Retirement hasn’t slowed down the legendary GM design chief, Ed Welburn.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photography by Boswell Hardwick
It’s been a year and a half since Ed Welburn last reported into the General Motors Design Studio he worked at for 44 years and led for 13. These days, he checks in to Ladder 12, a former Detroit firehouse in Corktown built in 1908 that he and girlfriend, Jessie Elliott, transformed into part office, part entertaining space, where Ed holds his high-powered, strategic meetings — both design-oriented and philanthropic.
At Ladder 12, you’ll find the Chevy Camaro that inspired the Bumble Bee character in the Transformers movie as well as Corvettes from the past (1957) and present (2016 — one of his favorites, he says). Mementos, photos, and auto racing memorabilia are scattered about. You’ll also find a free-standing high-performance engine that Ed just hand-built. (“Because I always wanted to,” he says. “Getting the right parts was the biggest challenge.”)
At the back, Ed and Jessie added a glass atrium for a place to relax and entertain, which they do often and expect to do again during the auto show.
But don’t call Ed retired. “I need to find another word for it,” he says with a grin. “I’ve completed a fun and terrific career at GM, and now it’s on to the next chapter of my life, which is going to be pretty exciting.”
He recently sat down with SEEN to talk about his past, present and future.
A STORIED CAREER
While other toddlers were drawing stick figures, little Ed Jr. was drawing cars. His parents took him to an auto show in Philadelphia when he was 8. There, he saw a concept car “that just blew my mind,” Ed says. “I told my parents that when I grew up, I was going to work for that company.”
That company was General Motors. He sent his first letter to the company at age 11 and received a response about what he should do to become a car designer. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Fine Arts at Howard University where he studied sculpture and product design and began working at GM in 1972 at age 21 — the company’s first black designer.
“They were very welcoming. There were times I felt way out of my comfort zone — but those were the best times of my career, like being the first designer to go on a mission to China.”
He rose in the ranks to become chief designer of the Oldsmobile Studio, spent some time at Saturn, directed GM’s Advance Design Center in Warren, then led body-on-frame architecture design before being named vice president of GM Design North America in 2003 — the sixth person to hold the title in GM’s history. Two years later, he was promoted to the newly created position of vice president GM Global Design. And all the time, the awards kept coming.
Throughout it all, Ed made sure that every letter he received from a young person got a response. “Design is incredibly competitive today. I try to steer them in the right direction and tell them which schools they need to get into.” One of those schools is the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where Ed serves on the board of trustees.
“In all my years at GM, every project I worked on was a team effort. I worked for, worked with, and was the leader of the most creative group of people in the industry,” he says.
“I’ve been told I was part of the development of 540 vehicles,” Ed says, so it is hard for him to pick out a favorite. “Probably the 2016 Corvette Z06, that’s why it sits in my office,” he says.
Even more than the cars he developed, he’s most proud of convincing GM leadership to change the way design was done in the company.
“Historically, GM managed design for North America and there were others who managed design around the world,” he says. “I was able to convince them it should all work together in one system, and I should lead it.
“Instead of leading one center, I led 11 design centers in seven countries around the world and was the first to do that,” he adds. “To be able to harness the creative energy of 2,500 people in 11 studios was a very powerful thing. A huge advantage. The cars I’m most proud of could only happen because of that network of studios as well as creating great communication and collaboration between design and engineering — a level of collaboration that might not have existed in the past.”
Ed says his inspiration for design comes from all over: from the music he listens to, things he sees in nature and what happens in fashion and product design. “But to achieve great proportions in an automobile, designers can’t do it alone,” he says. “They can create a great vision for it, but unless they can get cooperation and collaboration with a very creative engineer, it’s not going to happen. A lot of cars look rather unfortunate because they didn’t have that — including some in GM’s history.”
