Wandering through the new exhibit at Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Great Age of American Automobiles, Ed Welburn is awash in memories. The drawings and designs of wild cars that sprang from the minds of designers at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were part of the childhood inspiration that launched his career.
Since 2003, Welburn, 56, has been GM's vice president of global design, responsible for the look of every car and truck. He is only the sixth person to hold that position in the 100-year history of GM, and follows in the path of automotive design legends Harley Earl, who created many of the big-fin cars of the 1950s, and Bill Mitchell, creator of the Corvette Stingray and the Buick Riviera.
Welburn's most recent accomplishments include the 2008 Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Malibu. His design team also drew raves at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit for a prototype Cadillac CTS coupe.
A graduate of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University, Welburn has been at General Motors since 1972 and influenced the look of both street and racing cars in his career, including such concept vehicles -- cars meant as design studies that don't become production vehicles -- as the Oldsmobile AeroTech, which set land speed records in 1987.
A keynote speaker Thursday at the preview of the museum exhibit, which opens Sunday, Welburn talked to The Miami Herald about his passion for design, his ''secret'' design studio and whether edgy new designs can pull GM out of its doldrums.
Q: Is it true that your love affair with cars began at an early age, and was inspired by one of the cars, the Cadillac Cyclone concept car, in this exhibit?
A: That car was done in 1959 and I was 8 years old when I saw this car at the Philadelphia auto show. I remember it as if it was last night. We went there and it was sitting on a display with a bed of angel hair. Cars then were very expressive and I started drawing cars at a very early age. It was all around me.
Q:Is it true that you let General Motors know early on that you wanted to be a car designer?
A: When I was 11 I wrote them telling them I wanted to be a car designer and I just wanted information on the kind of courses I should take in school and the schools I should go to. They sent me some great information. And to this day when I get letters like that, I make sure they get a response.
Q: It seems that more innovative body shapes and designs are starting to come out of GM and other Detroit-based manufacturers. You point to the 2008 Cadillac CTS sedan as an example of new thinking at GM. Are we going to see more emphasis on shapes than in the past?
A: We've gone through periods in the industry when design dominated -- that may have been true in the 1950s and '60s. Design drove the process and then they'd hand it over to engineering to execute it. There were great cars that were a product of that, but not always. Then there was a huge pendulum swing back the other way, driven in part by new safety and emission regulations, and engineering took the lead. Engineering would map out the entire vehicle and then hand it over to design. That didn't work either. We have found a balance today and I give an awful lot of credit to [GM co-chairman] Bob Lutz, who has opened the doors for design and created the right linkage between design and engineering.
Q: The Detroit-based manufacturers are in a lot of trouble these days. Sales are down significantly across the board. Do you think that a renewed emphasis on design will draw buyers back to GM?
A: Design can't do it alone. There has to be strong collaboration [with engineering]. But there also has to be strong design. Everyone in the industry has competitive pricing, everyone has good quality -- it's just a question of degree. It's very difficult for any company to have a technology advantage over anyone else for a significant amount of time. So design is the great differentiator.
Q: Those who grew up in the 1950s and '60s can remember when car designs changed with the calendar. Now cars seem to go on for years without significant change. Can we expect to see more new designs emerge more frequently?
A: It is amazing when I look back at cars from the 1950s and '60s, how they changed from year to year. Back then there was a great deal of sharing. In the late 1950s, most GM cars used the same doors and the same rooflines. The rest of the cars were radically different. That helped disguise what was shared. Today each brand has a whole portfolio of vehicles. I'm not answering your question directly, but I'll put it this way: We have 11 design centers around the world and each and every one of them is running flat out designing new vehicles. We need to change on a very rapid cadence, but it's not change for change's sake.
Q: Is it true that you have a special, super-secret design studio that handles special projects, like the new Camaro?
A: I have reinstated a secret studio that Bill Mitchell had, Studio X. The Camaro came out of that. No one asked for the Camaro. I put a team in place to work on it. We've got a couple of other projects working in Studio X way beyond where the Camaro is. No one knows where that studio is but a few. Some of the people who have been there have not been taken on a direct route and I'm sure they could not find their way back.