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Distinct brands are focus for GM's new design chief

Ed Welburn is sixth to lead fabled department

By Ed Garsten / The Detroit News

Chevrolet SSR sport pickup

WARREN -- Ed Welburn admits the story about how he first hooked up with his future employer is a little corny, but it's true, and he's proud of it.

"I've been drawing cars since I was 2 1/2," Welburn recalled Monday. "At age 11, I wrote General Motors and told them I wanted to be a car designer and I wanted advice on what kind of courses I should take."

Welburn took the advice and eventually joined the giant automaker in 1972 as an associate designer. On Oct. 1, the former 2-year-old car doodler from Philadelphia took over the top design job at the company.

"I am doing exactly what I always wanted to do -- design cars," Welburn, 52, said during a roundtable with reporters Monday, his first interviews since taking over.

Welburn is just the sixth person to head GM's design staff, following in the footsteps of Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell -- now legends -- and most recently, Wayne Cherry, who is retiring after 11 years in the post. He spent 20 years at Oldsmobile, two with Saturn, and since January 2002 has served as executive director design for GM's vast truck lineup.

He's been associated with such distinctive vehicles as the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the new Chevrolet SSR sport pickup, and concept vehicles such as the Autonomy fuel cell car and Chevrolet Bel Air.

"Clearly he has a flair for exciting design," said Wes Brown, an analyst with Iceology, a division of Los Angeles market consultant Nextrend. "It does bode well for GM that he already has pushed the envelope."

His chore now is making sure GM's design team does not regress to the days when it was hard to tell a Buick from a Pontiac or a Chevy, said George Peterson, president of automotive consulting firm AutoPacific in Tustin, Calif.

"GM tries too hard to be a mainstream car company," said Peterson, "and they sell to the lowest common denominator buyer."

That point is squarely on Welburn's radar screen.

"It's important we have a clear understanding of the brands," Welburn said. "The leadership of design must believe in the understanding of the brands and strong brands differentiation."

Instead of an inbred Detroit design strategy that hampered GM in the past, five years ago the company established a global design council, which Welburn heads. The council consists of designers from GM outposts around the world and collaborates on a central vision and design strategy.

"We've gone from a company that's had centers around the world to a real global organization," Welburn said.

Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman in charge of product development and Welburn's boss, praises the new design chief but points out his role will take him away from dreaming up new cars and trucks.

"He should be a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a critic," Lutz said in a recent interview. "We're getting a superstar who has designed wonderful things. But if he isn't a good teacher and coach and he can't pass on his knowledge and skill to his team, then his talent is almost wasted."

Welburn's first lesson to his team? Focus.

"The team really needs to be focused on design, there are so many distractions that can blur your vision," Welburn said. "We need to explore all the possibilities up front and take a very strong vision for a vehicle early on."

The field, he says, is more wide open than ever in automotive design, giving designers more leeway to break from past conventions.

"There is no one trend in automobile design," he said. "There have been periods when everyone went for a very soft design or they went for a very hard-edged design. It's a very diverse market."

He is taking over GM's top design job as the automaker prepares to unleash a deluge of 28 new or freshened vehicles in 2004. They include the Chevrolet Cobalt compact sedan and coupe; the Pontiac G6 midsize sedan; Buick Lacrosse, Saturn Relay, Buick Terraza and Chevy Uplander crossover sport vans, and the Saturn Red Line high performance series.

While Welburn's last assignments was leading truck design, he promises a big push to improve GM's passenger car line -- inside and out.

"We've got a real emphasis on car and car interior," he said. "You look long term at the history of the auto industry and most emotional designs that people connect with have been cars. There's no reason that energy and excitement couldn't return to passenger cars."

In his own garage sits a yellow 1969 Chevy Camaro with black interior, a black SSR and his "everyday" ride -- a Cadillac Escalade SUV. But the man who dreamed of designing cars as a boy in Philly still dreams of owning a car he's coveted since the days before he could drive -- a 1963 Corvette Stingray split window coupe.

When asked if he'd accept a convertible, Welburn seems to descend into a trance, a big smile creases his face and he answers slowly, "no, got to be a coupe."

You can reach Ed Garsten at (313)223-3217 or [email protected].
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