As for vehicles, he adds he’s especially proud of the Chevy Bolt. “That was a cool project, very challenging, but great things came out of it. It looks like a much more complete vehicle than others of its type. It doesn’t look like a science project. It looks like a real car.”
Ed has many cherished memories, such as his involvement with the Indy 500, where his GM team designed the pace car. His team also designed Barack Obama’s presidential limo, known as “The Beast” by the Secret Service. “It’s a giant car,” he says.
Last year, he designed the trophy for the North American Car of the Year. “The folks had heard that I didn’t like some of the trophies that were being produced so they approached me to design a new award. I thought it should be a dramatic car. My inspiration: ‘What kind of car would the Oscar statue drive?’ Everyone seems happy with the design.”
Another of his favorite memories is of meeting President Obama at the Washington, D.C., auto show. A photo is proudly displayed at Ladder 12. “He decided to climb in a red Malibu. I got in the other side to answer any questions he might have,” Ed says. “The media went nuts, but inside it was just him and me — two guys talking in a Chevy. I told him how proud I was of the design team that created the interior. He said, ‘Ed, we’re really proud of you and what you do.’ I’ll never forget it.”
A STAR IS BORN
Ed has been a consultant on the Transformers movie franchise from its inception. “Around 2005, the Camaro had been out of production for several years and we were secretly developing a concept car. It was my vision to bring Camaro back into production,” he says.
Some people in GM’s marketing department knew about the project and were working with Michael Bay on the first movie. He was looking for something special for the Bumble Bee character.
“They encouraged me to show him our secret Camaro project. I wasn’t going to show him unless he told me about the movie. He wouldn’t tell me about the movie until he saw the car. It was back and forth, and I finally gave in. He came to Detroit. I showed him my Camaro project and he said, ‘Yes, that’s Bumble Bee.’
“Before he even got that far in developing the second movie, he came to visit me,” he adds. They ended up working together on all the films and Ed walked the red carpet at the premieres.
“On the fourth one, as a thank you, he wanted to give me a small role. Really exciting — until you get on the set.
“I’m not an actor. I had one short line to begin with, and I was supposed to be angry. Well, I just don’t get angry. I don’t think anyone’s seen me get angry.”
Bay asked him what he would say if he were angry with someone at work. “I told him I would say, ‘Let’s go into my office and discuss this.’ Nobody at GM wanted to hear that,” he says. “So he gave me another line: ‘My office in 15 minutes!’ That made it into the movie.”
Ed started the “You Make a Difference” design mentoring program for high school and middle schools students and speaks to art students in New York and Los Angeles as a board member of Tony Bennett’s foundation Exploring the Arts.
Ed’s also busy working on a book, sketching every day and doing consultant work with an engineering group in Toulouse, France.
The biggest reason why this second chapter of his life is so special? “Jessie, she is the love of my life,” he says.
They met five years ago in Atlanta, where Ed was receiving the Trumpet Award. “She’s from Detroit, I’m from Detroit, but we didn’t meet until then.” Shortly after they met, they began dating. Her touch can be found throughout Ladder 12.
“We just had Jesse Jackson come by for dinner,” Ed says. “A variety of people come by, and we’ll be having a few parties during the auto show.”
When not entertaining, they like to travel, to Italy every summer and Pebble Beach, where Ed judges classic cars. They make it to a few auto races every year. “We have a lot of fun together discovering new places in Detroit.”
Ed’s children are grown: son, Brian, is in Chicago and daughter, Adrienne, her husband, Mike, and two grandchildren are in Maryland. His father, who will be turning 100 in June, lives with Ed. “We spend time together every day and are planning a big party for him next summer near Philly.”
Ed is periodically invited to GM’s design studio to see the cars that he’s worked on. Because of the automotive production cycle, his fingerprints will be on GM’s new vehicles for two or three more years.
“Those are the things I can talk about,” he says with a smile. “I’ve got some other things — fun things — I’ll be sharing soon. Lots of cool stuff.” NS