No. 926
December 6, 2017
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

Follow Autoextremist

 

Sunday
Apr102016

ED WELBURN: AN APPRECIATION.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. As most of you know by now, Ed Welburn is stepping down as the leader of General Motors Global Design, effective July 1st. Michael Simcoe, an Australian, will succeed him, becoming the first non-American to lead GM Design. That’s the news that broke last week, but of course there’s much more to the story.

Ed Welburn has been with the company for 44 years, the last thirteen as chief of GM Design, only the sixth person in the history of the company to hold that title. Think about that for a moment. Ed fell in love with automotive design when he saw the GM Cyclone Concept at the Philadelphia auto show, when he was just nine years old.

After graduating from Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, Ed became the first African American at GM Design, beginning his career in 1972. And like most designers, his path took him through several studio assignments, the most notable of which was when he became the director of GM’s advanced design studio in 1998. He eventually was promoted to the head of GM Design in 2003, succeeding Wayne Cherry. The “global” part of his title was added in 2005.

I've made no secret of the fact over the years of writing this column that design is by far the most favorite part of this business for me. Like Ed, I became enamored with design at a young age, when, as an ten-year-old, I became aware that Bill Mitchell, the famed head of GM Design, lived just a block away from my childhood home. I was fortunate to get to know Mitchell personally and I documented those indelible experiences in a column that is still one of the most-requested columns I’ve ever written in these pages.

Before I comment more on Ed Welburn, I must say that over the course of writing for Autoextremist.com I have come to occupy a very strange place when it comes to General Motors, sort of a Twilight Zone made up of a brutal and at times ugly dichotomy.

On the one hand, to most of the GM hierarchy I am an avowed Enemy of the State, a scurrilous, reprehensible lout who has done more damage to their efforts than anyone else covering the industry, by far. Dismissing established – and hoary – rules of engagement, I have decimated GM’s coldly calculated PR machine and delivered scathing blow after blow to a company that more often than not richly deserved it – and more – by documenting every excruciating misstep and blunder.

(What makes it even more infuriating for the powers that be in those Silver Silos hard by the Detroit River is that I have a rather unique perspective that spans GM’s roller-coaster eras, from the sublime, to the ridiculous and back - almost - again. I was there for the company’s heyday, and then some. Thanks to my father, Tony, who led GM’s Public Relations function from 1957 until 1979, our family was on a first-name basis with some of the most famous legends in the business. And this unique perspective, along with my own advertising career, which allowed me to witness GM’s long, slow slide to oblivion firsthand, has allowed me to see through many of the canards put forth by the company in its modern era. Make no mistake - this is a giant bowl of Not Good from GM’s perspective.)

But on the other hand, to most of the True Believers toiling away in GM Design, Engineering and Product Development, I am considered a visionary soothsayer, someone who not only gets it and calls it like he sees it, but who understands that they’re the reason why - even through the horribly embarrassing bankruptcy and the Akerson Reign of Terror - GM is still even in the game.

Ed Welburn and I have become more than acquaintances, stopping short of being friends, and much of that is due to the fact that I have this connection to GM Design that spans eras. I said “stopping short” of being friends because the fact of the matter is that it is distinctly frowned upon for any GM executive to have contact with me, although thankfully, Ed and I have managed to share a few moments roaming the halls of GM Design together in the past.

One characteristic that I find most admirable about Ed is his genuine appreciation and understanding of GM Design history, especially the Bill Mitchell era. One of the first things Ed did upon his ascension to the top job at GM Design was to commission the total restoration of the famed Corvette Stingray racer, probably the most iconic representation of the Bill Mitchell-led design era there is, and my all-time favorite car. And recently, Ed has put together a brief tribute video about Mitchell to “educate and set the record straight” for his design team, so that they might come to understand the rich historical legacy of Bill Mitchell and his seismic contributions to GM Design.

