LINKAs GM's new studio boss, Ed Welburn is living his boyhood fantasy. But can the soft-spoken stylist give the stuffy automaker a makeover?
Smooth stylist: Ed Welburn with the SSR Roadster, right, and the Buick Velite concept car
By Keith Naughton
May 31 issue - Many fathers and sons bond over baseball. For Ed Welburn and his father, it was cars. Beginning when he was 2, Welburn and his dad would lie on the living-room floor of their Philadelphia home, scribbling away for hours. Dad, a car buff who owned an auto-repair shop, penciled long-nosed 1930s Duesenbergs, and little Eddie traced over them. Finally confident enough to draw on his own, Eddie, not yet 3, took down every book from his parents' shelves and scrawled cars inside their covers. When Evelyn Welburn discovered the graffiti in dozens of books, she didn't scold her toddler. "I told everyone, 'You should see what my little boy can do'," she recalls.
A half century after leaving his mark in Mom's books, Ed Welburn, 53, is living his childhood fantasy: he's the new chief designer for the world's largest automaker, General Motors. Only the sixth man to hold that job in GM's 95-year history, Welburn also is the first African-American to run the design studio of any major automaker. But he has landed his dream job at a time when GM design is at a crossroads. Over the three decades that Welburn has toiled in GM's studios, a burgeoning bureaucracy has sapped stylists of the almighty power they had back in the days of tailfins and gleaming chrome. Engineers and focus groups have dictated design. The result: blandmobiles that GM marketed on price rather than style. Things began to turn three years ago with the arrival of vice chairman Bob Lutz, —the veteran auto ace who engineered Chrysler's ' 90s design renaissance. Now with Lutz as his powerful patron, Welburn is out to make GM a hot design house again. His strategy: think, and act, small. A natty dresser who has his own Italian tailor and can spend hours shopping at Barneys, Welburn figures that each of GM's eight brands can act as its own fashion line, catering to car buyers who increasingly put a premium on style. "There are so many choices now," he says. "It's a real advantage to have all these brands."
Welburn oversees an army of 600 designers at 11 studios around the world, but don't expect proclamations of design philosophy from on high. So soft-spoken he's almost inaudible, Welburn is the antithesis of the ego-driven car designer. Since taking over several months ago, he's been busy traveling the globe to meet his designers on their turf. His message: take risks and you will see your wildest dream cars on the road. After all, Welburn's the guy who gave life to the Chevy SSR hot-rod pickup and the edgy Cadillac Escalade. Though he is pushing his designers, he's not pushing them out of the way. When they struggle, he talks them through it rather than foisting his own drawings on them. "When the boss's sketch comes in," he says, "the designers drop their pencils." Welburn's crew is getting raves for its latest creation, the finely tailored Buick Velite convertible with its gleaming, shield-shaped grille. But skepticism remains. "The difficulty he faces," says auto consultant Wes Brown of Iceology, "is bringing stylistic flair into GM's conservative, mainstream cars."