Longtime General Motors design chief Ed Welburn retires, reflects on his career with the automaker

or automotive industry executives, the North American International Auto Show is no time for cross-shopping and price comparisons. Before droves of car buyers make their way to Cobo Hall each year to ogle the latest in fine machinery, those that sit in the corner offices of the Detroit Three endure a hell week of industry previews, press days-where they’re interviewed by hundreds of journalists from across the globe-and cross-town gloating from their competitive counterparts.

At this year’s NAIAS, however, Ed Welburn, vice president of global design for General Motors, was gifted a pleasant surprise. During press days, journalists and industry insiders gathered to watch as Welburn was given the honor of having the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Center for African-American Art dedicated to him.

“He’s the most artistic person in General Motors’ history,” GM CEO Mary Barra told the crowd during her remarks.

And then Welburn offered a surprise of his own. Weeks after the DIA dedication, he announced his retirement after 44 years with General Motors. Suddenly, GM’s visionary who masterminded the artistic direction of GM’s bigger hits-think the current Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro, the “art and science” design language of Cadillac that began in the 2000s, and nearly every SUV in the last two decades-was facing the prospect of fishing and watching TV all day.

“It’s such mixed feelings because I actually love what I do,” Welburn, who retires this month, tells BLAC from the GM Technical Center, a sprawling mid-century complex where, not too long ago, the design chief filmed scenes for a cameo in Transformers: Age of Extinction. “I’ve been searching for the past three years for a better word than ‘retirement.’ Years ago, you would go fishing and watch TV, but that’s not me.”

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In the interim, Welburn will work on consulting projects, judge classic car shows and continue helping with an expansion of the design center. He’ll also continue one of his other passions, which is mentoring and teaching up-and-coming designers, especially Black designers.

By 1972, GM was a 64-year-old company that had never hired a Black car designer. Welburn was the first, having fallen in love with GM from afar in Philadelphia where he grew up around uncles who drove Cadillacs and bachelors in Corvettes. The first two cars he remembers falling in love with instantly were the 1962 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray and the Cadillac Cyclone, a ’60s concept that didn’t go into production.

In grade school, Welburn wrote a letter to GM asking for advice on what classes to take and what schools to attend to become a designer, and got a response that led him on his path. Now, Welburn is helping to close the gap between would-be designers of color and the companies that need to hire them.

“It’s not because there isn’t interest in automobiles or design with people of color. It’s understanding how to channel those ideas,” Welburn says. “I look at the design schools and there are hardly any… there are very few Blacks in design schools. And (would-be designers) don’t even know the schools exist. I know the interest is much higher than that.”

Welburn brokered a partnership with General Motors and the College for Creative Studies for a scholarship called You Make a Difference, which recruits students from Detroit into CCS.

“It’s been long enough that we’re starting to see the results of it,” he says.

The designers that eventually make their way into GM work on the foundation laid by Welburn. The seventh-generation Corvette -“C7” among automobile enthusiasts-is a career capstone for the designer, after falling in love with ‘Vettes all those years ago.

“Everyone wants to design a Corvette, but it’s not easy,” he says. “It’s got such a strong following and a strong identity. But the latest one has brought new energy to the brand. It’s more of a halo for Chevrolet than what other Corvettes have been for the last 30 years. And its design is seen in the Malibu, Impala, Camaro, Spark, Volt… it influences everything.”

As he wraps up at GM, Welburn says he doesn’t have a favorite vehicle he’s designed, nor does he have any regrets about concept vehicles that never came to fruition. He is excited about the yet-to-be-revealed vehicles GM has in the pipeline, and can comfortably look back at what has been accomplished so far.

“This is an incredible race I’ve been running for the last 44 years,” he says. “I’ve got more races to run, but maybe not one as intense as the one I’ve been running.”

AARON FOLEY IS EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT.

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