Detroit Auto Show: A conversation with Ed Welburn
Yesterday, we sat down for a few minutes with Ed Welburn, GM's Vice President, Global Design, to get his thoughts on the current design direction at GM. He's overseeing a wholesale change in the General's approach to vehicular design inside and out, and for the first time in years, people -- journalists and regular folks alike -- are pointing at General Motors' new cars and trucks not to deride them for how they look, mind you, but as examples of how to do it right.
Cars like the Saturn Aura, the upcoming Saturn Vue, the upcoming Malibu, the Camaro, and the GMT900 family of trucks and SUVS demonstrate that General Motors has thrown its old approach out and is playing the game on an entirely different level. The man leading the way is Ed Welburn, whose team of talented designers has produced a string of highly compelling vehicles that GM hopes will lead them through a product-based turnaround.
We asked Ed to share the story of his first contact with General Motors with us, and then we spoke at length about the current state of design at the automaker. The anecdote Ed shared with us is below, and you'll find the remainder of the interview after the jump.
Ed Welburn - GM Vice President, Global Design
North American International Auto Show
January 7, 2007
Autoblog: I remember an interview you did with Tavis Smiley a while back where you recounted the story about when you were 11 years old and you sent a letter to GM. Can you share that with our readers? It's a good story and I think our readers would be interested in hearing it.
Ed Welburn: You know, my interest in automobile design and cars goes back to early childhood -- age 2½, 3. I was drawing cars. Very primitive cars, but I was drawing, that's what I drew. By age 11 I'd decided that car design is what I wanted. I wrote General Motors at age 11, told them I wanted to be a car designer, and that I wanted to know what kind of courses to take in school, what kind of schools I should go to, and they sent me great information -- I mean terrific information. I just really followed their lead and today when young people write me asking about careers in design I do the same. I make sure they get great information about schools of design and how to pursue a career.
Autoblog: Obviously things have progressed to a very good place for you now and GM is in the middle of what you could pretty much say is a design renaissance across the board. Talk briefly about the team of people you have working for you, who are spearheading a lot of these projects for you.
Ed Welburn: Well, it's a global team. We have 11 design centers around the world, over 1,400 people, creative people – designers and sculptors developing these designs. I think the most important thing I can do as the leader of the organization is to create an environment in which designers feel free to create to bring forward great ideas, concepts like the Holden Efijy or the Saab Aero X -- something that no one even asks for, just, they come forward with these great ideas and good things happen when you do that.
Autoblog: Recently, the "pie in the sky" concept, so to speak, has kind of gone a little bit by the wayside because a lot of the concepts we see now are just thinly-disguised production vehicles. So something like the Efijy, which we're standing next to, really connects. Tell us why you brought the Efijy over to Detroit.
Ed Welburn: Well, I just knew that it would connect well with Americans and the vehicle's got kind of a cult following in Australia. I mean it's just this terrific design, and here in America there are an awful lot of fans of the design but the vehicle's never been here. So to bring it here along with the other global concepts that flank the entrance of the General Motors auto show experience is just something that I've been looking forward to doing. I've just had this in the back of my mind –"I've got to bring Efijy here" -- you got to bring the Saab Aero X and the WTCC concept and the Opel entire concept here as well.
Autoblog: Let's not forget about the very American concept that's sitting on the other side of the room here. This is the debut of the Camaro convertible which has gotten a very positive reaction from a lot of our readers who have seen the car so far. Talk to us a little bit about the Camaro and how it's felt to reinterpret the iconic late 60's Camaro in the modern sense.
Ed Welburn: Well, there are an awful lot of fans of the original Camaro. In some ways, it seems like there are more fans of those early Camaros today than there were back in the day. I mean, you know -- just drive by in a '69 Camaro today and you'll see what I mean. I own one, I'm glad I bought it when I did. But as we developed the new car, I wanted to develop a Camaro that was inspired by that first-generation car but it had to be executed in a very fresh, contemporary way. It needed to be a fresh statement. There are a lot of young Americans that weren't around when the original car was developed and it needed to connect with them as well.
Autoblog: In years past, the styling on GM vehicles hasn't been up-to-snuff -- interior and exterior – in the eyes of many people. That era seems to be very much over now, given what we've seen on the new range of vehicles. For example, we see it most in the new Saturn lineup, which has been completely overhauled. What drove the decision making process to re-invent the whole look of Saturn?
Ed Welburn: Well, it really becomes the leadership at the top. The top leadership of the company, Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, realize how important the product is to the success of the company. And great product -- you need great design to have a great product -- is the great differentiator. Everyone's got great technology, everyone's got good fuel economy, everyone's got great quality in their vehicles, the great differentiator is design and it's a design driven company and I get all the support in the world from them as we develop fresh new designs. You know, Jill Ladjziak and I talk about the mission we've been on. This mission to develop an all new Saturn brand. I mean they pay – the dealership experience has been wonderful. It continues to be that way today. But what it needed was fresh new product. And this whole strategy of Saturn and Opel working together, both brands benefit from it in exterior and interior design.
Autoblog: Nobody, if you'd said five years ago that Saturn would have something like the Sky in its lineup, whuld have believed you. People would have said you're crazy.
Ed Welburn: They might've, but you know, when you think back to the original Saturn lineup, those were very original cars. They were, I think, pretty advanced vehicles compared to everything else that was in the market at the time, and then they lost their way. They lost their focus on the product and placed so much focus on the non-product side of the business that they didn't focus on the car. So now we've done that, it's been an incredible effort and I don't think any car company in the world has introduced as many new vehicles in this short a period of time as they have. And there's my nametag on the floor, he just dropped it. Go ahead.
Autoblog: Let's talk about interiors for a minute because we've seen some really big advances on that front, particularly at Cadillac, which has stepped it up. The SRX in particular, with its '07 Cut & Sew look, stands out. Is there a plan to carry that look through to the cars that haven't been brought up to that next level?
Ed Welburn: Just wait until tomorrow (Monday 1/8). We'll show you, I think, the next big, big step in interior design, not only for Cadillac but for General Motors and yes, we've been on a mission to develop fresh new interiors for all of our brands. I think we're in the midst of a real renaissance in interior design and we put many of our absolute best designers on interiors and that relationship between those designers and our engineers and our suppliers is showing real benefits.
Autoblog: Considering the current design mindset at GM, when your designers come to you with an idea now, is there anything that's off the?
Ed Welburn: Every – not very often, every now and then there's something I mean that's like, you know, you gotta be kidding, but generally I want to be very supportive of the creative ideas and I want them to continue to develop the ideas and you never know what's going to happen. It may work and it may not. But I'd like to give a design time to mature or attempt to mature. And generally as it develops you'll know whether or not it's going to work or not.
Autoblog: Ed, thank you very much. We appreciate your taking the time to speak with us.
Ed Welburn: Thank you.