isn’t just the first African-American to hold that post: He was the first African-American designer GM had ever hired. And in an era when Detroit seems to be running out of legends, General Motors current design chief stands tall. Which is why the automotive community was stunned to hear that he’s retiring effective July 1, with designer Michael Simcoe (current head of GM international design in Australia) tapped to be his replacement.
Simcoe will undoubtedly do a fine job at the reins, but Welburn was a “GM Man” in an era when they were thought to be extinct. He was born in Philadelphia, where his father and uncles ran a repair shop. But when he was asked to describe his earliest automotive memory, the 65-year-old design chief recalled visiting an auto show in 1959, at age 8:
In the Cadillac exhibit there was this concept car called the Cyclone, a very streamlined vehicle, almost missile-like. And it was sitting on a bed of angel hair to give it that feeling of floating over the clouds … I told my parents, not only do I want to be a car designer, but I want to work for that company.
At 11, he wrote a letter to GM, asking how to become an automotive designer, which someone found, and astonishingly wrote him back. After graduating high school, Welburn studied fine arts and sculpture at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before taking an internship at the GM design center.
Welburn’s time at GM reads like a history lesson: Buick during the final years of the Bill Mitchell era, Oldsmobile at the height of its popularity, Opel, Saturn; you name it, Welburn had input. And after GM seemed to lose its way under chiefs Charles Jordan (1986-1992) and Wayne Cherry (1992-2003), Welburn’s vision and “dream car” influences drastically turned the company around. Simply put, GM’s design has improved more during Welburn’s 13-year tenure than it did during his two predecessors’ times combined. For proof, here’s the story of Ed Welburn’s astonishing 44-year career at General Motors, as told through eight unforgettable cars.
1. 1973 Buick Riviera
Welburn began his internship at GM in 1972, and was quickly hired on as the corporation’s first African-American designer. He cut his teeth at Buick, working on the mid-’70s Riviera and Park Avenue models. When Welburn was hired, Buick was in its second year of selling its iconic “boat-tail” Riviera model (above), one of the last cars overseen by legendary designer Bill Mitchell. Since Mitchell was personally recruited by GM’s first styling chief Harley Earl in 1935 (for what was then called the Art and Color Section), there’s an unbroken string of continuity between Welburn and the founding of GM’s design offices from nearly 90 years ago.
2. 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
Welburn joined the Oldsmobile Exterior Studio in 1975 at a time when the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in America, and the entire brand was a force to be reckoned with. In 1976, it surged past Pontiac and Plymouth to become the third best-selling brand in America. He worked on the Cutlass redesign for 1978, a car that took the country by storm. With Olds selling nearly 2 million examples between’78 and 1981, Welburn may not have overseen the design on 72 million production cars like Bill Mitchell did, but his body of work is nothing short of astonishing.
3. 1988 Oldsmobile Aerotech
Oldsmobile reached its high-water sales mark in 1985, and after that, the brand began to fade quickly. So in 1987, it debuted the Aerotech concept, a Welburn-designed technological powerhouse that has gone on to become on of the most iconic designs of the era. But instead of being a static concept, the aerodynamic car had a mid-mounted, turbocharged version of Olds’s 2.0-liter Quad4 engine, which made it spectacularly fast. On August 27, 1987, Indy 500 legend A.J. Foyt took the Aerotech to a record-breaking 257.123 miles per hour on a closed track, a world record at the time.
4. 2006 Camaro Concept
While we got the long-awaited fifth-generation Camaro for 2010, it first stunned the world with its tasteful retro-futuristic styling way back in 2006. Former GM boss Bob Lutz viewed the concept as the highlight of Welburn’s career, telling The Detroit News: “There were grown men with tears in their eyes … It was that compelling. That design was so good that the basic design is going to live for another generation in the new Camaro, successfully.”
It isn’t easy to design and build a car that can stir an emotional reaction in people, but Welburn has proven to be a master at it.
5. 2009 Cadillac Stingray Concept
The C6 Corvette already felt old in 2009, which is why the ’09 Stingray concept was so exciting. In hindsight, its side profile, rear haunches, and split grille strongly hinted at the current C7, and the revival of the iconic Stingray name was enough to make hardened Corvette fans swoon. Today, the C7 is widely accepted to be the best-looking (and handling, and performing) ‘Vette to come along in ages — and it owes a massive debt to Welburn and his team.
6. 2011 Cadillac Ciel
Cadillac was already about a decade into its ambitious reinvention when the company pulled the wraps off the Ciel at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but this Welburn-penned concept was the strongest sign yet that the long-neglected brand could actually play the modern luxury car game. The massive four-door hybrid convertible didn’t stand a chance of seeing production, but details like its peaked trunk-line and cascading headlights would come to define the current-generation Cadillac models.
7. 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj
While the Ciel was pure concept, the Elmiraj was a bit more down-to-earth — though no less stunning. The big coupe recalled the iconic ’67-’70 Eldorado, and seemed to prove that Cadillac’s design was back in the big leagues. With big coupes like the Mercedes S-Class coupe and BMW 6-Series selling in respectable numbers, we’re holding out some hope that Cadillac will someday follow suit, though with the recent cancellation of the CT8 project, it looks like we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for Caddy’s big coupe.
8. 2015 Buick Avenir Concept
As we started with Buick, we figure it’s appropriate to end with the Tri-Shield brand too. At a time when it seemed like GM was cynically keeping Buick alive in order to sell cars in China, the brand stunned the auto world with the bold, powerful Avenir at last year’s Detroit Auto Show. It’s the perfect Welburn-era concept: thoroughly modern, but with a healthy dose of legendary GM styling treatments thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the closest the Avenir got to production was the new front-drive LaCrosse sedan, but the concept remains a fitting example of the tasteful and restrained design language seen on GM cars under Ed Welburn.