During a visit to an auto show in his native Philadelphia, 9-year-old Ed Welburn was spellbound by the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, with its big fins and rocketlike front cones. Then and there, he vowed to become a designer for General Motors Co.
He did, eventually taking the company's top design job. On June 30, he retired as GM's head of global design, a role that made him one of the auto industry's most influential designers, and one of the highest-ranking African American executives.
Welburn - the sixth design chief in GM's 108-year history - reinvigorated design at the company. After GM shed excess brands like Pontiac in its 2009 bankruptcy, Welburn gave the remaining ones a fresh identity, turning out bold, chiseled Cadillacs and elegant Buick sedans. If you look closely, you might see his nod to the Cyclone's tail fins in the 2010 Cadillac SRX.
In his office overlooking GM's historic design dome - where every car has gone for final approval since 1956 - Welburn answered questions about his more than 40 years at GM.
They have been edited for length.
Question: Is it important to you that you were the first African American chief designer at a major automaker?
Answer: It's nothing that I dwell on or celebrate. It didn't take me long to understand the first week that I was here, there was a responsibility I had. Everyone wanted to know what I could do. I was representing more than myself, right or wrong. There's a certain amount of pressure that goes with that.
Q: What is your legacy at GM?
A: I believe that we have created a culture in which design and engineering really work together. You have to have that in creating the fundamentals of the vehicles, the basic architecture. If you get great proportions, then it's much easier for a designer to style it. If you don't have that great proportion, then designers do some bad things to try to make up for shortcomings. I think a huge part of [my legacy] is the collaboration between design and its partners, as well as establishing this very powerful global design organization.
Q: Of everything you've designed or been in charge of here, what car is your favorite?
A: There's so many projects I love for so many different reasons. The Corvette project, the latest C7. With this one, the average age of the customers was getting higher, sales were going down. We needed to make a course correction. It needs to be obvious it's a Corvette, but it needs to be obvious that it's a new Corvette. I decided since we had designers in studios around the world, to offer up to every designer to submit their idea. Ultimately the design came from the Corvette team, but it was fascinating to see how each one of those studios interpreted it differently.
Q: With new ways of powering vehicles, will designs change?
A: It depends on the propulsion system. If it's electric, I think it can give us more flexibility, the ability to put a greater focus on the interior space and comfort. Autonomous vehicles, as well, will do that. At the end of the day, a beautiful vehicle, no matter how it's propelled, will win.