Ed Welburn - GM's Design Czar

Ed Welburn - GM's Design Czar image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Tito F. Hermoso | posted August 07, 2009 19:17

A profile on GM's VP for Global Design

Spring in China: We had a beautiful view of the illuminated Bund across the river under a hazy evening Shanghai sky. The classy Bin Jiang One restaurant is an old-look mansion in wood and river stone, built just 4 years ago on prime Huang Pu riverbank property. You know you are in a good hands as Cyril, and some members of the serving staff were Filipino. There, we sat down with a very animated car dude named Ed Welburn, GM's Vice President of Global Design, the head of the design team. "Team" doesn't best describe the scale of his department as it encompasses 11 design centers, scattered through 8 countries and staffed by 1,400 men and women.

Ed, stimulated by a Martini, the gran reserva red, the tender-off-the bone lamb shanks and by the dynamism and diversity of Shanghai, effuses. He calls his job a dream job, having just introduced the Chevrolet Camaro at the Shanghai Motor show a few hours ago. He gave his team his personal 1969 Camaro to be the nuts and bolts spiritual guide and source code DNA to help shape how the 21st century Camaro should look like. Designing for different cultures and tastes for GM's market reach never ceases to amuse him. Distinctions, like white being the Chinese color for funerals was one. And even the way floor mats scour patterns on the carpet become potential issues in Muslim markets. Obviously energized by the mass of humanity that is Shanghai, Ed pauses to recall that the only other place that gives him the same adrenalin rush is Dubai; when he is racing cars with Sheik Mohammed Al Maktoum.

He is a GM-lifer. Not a Philosopher-King or a remote Savant-Artiste like the other car designers I have interviewed. Instead of lofty ideas on Greek Classicism and esoteric ideas on balance, Ed talks about cars and driving. In fact, that evening, he was invited to a gathering of car designers - the budding Ian Macallums, Peter Horbury's, JC May's, Wayne Cherry's and Chris Bangles of the 21st century. But in true dude style, he chose to be with us. Marketing savvy, GM wise indeed. Apparently, the Singaporean journalists with us were customization hot rod fans and they had a lot to talk about. As a regular guy, Ed wasn't shy declaring meetings bore him but enjoys doodling about car, shoe and clothes design while attending them.

In 1961, at the age of 11, Ed wrote GM from Philadelphia asking what he had to do to get a job at GM. GM wrote back and he followed through; an AB degree at the College of Fine Arts at Howard University in Washington D.C. As an associate designer assigned to Advanced Design Studios in 1972, Ed marched upward to Buick Exterior Design and on to Oldsmobile, designing the Oldsmobile Aerotech speed record vehicle in 1987. Ed worked for Saturn which led to 2 years in Europe. Ed enjoys designing race cars and even the team look, down to A J Foyt's racing suit. Recent Award winning designs under his tutelage are the Saturn Aura and Chevrolet Silverado of 2007, the Chevrolet Malibu in 2008 along with the Cadillac CTS-V and CTS coupe concept.

He describes Global design's substantial autonomy from engineering, far more so than the time of the famous Harley Earl, to be a driving force in GM's explosion of even more creative and expressive designs. Having been head of GM's Advanced Designs in 1998, allowed him and his team to design emotional content vehicles like the Chevrolet SSR, HHR, Bel-Air show car and the very individual Cadillac Escalade. But for designs, like the Camaro that demand a lot of his intense effort, Ed hies off to a secret location, a location he only ever uses when he coordinates with the Secret Service on how the new Cadillac Presidential limo, [Obamamobile] should perform and look like.

Ed is currently leading the charge for something more numerous but not any less exotic or esoteric; the Chevrolet Volt. In its conceptualization, Ed left no stone unturned not only in moving technology faster and further, but also asking and even challenging existing conventions on electric vehicle range anxiety, solar panels, light alloy and composites technology, battery technology, charging costs and even the details of the evolution of the next Chevrolet bow tie.

Having been in and out of Chapter 11 in record time, GM Detroit's focus on Chevrolets will see more and more advanced looking mainstream cars like the Chevrolet Volt EV [Electric vehicle], from the pen of Ed's team. Besides being GM head designer, Ed serves as a key executive at Howard University and serves on the board of governors at the Cranborook Institute of Science and the board of directors of the LeMay Museum. Spending time with Ed's optimism set the tone of GM's fresh move forward, looking at the future with confidence. Confidence in building and selling cars in the Asia Pacific region for people that enjoy driving. Just like Ed.