EDWARD T. WELBURN: SCULPTING THE WORLD’S WHEELS
By Roger Witherspoon
For a young Ed Welburn, the 1958 Philadelphia International Auto Show was the
key to his future.
It wasn’t the eight-year-old’s first exposure to the intricacies of cars. His father,
Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in nearby Berwyn, Pa., and
young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out.
Forty years later, the younger Welburn still spends his days looking at cars from
the inside out. But now, it is as Vice President for Design at General Motors, the world’s
largest auto company. Welburn, the 6th design chief in GM’s history, has his stamp on
every vehicle conceived by the more than 400 designers at the company’s 11 world-wide
His current stature as one of the highest ranking Blacks in the auto industry is a
long way from his ‘50s childhood, a period in which the development of the interstate
highway system was just getting into full swing. Americans in the post-war years were
taking to the road in record numbers in cars characterized by shining chrome grills and
“The ‘50s were a very car-oriented period,” Welburn said. “And it was a period in
which cars had a lot of flair. You could easily identify different brands by their looks.
They all have very strong character.
“It was a very exciting auto industry, and I grew up in a family where there were
always new cars around.”
But the Auto Show was special. Designs were changing as American society
shifted into a mobile culture. The automakers were experimenting with new designs,
configurations and bold styles.
“I like a design that has flair,” said Welburn, “that is very expressive and has
character that can mean very different things on different types of vehicles. Some designs
need to be expressive, and others need to be quiet.
“But they all have to be contemporary. And that is what the big fins on the cars –
especially the Cadillacs – were all about. They were built on the new technology of the
The fins, he explained, were derived from the fighters and other aircraft of World
War II, and continued evolving into the sleeker shapes of Korean War-era jets. “There
was a technical look that was the inspiration for the Cadillacs of that time.”
He wanted to know more, and his mother encouraged him to read everything
about cars and car designs that he could. By the time he was 11, he knew what he wanted
to do with the rest of his life.
“I was very interested in auto design,” he said. “It was my dream to be a designer,
and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African American
designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in.”
He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors “and I just let them
know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa. , who was interested in auto design and
wanted their advice. What courses should I take in high school and what other
preparation would I need to go to a university?
“And the GM design team responded, and their advice was thorough. They do a
very good job of responding to inquiries from young people.”
The information was crucial. Future designers have to take the kinds of art
courses in high school which would let them develop portfolios good enough to pass the
competitive entrance requirements of top art and design schools.
“Somewhere around 9th grade,” Welburn said, “you have to make sure you have
the right course load to get into a design school. You can’t just get to your senior year
and say ‘I want to go to a school and major in design because I have a good grade point
average.’ It takes much more than that.”
GM had given the young Welburn a list of colleges with fine arts programs that
had a major in product design. From that group, Welburn chose Howard University,
specializing in sculpting.
Sculpting? Cars and trucks?
The connection, particularly in this era of computer assisted design, is not far
“When you think about it,” said Davis Smedley, associate professor of art and
coordinator of Howard’s sculpture program, “the car is the largest form of sculpture that
most Americans own.
“We don’t buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either: our self esteem
and identity is invested in them.”
And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to
be more than just well-engineered. Cars, no matter how technologically advanced, are not
generated by engineers. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley
explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.
“GM has always said they are not looking for people who are trained on the
computer or trained for commercial applications,” the professor continued. “They want
people who are creatively trained and know fine arts. They want people who have the
skills and creative decision-making that is required to come up with new, aesthetically
pleasant, and graceful designs.
“In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first. They make a full-
sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical
form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what
these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense
for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture
As an incoming Howard freshman, Welburn was allowed to design his own
program to prepare him for a career in automotive design. His major was sculpting, with
supplemental courses designed to aid him in understanding and leading the
manufacturing and marketing processes that are key to moving a successful car design.
“The curriculum here has historically been flexible to that degree,” Smedley said.
“If you have a specific niche that you are aiming for, we can arrange the curriculum so it
can be directed to help you on your way.”
In 1972, Welburn graduated from Howard and began an uninterrupted march up
the design ranks at GM, beginning in the company’s design center in Warren, Mich. A
year later he got his first specific assignment as part of the Buick studio, where he helped
design what became the 1977 Buick Park Avenue and the Riviera. In 1975 he moved to
Oldsmobile, where he helped design the highly successful Cutlass Supreme and Cutlass
Sierra and Calais. The Oldsmobile experience had a side benefit.
In the mid-80s, Oldsmobile had a 1,000 horsepower engine whose capabilities
they wanted to test in the extreme. The Indianapolis race car chassis was being developed
by an English firm, and the driver was to be none other than the legendary A. J. Foyt.
“I was designing the Cutlass Supreme,” Welburn recalled, and off to the side of
my desk I had sketches of streamlined and high- speed vehicles. Everyone knew I had a
thing for very aerodynamic vehicles that could run at Le Mans.”
Still, Welburn was surprised when GM asked him to design Foyt’s car.
“The very first sketch I drew was the one they picked,” he said. “Its top speed
was over 300 miles per hour and the aerodynamics had to be designed very carefully. I’m
really proud of the fact that it had no wings, no spoilers, and no external aerodynamic
aids to correct the shape of the body. The shape was right on and was, in itself,
Welburn, working on an Oldsmobile Calais, first designed Foyt’s 1985
Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. Two years later, his high-performance Oldsmobile
Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, would set a world land speed record, averaging 257
miles per hour and topping 300 miles per hour. The Aerotech also won the Award for
Design Excellence from the Industrial Designers Society of America.
In 1988, Welburn would return to Indianapolis with a Pace Car derived from his newly
designed Cutlass Supreme.
