44 years of car design: General Motors' Ed Welburn shares his secrets

Story highlights

  • Ed Welburn has been designing cars for General Motors for 44 years
  • Ahead of his retirement, the car guru reveals his car design secrets

(CNN)When Ed Welburn was about eight years old he old he saw a concept car -- in those days they were called "dream cars" --- at the Philadelphia Auto Show. It was called the Cadillac Cyclone.

"I told my parents, I want to be a car designer for that company," he told CNN.
    A couple of years later, Welburn took the next step and sent a letter to General Motors' design department. The company responded with a packet of information on how to become a car designer.
    Evidently, it was good advice. More than fifty years later, Welburn is getting ready to retire from his position as Global Vice President for Design at GM. He's only the sixth person ever to lead GM's design department since its creation in 1927 and the first to have direct responsibility for all of the automaker's vehicle designs throughout the world.
    After his decision to retire was announced in April, CNN talked to Welburn about his work process at GM and his thoughts on car design.

    One company, GM

    Welburn has worked at GM -- and nowhere else -- for 44 years. He had an internship at GM during his junior year of college and started a full-time job there in 1972 after graduating from Howard University.
    He's in charge of vehicle designs for brands as diverse as Chevrolet, Cadillac, Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, Wuling and Baojun and others. He oversees 2,500 design employees working in 10 design studios in seven different countries.
    Today, Welburn said, he's involved in the design of every GM car from luxury models to pickup trucks and subcompacts.
    "I'm involved in the process from the very beginning and all the way through," he said, "and yet I like to give the team a lot of room to work, a lot of freedom."

    'Free to create'

    He meets regularly with the teams and provides input and guidance but said he stops short of dictating a "correct" approach.
    "One of the most important things that I have to do is to create an environment in which designers feel free to create," he said.
    That starts, Welburn said, with the freedom to try out ideas and stretch beyond what's been done before.
    "It's an environment in which the designer feels free to try new and unique things and make mistakes without feeling as though they've failed," he said.
    He makes his own sketches of what he thinks the cars might ultimately look like, but he never shows those drawings to the design teams. The sketches just help him to think through the project's challenges. They're not for anyone else to see.
    "I grew up in the studios and I know that if the boss brings their sketch in, then everybody in the studio stops creating," he said, "and that's terrible."

    Attractive proportions

    Making really great car designs, Welburn said, requires great engineering. For one thing, a car's fundamental proportions have to be attractive and that involves the car's underlying framework.
    "Designers do some bad things trying to make up for that which isn't in the basic architecture of the vehicle," he said.
    While praising the cooperation the design group has from GM's engineering teams, there are sometimes challenges, according to Welburn.
    "It's always a challenge but from challenges come great opportunities and great discoveries," he said.
    The 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
    For example: the air vents on the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. There are lots of them but of particular concern was the need for the car to have air vents on top of the rear fenders -- a place where cars just don't usually have holes. Corvette engineers insisted those vents had to be there for cooling certain parts of the car.
    "The solution is an air intake that's very much a part of the character of the car," said Welburn.
    Like the big vent in the center of the hood -- which allows air to pass through so that it's not pushing it up and lifting the car -- the rear vents fit with the shape of the car and look purposeful without seeming "tacked on."
    Another challenge, he said, is that good car design is becoming more competitive as customers at all levels, even buyers of low-priced economy cars, demand good design. And they want it everywhere, not just in the United States and Western Europe.
    "They really want good design," said Welburn, "No matter where you are on the planet."
    Ed Welburn will officially leave his post on July 1.