Ed Welburn

1950, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, Ed Welburn makes it clear he’s not a person to cross. Playing an executive at the fictitious company, Kinetic Solutions Incorporated, the General Motors’ vice president of global design growls at Mark Wahlberg, “My office in 15 minutes. I think you know where that is.” Both fans of the movies and car geeks were thrilled to see him in the cameo, and his workspace—unchanged since the days of the legendary head of design at GM, Harley Earl—standing in for a CIA office. But they shouldn’t confuse that persona with the real Welburn, who’s extremely soft-spoken and seems to start every sentence with a smile. “I’m not sure in my many years at General Motors if anyone has ever heard me raise my voice,” he says. “But my point is always made very clearly.”

As the leader of all design activities across GM’s many brands, the 64-year-old supervises 2,600 people who work at 10 design centers in 7 countries. It’s a far cry from the kind of teams the legendary Earl or his larger-than-life successor Bill Mitchell led during their well-known tenures as the automotive company’s heads of design. So different is the scale of Welburn’s responsibilities that the position of vice president of global design was created specially for him in 2005. As the company’s creative helmsman during an era of globalization, the Great Recession, and the tumultuous years that followed, Welburn hasn’t had it easy. But if he’s fazed by those pressures, he doesn’t show it. “I love it,” he says of the task of juggling timelines and personalities across the globe. “And I never lose sight of the impact of what we do and how it affects the future of the company in over 140 countries around the world. It’s important work, and it’s also fun.”

It must help that Welburn has been crazy about cars ever since he can remember. He grew up in Philadelphia in the ’50s—the heyday of American automobile design—with a father who worked on cars for a living. The family went to see the Philadelphia International Auto Show in 1958, where the Cadillac Cyclone concept car was on display. Welburn says he decided on his calling right then and there. At age 11, he tracked down the contact of a designer at GM and wrote him a letter seeking advice on how to become a car designer. When he received a response telling him to enroll in an industrial design course, he certainly didn’t pause to consider that very few people of color were making that kind of career choice at the time. “I never thought about it, though I guess my parents did,” he says. “It wasn’t until recently that I found out about how concerned they were that I wanted to go into a field they weren’t sure I would be accepted in.”

Both the car industry and American society had undergone major changes by the time Welburn started studying fine arts and industrial design at Howard University. The recession of those years had brought European competition to American car manufacturers, who responded with compact, family cars that were within the reach of a much larger section of society. On the other hand, the Civil Rights Movement had opened a few doors—and minds—for the African American graduates at Howard. Old barriers seemed breachable, and the faculty nurtured Welburn’s dream.

“They knew my mission—because I was on a mission. They did everything they could to support me and to tailor the curriculum and customize it for me.”

Upon graduation in 1972, GM hired him as an associate designer at the Advanced Design Studios, the first African American designer at the company. Welburn describes a feeling familiar to others in similar situations in other industries, a feeling of being “almost on stage,” in the spotlight. “The first time I put sketches up on a display board, everyone wanted to see what I was capable of doing,” he says. In 1987, after several years of working at the Oldsmobile studio, he was put on a project that eventually became the Aerotech High Speed Research Car. The racecar driver A. J. Foyt broke two world records with the Aerotech at the Indianapolis 500. “It was the first time I was more than a designer creating sketches,” Welburn says. “I was working with other designers and sculptors, with the marketing and public relations team, and with engineers. My job became multidimensional.” In just two years, he was named the chief designer of the Oldsmobile studio, again the first African American in that position. Welburn speaks of any challenges he faced with characteristic understatement: “You know, there’s a little bit more tension, I think, than normal.”

Over the years, Welburn has overseen many turning points for GM, but the post-recession bailout may have been the most challenging. There’s no doubt that his design leadership played a big role in reviving the GM brand since then. As the highlights of his career, Welburn points to the fifth-generation Camaro, put back into production in 2009. “That vehicle kind of lit a fire within the Chevrolet organization,” he says. Another high point was staying true to the challenging Corvette legacy with the Stingray series, the latest edition of which was released this year. Those vehicles are the showstoppers, “but I never want to lose sight of vehicles like the Onyx, a small car from Chevrolet for South America that has done very well,” Welburn says. “Those customers take that vehicle very seriously. Probably, a higher percentage of their income is going into that purchase than what the average owner of a Corvette puts in. I’ve always felt and will always feel that we have got to treat that customer with respect.”

That’s a sign of how much the world of automobiles has changed since Welburn’s days at Howard—global audiences and multiple perspectives have become increasingly important. Concepts for GM cars now come from teams in Australia, Brazil, China, India, and Korea, but “I would like it, in some ways, to be even more diverse,” Welburn says.

Inspired by his own example, he wants car-obsessed kids from all over the world to find their way into his profession. “How do you help them understand the route that they should take to become a professional automobile designer? How can you help their parents understand that yes, their child could have a career?” he says. “That’s the challenge, how to help them realize the dreams.”