From 'No Way,' To Global Success: The Inspired Journey Of GM's Design Chief | KUOW News and Information

From 'No Way,' To Global Success: The Inspired Journey Of GM's Design Chief

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 9:25 am

Car designers are a type. They stand out from the engineers, accountants and lawyers that populate the car business. By all accounts, Ed Welburn, General Motors' first global head of design, is quiet, focused and congenial. This year, he retired after 44 years at GM.

"These are oversized individuals," says Bill Pretzer, a curator with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He's referring to famed auto designers like Chuck Jordan or Harley Earl. "They have huge personalities and are in many ways grandiose, and Ed is exactly the opposite," Pretzer adds.

Welburn's passion for cars started early. He didn't come out of the womb thinking about cars, but by age 3 he was drawing them.

And before he could properly tie his shoes, he was fixing bikes in the backyard. In 1959, when he was 8, Welburn's parents took him to the Philadelphia Auto Show and changed his life.

"I saw that car, and that car took me from being crazy about cars to this is it — this is what I wanna do," Welburn says. That car was the Cadillac Cyclone, a concept car. Chuck Jordan, the famed promoter of the fin at Cadillac, was just arriving on the scene. When you look at the Cyclone now, it's easy to understand how it would have captured a young boy's imagination: It's a rocket ship on wheels.

It wasn't just that Welburn wanted to design cars. He wanted to design crazy new-age cars like the Cyclone. "It was an emotional connection," he says. "And that's what I strive for in every design that we develop. ... That car connected with me," he says wistfully, sitting in GM's Burbank design studio, one of 10 around the globe that Welburn led for more than a decade.

"It was through car magazines that I found out where that car came from," he says. At age 11, Welburn wrote a letter to GM Design. "I want to be a car designer when I grow up. What courses should I take? What do I need to do?" he wrote.

GM wrote back! The head of personnel sent the young man brochures to the top design schools. The automaker knew he was 11, but it seemed to take him seriously.

When he was in high school, still obsessed with cars and designing them, Welburn began to apply to design schools. But his youthful enthusiasm soon met the reality of being an ambitious smart black man in the 1960s.

"You make it through the first wave because your grade-point average was excellent and then you present your portfolio," he says. "Design school after design school that was on that list from GM rejected me. And that was this big shock to my system."

It's important to understand that getting into a car design program is a direct pipeline to designing cars. Students are recruited in their freshman year. An internship with a car company often turns into a job.

Bill Pretzer with the Smithsonian says that Welburn's family was in many ways typical of their time, determined to move up the economic ladder. "There's a phrase in many African-American communities called 'making a way out of no way.' ... If confronted with obstacles you still find a way. And this was a family that consistently found a way to make a way out of no way."

The Welburn family's way was through Howard University. Welburn was accepted into the art school at the historically black college at a powerful moment at Howard and in the country. He was a sculpture student studying under the great Harlem renaissance painter Lois Jones.

The university already had a design program and a sculpture program. It created a car design curriculum for Welburn from within the art school. He says his unconventional school would become a benefit.

"You could hear Roberta Flack in the music studio studying. You go down the hall ... and there's Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad there studying. We were all students together. That was an incredible environment in which to grow," he says. It was that environment in art school that burnished his skills as an artist and placed him firmly in the black art world.

Eventually, Welburn would get an internship in GM's sculpture studio. It was a summer program and by then he was hooked. Welburn says he learned as much in those 10 weeks on the job as he would in two years in the classroom At the end of that summer, Welburn says he heard from his boss: "He said, 'You just go back, finish your senior year at Howard. We wanna hire you.' "

So Welburn went back, finished his senior year and turned the internship into a career that would last 44 years and make him the highest ranking African-American in the history of the auto industry. His first project was to design the tail lamp for the Pontiac Grand Ville.

"The guy has impeccable design sense and judgement," says Stewart Reed, a renowned car designer and chairman of Art Center Transportation Design. He says you can tell a Welburn design: "You know when it comes to seeing a car's posture and proportion, and then right down to the details that support the overall character of the car."