Welburn’s design philosophy has been a mixture of melding the old with the new.
The new generation of Cadillacs, -- notably the sporty CTS and ponderous Escalade
SUVs – continue the ‘50s use of aerodynamic styling. Now, however, it’s the harder edge
of the stealth jets that provide inspiration for the sharp, angular look of these vehicles.
“When the philosophy was developed for the latest Cadillac,” he explained, “a lot
of the inspiration came from the fins. It’s a very dynamic design, and I trace the lineage
back to the fins from the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
His 2004 Chevy SSR, a car with a pickup body and retractable hardtop that
converts it into sporty roadster, resembles the Chevy Camino’s of the ‘50s with its big
bold lines, though the art deco, half moon, chrome door handles are strictly a modern
touch which, surprisingly, does not seem out of place.
“It’s a very expressive design,” he said.
GM is still looking to graduates from art programs at Howard and Xavier, he said,
and has expanded its collaboration at Howard to include work with engineering students
who could be steered towards the automotive industry. There is a need, he believes, for
more diversity in the auto design industry.
He points to the Buick Rendezvous, a “crossover” SUV with unique touches such
as a split-level center console, which provides a handy shelf for storing a woman’s
pocketbook, and a holographic display of the dials, so the driver does not have to look
down to operate the entertainment center or ascertain speed.
“The Rendezvous was designed by a woman,” Welburn said, “and she was on a
mission to make it easy to love, easy to operate, and easy to enjoy. And women buy that
car. The interior is so convenient that all of it works for the female driver.”
Three of GM’s 11 design studios are currently headed by women, said Welburn,
and the company is looking for more.
“We would like to see more women and people of other affinity groups as part of
our design teams,” he said. “There are very few blacks in design now and that should
“We are looking into what kinds of outreach programs we can develop that go as
low as the elementary schools to identify women and minorities who might be interested
in auto design.”
Looking at Welburn’s track record, and his 30 years of success in changing the
face of some of the world’s best cars, one can expect him to succeed in eventually
changing the faces above the drawing boards in the design studios of the auto world.
At that point, the dreams of a young African American boy from Philadelphia,
who was in love with beautiful cars, will pass to a new generation of boys and girls who
will find the doors too the auto world have been opened for them.
Edward T. Welburn
GM North America Vice President,
Edward T. Welburn was appointed vice president of design, North
America, on October 1, 2003, becoming the sixth design leader in
A native of Philadelphia, Welburn was born on December 14, 1950.
He received a bachelor's degree from the College of Fine Arts at
Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1972. While at Howard
University, he studied both product design and sculpture.
Welburn began his General Motors career in 1972 at the Design
Center as an associate designer in the Advanced Design Studios. In
1973, he joined the Buick Exterior Studio. While in this studio,
Welburn was part of the team that designed the all-new 1977 Buick
Park Avenue and Riviera.
In 1975, Welburn joined the Oldsmobile Exterior Studio where he
contributed to every design of the highly successful Cutlass Supreme
since the 1978 model year, and later to the Cutlass Ciera and Calais.
In 1985, Welburn was part of the team responsible for the design of
the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car, the Oldsmobile Calais. This project
and his interest in the design of performance cars led to his design of
the Oldsmobile Aerotech. Aerotech, driven by A. J. Foyt, later
established two world records of more than 257 miles per hour in
Welburn was also a key participant in the design of the all-new 1988
Cutlass Supreme, which included a return to Indianapolis with the
1988 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car, based on the new Cutlass Supreme.
The car also received the Industrial Designers Society of America
(IDSA) Award for Design Excellence.
Welburn was appointed chief designer of the Oldsmobile Exterior II
Studio in December 1989. His studio continued the development of
Oldsmobile's Cutlass Supreme and Ciera mid-size vehicles. In 1995,
Welburn and his design team designed the Oldsmobile Antares
Concept Car. This exciting new design was selected by Autoweek
magazine as –The Best Concept Car” of the 1995 North American
International Auto Show. The highly successful Antares Concept Car
had a major influence on one of Welburn's favorite projects, the
Oldsmobile Intrigue. The Oldsmobile Intrigue was selected by
Autoweek magazine as –The Most Significant Car” of the 1996 North
American International Auto Show.
These awards were an exciting way for Welburn to end his 20-year
association with Oldsmobile and begin his assignment at Saturn. The
two-year Saturn assignment led to an international assignment, which
had him based at General Motors operations in Russelsheim,
Germany, for one year where he represented General Motors North
American Operations on a global design project.
On his return to the United States, in November of 1998, Welburn
was appointed director of GM's Corporate Brand Center in Warren,
Michigan. His team was responsible for the development of new and
innovative vehicles for the corporation and the exploration of new
vehicle types for all General Motors brands and its global partners.
Additionally, Welburn's team had the responsibility for the
development of all auto show cars for General Motors. His most
recent projects include the 2000 Chevrolet SSR, the 2002 Chevrolet
Bel Air, and the 2002 AUTOnomy fuel cell vehicle, which were all
revealed to the public at the North American International Auto
Show. Another recent fuel cell concept, the GM Hy-Wire, which
debuted at the 2002 Paris Motor Show, represented the world's first
drivable vehicle that combined a hydrogen fuel cell with by-wire
technology. The GM Hy-Wire, appropriately named for its
technology, incorporated the features first envisioned in the
Welburn was appointed executive director design body-on-frame
architectures in January of 2002. In that position, he had
responsibility for GM's three body-on-frame design studios at the
Design Center in Warren, Michigan. The first project created by his
group was the 2003 Chevrolet Cheyenne, which won –The Best
Concept Truck” category at the North American International Auto