Ed Welburn, General Motors’ vice president of Global Design, will retire from his position July 1, following a 44-year career with the company. Michael Simcoe, a 33-year veteran of GM Design and vice president of GM International Design has been appointed his successor. He will begin transitioning into his new role on May 1.
Welburn, a soft-spoken yet passionate leader, has been instrumental in building up GM Design since being appointed to the head role in 2003. In doing so, he became the firm’s sixth design leader in the company’s 108-year history and the first African American ever to hold such a position at any automaker.
Under his leadership, GM Design was reinvigorated, churning out successful concept vehicles and production products for GM’s varied brands. He was influential in prompting Cadillac’s Art & Science design language, furthering Buick’s organic design philosophy and ensuring that Chevrolet designs once again held the promise of the American Dream.
During his tenure he has looked after 10 design centers in various parts of the globe and guided a team of more than 2,500 creative men and women based in the US, Germany, South Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India. Welburn was personally vested in his position, always taking the time to speak to designers while giving them the freedom to create. He was known to fly to Seoul, Sao Paolo or Shanghai to approve a model in person at the drop of a hat.
Welburn’s father co-owned a body shop in Philadelphia, which fueled his interest for all things automotive. “In those early days, I was surrounded by cars,” he said. But it was seeing the Cadillac Cyclone concept at the 1958 Philadelphia auto show that really inspired to pursue a career in automotive design. “I told my parents, not only do I want to be a car designer, but I want to work for that company,” Welburn recalled in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.
He wrote a letter to GM in 1961 (aged 11) and expressed his desire to be a car designer. He received a reply, with some direction, and returned to GM as an intern a decade later. He officially joined the GM fold after gaining his BFA from Howard University’s College of Fine Arts in 1972 and became the first African American to work in GM’s Design organization.
Over the course of his 44-year career at GM, Welburn worked for several design divisions, starting first as an associate designer in GM’s advanced design studio and joining the Buick exterior design studio in 1973.
He transitioned to the Oldsmobile exterior studio two years later and worked on the streamlined Aerotech, a high-speed research vehicle that set a land speed record of 257 mph in 1987.
“It was one of my most significant projects,” Welburn recalls. “I worked with engineering, marketing and communications, not just design, in a way I had never done before. I’ve had a passion for aerodynamics ever since.”
Following the Aerotech, Welburn’s rise through the GM ranks was rapid. He was chief designer for GM’s now defunct Saturn brand, executive director of GM Advanced Design and worked his way up to become executive director of Body-on-Frame trucks, a position that prepared him to take over for retiring Wayne Cherry as GM Design North America in 2003. He was promoted to the Global role in 2005.
Welburn has been celebrated on numerous occasions for his extraordinary achievements, winning numerous design awards and industry accolades including the ‘Distinguished Service Citation’ from the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2009 as well as this year’s inaugural ‘Automotive Difference Maker Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the Detroit Free Press.
“GM Design is among the most respected and sought-after organizations in the industry because of Ed’s leadership. He nurtured a creative, inclusive and customer-focused culture among our designers that has strengthened our global brands,” said Mary Barra, GM chairman and CEO.