Welburn says it was during those early years that he came up with his chief principle — that design and engineer should be one. He came up with his philosophy:

  1. You have got to have a very clear vision of what you're doing.
  2. You have to have great collaboration across the company in what you're doing.
  3. There must be a collaboration between design and engineering.
  4. Most importantly: "I don't design the cars for me. ... You design it for your customers. You've got to listen to them, spend time with them."

It was that kind of thinking that led Welburn to hit after hit in the car world.

He led the design team at Saturn. He was instrumental in designing or redesigning vehicles such as the Volt, the Hummer, the Escalade, the Corvette and many others.

Reed says Welburn's job and his impact is less about picking this fin or that color. He likens Welburn to the great conductors. He set a standard and allowed his designers freedom, Reed says.

"The guy that you want responsible for the orchestra should be an artist, a musician," Reed says. "And maybe they're not good at every instrument. Maybe they're a pianist or something, but they have a sense of how all these talents work together for a result."

Reed says that because of the dignity and the skill with which Welburn worked in the corporate environment, "he has placed design on a much higher plane. It's respected more. Designers at GM are doing well. They're respected, they're getting great results. They're supported by the rest of the corporation because of leadership." All that, Reed says, is still somewhat unusual in the car business.

Glenda Gill is an automotive consultant, who spent years as a consultant and lobbied the industry for more diversity. She was executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Automotive Project.

"We always state about being twice as good. Just know that [Welburn] was three times as good in his industry, and well respected, and was a mentor to many," she says. As the head of design, Gill says, Welburn reshaped car design but was also a beacon for African-Americans throughout the industry.

More importantly, she says, by his example he taught the car business a lesson. She says somebody decide to take a chance on him, "and guess what? They won." She says Welburn is the embodiment of what diversity can bring to a company: "He's great, he's passed every test, we're going to [pick] him based upon his merit and see what he does, and he did it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're now going to hear about a man who has quietly shaped the world we live in since the 1970s. Car designer Ed Welburn is considered the Michelangelo of Detroit. He recently retired after an unusual and ultimately triumphant career. NPR's Sonari Glinton has this profile.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Car designers - they are a type. They stand out from the engineers, accountants and lawyers that populate the car business. Bill Pretzer is curator with the Smithsonian Institution.

BILL PRETZER: These are oversized individuals in the sense that they have huge personalities and are in many ways grandiose. And Ed is exactly the opposite.

GLINTON: By all accounts, Ed Welburn is quiet, focused and congenial. And after 40 years of working for GM, he's been responsible for hundreds of designers and dozens of cars on the road right now.

Now, Welburn's passion for cars started early. He didn't come out of the womb thinking about cars, but by the time he was 3, he was drawing them. And before he could properly tie his shoes, he was fixing bikes in the backyard.

EDWARD WELBURN: At age 8, my parents took me to the Philadelphia Auto Show. And as we walked in, I saw this concept car on display. I was already crazy about cars.

GLINTON: It was 1958, and the car was the Cadillac Cyclone, a concept car. Now, it's the '50s - right? - so think rocket ship on wheels. Some 60 years later, it still looks hella futuristic.

WELBURN: And then I saw that car, and that car took me from being crazy about cars to, this is it. This is what I want to do.

GLINTON: To be clear, it wasn't that he just wanted to design cars. He wanted to design crazy new-age cars, cars like the Cyclone. His mother said, you can't just play with cars, though. You have to read about them.

WELBURN: And it was through those car magazines that I found out where that car came from. And at age 11, I wrote a letter to GM Design telling them I want to be a car designer when I grow up. What courses should I take? What do I need to do?

GLINTON: And General Motors - they wrote back. The head of personnel sent Welburn brochures to the top design schools. Now, they knew he was 11 years old, but they took him seriously. And later, as he began to apply to schools, his youthful enthusiasm met the reality of being an ambitious, smart black man in the 1960s.

