GM’s Chief Designer To Retire

GM’s head of design, Ed Welburn, is retiring in June. What is his legacy?

Ed Wellburn - GM´s head of design retires on July 1, 2016: source
Ed Wellburn – GM´s head of design retires on July 1, 2016: source

This was reported here. It seems like only yesterday that he was appointed: 2003. He replaced Wayne Cherry. One of his goals was to unify the design studios of GM, much in the way that the engineering and production has been streamlined (for good and for ill). 

2015 Buick Avenir
2015 Buick Avenir. Is this organic? Welburn´s successor is credited with this: source.

Autoblog says rather little about Wellburn’s time as GM’s design chief. Jalopnik feels that Welburn led the rebirth of GM design with the restyled Camaro and oversaw the approval of the Cadillac CTS. At DTW we might be interested to note he was responsible for the aero Olds such as the Cutlass Supreme I keep bringing up. The Verge doesn’t say much about his career either, in terms of his concrete achievements. Bloomberg reckons Welburn oversaw a styling renaissance and also cite the new Camaro and Cadillac CTS. Car Design News adds some data: Welburn was chief designer at Saturn in the 1990s. That must have been a frustrating gig as it involved restyling Opels for the most part and ended in the brand being shuttered. Formtrends says he reinvigorated GM design, “prompting Cadillac’s Art and Science theme” (that was invented by someone else) and “furthering Buick’s organic design philosophy.” Road & Track says this:  “Ed Welburn is

2008 Saturn Aura: carandriver.com
2008 Saturn Aura, one of Welburns cars: carandriver.com

easily one of the most important car designers of the modern era … Welburn’s departure is a significant one because he was responsible for many of GM’s 21st century design success, including the fifth-generation Camaro, the C7 Corvette, the Buick Avista, the Cadillac Ciel, and many others. He also designed the wild streamlined 1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech concept that A.J. Foyt took up to 290 mph, a car he considers his most important, according to a recent Automotive News profile.” I can’t visualise most of those, however.

All of this has got me thinking that Ed Welburn was undoubtedly a good administrator and held this last position during a very difficult time for GM. It is also a job where one has to oversee a huge corporation’s design so his influence was going to be less evident at the

2003 Saturn L - worse in every way than the Vectra B: carfinderservice.com
2003 Saturn L – worse in every way than the Vectra B. Welburn did not do this: carfinderservice.com

level of particular cars. With all that in mind, I do wonder quite what GM has achieved in the last 13 years. I really like what Opel is doing at the moment and, visually, Buick shows some promise but where are the designs that are inspiring people?  J. Mays had some hits and his misses. Whilst Welburn has avoided any obvious turkeys like the Aztek he has also not left a vehicle which, without doing any research, stands out as a signature car.

[This article appeared for a short time attached to today’s item on the AR Stelvio. I was going to assemble a news-dump article and only managed two sections. On reflection I decided my critique of Welburn was of significant profundity to merit its own article.

[You can find the word “architected” used in this article which discusses the evolution of Cadillac’s present design themes]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

5 thoughts on “GM’s Chief Designer To Retire”

  1. Interestingly, this is a name that held no resonance with me until I read of his departure, which bothered me. I think it reflects my lack of real interest in things GM, which I think I should address. I would have agreed with you, Richard, about recent Opels/ Vauxhalls, but I feel the most recent Astra, Astra SW and Corsa are retrograde items and I have never got on with the Adam. That said, I really liked that GT concept car that has done the rounds at 2016 ‘shows. The Insignia still looks fresh, if still a little over-bodied for its wheelbase, and I like the two MPVs. Overall, I can’t help shake the view that GM design lacks originality and often feels like a sanitised pastiche of someone else’s design (again, I would except the Insignia and MPVs from that).

    1. As I may have hinted. Opel´s work is mostly very good but never ground breaking. I think that´s an okay result for a brand in that market sector. As you know I have an undying adoration for Astras so I can´t see eye to eye with you on that. The SW had an especially bougeois appeal. Where I do agree is that the current Corsa is too much a facelift and the present Astra has something of the same feel. Welburn´s low profile fits with GM´s generally bureaucratic style. He managed things and didn´t leave a profound stamp and he seems not to have been a spokesman like J Mays, Mr Chris Bangle or Patrick Le Quement. On the whole, his work was defensive and cautious meaning I really can´t think of a striking car from the period. Sure I could find some nice ones with the help of Google – which is a failing. Good cars should stand out and leave an impression. Putting the boot on the other foot: can I honestly name three striking Fords or three excellent Renaults in the same period? I may think of some and maybe you can but not right off the top of my head.

  2. He is not a man for brave design.
    The Volt/Ampera was outside not really distinctive enough – apart from the fake lowered window line. And inside there was a sea of buttons – just to confirm, electric cars are complex….

  3. I consider Welburn’s legacy conservative, but hardly lacklustre. Cadillac, above all, has become a serious brand once again under his guidance – and the Elmirage concept was simply the most beautiful car at the 2013 IAA (no, that’s no faint praise). I also find the current Corvette interesting, albeit hardly groundbreaking, despite its breaking new ground in quite a few areas – by Corvette standards, that is (yet again: no faint praise intended).

    Considering GM’s precarious financial situation until fairly recently, I’m wondering exactly how much leeway there was to lend Buick a style of its own. And, above all, the signs of gross incompetence that littered the Wagoner/Cherry era (many late ’90s Opels, Aztec, Cadillac Catera, the lights of most late ’90s US models) have been mostly eradicated under Welburn.

    Calling Welburn merely a competent administrator appears a bit unfair, for I wouldn’t consider him a modern day Ribicky (despite the fact that the latter supervised the trailing edge-equipped C4 Corvette, a car for which I’ve cultivated latent admiration). He also wasn’t a pioneer like Earl and, perhaps even more so, Mitchell, but I prefer Welburn’s discreet, capable style to the self-championing demeanours of the J Mayses of this world.

    If only my auto correction wouldn’t keep on calling him Wilbur…

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