While paying homage to GM Design’s past, Ed Welburn has led GM’s design function into the modern era with aplomb. Though GM Design was showing definite signs of life during the Wayne Cherry era, Ed took the reins from there and forged a design renaissance by spurring on the talent at his disposal to achieve great things. And Ed did this while marshaling design troops in a vast, global network of ten design studios, including major centers in Germany, South Korea, Australia, China and of course here at the GM Technical Center in Warren. Needless to say, being GM Design chief is a much tougher assignment in the modern era.

Beyond that, perhaps Ed's most significant contribution is that he broke down the ridiculous, often paralyzing silos between Design and everyone else in the company, especially engineering. Ed dispensed with that obsolete thinking and pushed for the "one team" approach, leading the integration to a better way. The result? Creativity and cooperation between engineers and designers is unlike any other time in GM's history, which is a tremendous accomplishment that will cement Ed's historical legacy. Ed Wellburn's reasoned and positive manner has left a winning tone and tempo within GM that will serve the company well going forward.

Another shared point of reference for Ed and myself is our undying respect for Jim Hall and the famous Chaparral racing cars. In fact Ed has become good friends with Jim over the last decade and if you ever want to see Ed’s eyes light up all you have to do is mention Hall and the Chaparrals.

I’m happy to report Ed is going to stay very busy and involved in critical projects in this industry long after his official retirement day in July. In fact he will be supervising the construction of a new design campus in Warren before he leaves, which is a hugely important undertaking for the company.

There may have been designers who certainly garnered more notoriety in recent years, but no one has done a more masterful job in energizing, focusing and leading one of this industry's most decorated and historically significant design teams to new heights than Ed Welburn. His tenure will be forever marked by the creation of some of the industry’s most memorable concepts and significant production cars, not the least of which were the stunning Cadillac concepts - the Ciel and the Elmiraj -  and of course the current Corvette and Camaro.

In the lobby of the famed Eero Sarrinen-designed GM Design building, there are two bronze busts prominently displayed. One is of Harley Earl and the other is of Bill Mitchell. I look forward to the day when a bronze bust of Ed Welburn takes its rightful place among GM Design's greats.

And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.

(GM)
The 1959 GM Cyclone Concept. The car that would inspire a future industry giant.

(the detroit bureau)
Bill Mitchell greets a very young Ed Welburn.

(GM)
The sensational 1959 Corvette Stingray racer.

(GM Archives)
One of Ed Welburn's favorite projects at GM was being the design lead on the the experimental Oldsmobile Aerotech high-speed test vehicles created between 1987 and 1992. The Aerotech I
consisted of a March Indycar single seat chassis enclosed in an extremely slick carbon fiber body shell powered by a turbo-charged version of the 2-litre Oldsmobile Quad 4 engine. (One version of the engine used had 900HP, the other had 1000HP.) It was driven by four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt to a world closed-course speed record of 257.123 mph on August 26, 1987 at the 7.712-mile test track near Fort Stockton, Texas. Earlier that day the machine hit a top speed over a "Flying Mile" of 267.88 mph. During the runs Foyt hit straightaway speeds of 290+ mph.

(GM)
The 2011 Cadillac Ciel Concept.
(GM)
The 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj Concept.

(GM)
The lobby of the famous Eero Saarinen-designed GM Design building, the Cyclone Concept in the foreground. 
(GM)
Another view of the GM Design lobby. The staircase was designed by Kevin Roche and is made of 7-foot, 4-inch terrazzo slabs, which overlap each other. They are actually suspended from above. Each tread is caught in tension between pencil-thin stainless steel rods.

(GM)
Under Welburn's direction the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette - wearing the Stingray moniker for the first time in decades - is a sensational looking sports car worthy of the name.
(GM)
The 2016 Chevrolet Camaro is another example of Welburn's design leadership and is by far the hottest version of the car that GM has ever produced.

(GM)
The great Jim Hall leans in to talk to Ed Welburn, who is at the wheel of the Chaparral 2H in a private test drive conducted at Hall's Rattlesnake Raceway in Midland, Texas.

(GM)
Ed Welburn will take his place with the greats of General Motors Design.


« THE FOOLS ON THE HILL. | Main | BEHOLD THE CAR THAT PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE. »