WELBURN: Senior year, when you're applying to design schools and you make it through the first wave because your grade point average was excellent and then you present your portfolio, design school after design school that was on that list from GM rejected me. And that was, like, this big shock to my system. I mean I'm on this mission to become a car designer. Then all of a sudden, I'm getting rejection letter after rejection letter.

GLINTON: Sixteen schools in all rejected Welburn. To be clear, design schools lead directly to jobs designing cars. Students are often recruited in their freshman year. Again, Bill Pretzer, curator with the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture...

PRETZER: There's a phrase in the African-American - many African-American communities called making a way out of no way. That is, if confronted with obstacles, you still find a way. And this was a family that consistently found a way to make a way out of no way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTA FLACK SONG, "TRYIN' TIMES")

GLINTON: The Welburn family way - they enrolled their son at Howard University in the art school. He entered the historically black college at a powerful moment at Howard and in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYIN' TIMES")

ROBERTA FLACK: (Singing) Tryin' times is what the world is talking about. You've got confusion.

WELBURN: And you could hear Roberta Flack in the music studio studying. You go down the hall to the - I would use the shop in the theater area, and there's Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad there studying. We were all students together. That was an incredible environment in which to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYIN' TIMES")

FLACK: (Singing) Out of hand.

GLINTON: So Howard University created a car design program just for Ed Welburn. And in his junior year, he got a coveted internship at GM's sculpture studio. Yes, GM has a sculpture studio. Welburn began making models and building concept cars. And at GM, he stuck out like a sculptor at a car plant.

WELBURN: You know, I'm not so sure that the vision for many of our products was as clear as it is today. There certainly wasn't the collaboration.

GLINTON: That whole attitude of Welburn's - maybe we're not doing it the right way - led him steadily up the ladder from design job to design job. And he had a special interest in concept cars. Remember that first Cadillac? He went from designing tail-lights to whole cars to whole brands. And he went from car hit to car hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now Escalade, the only luxury SUV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A new Chevrolet Corvette like never before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Never before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) American road belongs to Buick.

GLINTON: The Corvette, the Camaro, the Chevy Silverado, or how about the Hummer or the Cadillac Escalade? Oh, and remember Saturn? He led that company's design. His motto, which should be obvious but wasn't at the time - design and engineering should work together. Ever the art school student, he was looking for inspiration from wherever he could find it - music, art, fashion.

WELBURN: Tommy Hilfiger stopped by my office, and we're sitting there talking about design.

GLINTON: Welburn explained to the fashion designer how it takes five years from drawing to when the wheels hit the road.

WELBURN: He looked at me like I was crazy. How do you do that, he said. You know, there's so many things that change in society. There are things that happen that can change the course of events and change what people are looking for. That's part of our challenge in designing a vehicle. It's a challenge I kind of enjoy.

GLENDA GILL: He's able to bring all of that to an environment that never even considered him, never even considered the consumers that look like him.

GLINTON: Glenda Gill is an automotive consultant and has been for more than 20 years. She specializes in diversity. She points out that Welburn moved from being the top designer at GM in the U.S. to running all of GM's design around the world. And that job came with a lot of scrutiny, she says. And when that happens...

GILL: You jump three times as high. You work four times as hard. You run five times faster. And you try to be six times as good.

GLINTON: A person who's revolutionized automotive design is one of the few African-Americans at his level.

GILL: The only African-American at his level.

GLINTON: Gill says while Welburn's impact on automotive design will be felt all over the globe, she says he left the pathway for others to follow.

GILL: In this country, we wear two faces. We wear this very corporate business face as a person of color. Then we wear a face in our community. When you're able to be your total whole self and your whole person and be able to succeed at your terms, that's success.

GLINTON: And Ed Welburn did that you think?

GILL: Of course he did.

GLINTON: And Welburn's terms - well, his measure of success is seeing his work on the road.

WELBURN: It feels good when I sit in traffic and I see a family in one of the cars that I designed. That feels good. That's all I need. I feel good about that.

GLINTON: And that happens all the time because essentially 1 in 5 cars on the road are his. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND SONG, "DRIVE MY CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.