Trailblazer By Design

Many fathers and sons bond over baseball. For Ed Welburn and his father, it was cars. Beginning when he was 2, Welburn and his dad would lie on the living-room floor of their Philadelphia home, scribbling away for hours. Dad, a car buff who owned an auto-repair shop, penciled long-nosed 1930s Duesenbergs, and little Eddie traced over them. Finally confident enough to draw on his own, Eddie, not yet 3, took down every book from his parents' shelves and scrawled cars inside their covers. When Evelyn Welburn discovered the graffiti in dozens of books, she didn't scold her toddler. "I told everyone, 'You should see what my little boy can do'," she recalls.

A half century after leaving his mark in Mom's books, Ed Welburn, 53, is living his childhood fantasy: he's the new chief designer for the world's largest automaker, General Motors. Only the sixth man to hold that job in GM's 95-year history, Welburn also is the first African-American to run the design studio of any major automaker. But he has landed his dream job at a time when GM design is at a crossroads. Over the three decades that Welburn has toiled in GM's studios, a burgeoning bureaucracy has sapped stylists of the almighty power they had back in the days of tailfins and gleaming chrome. Engineers and focus groups have dictated design. The result: blandmobiles that GM marketed on price rather than style. Things began to turn three years ago with the arrival of vice chairman Bob Lutz, --the veteran auto ace who engineered Chrysler's ' 90s design renaissance. Now with Lutz as his powerful patron, Welburn is out to make GM a hot design house again. His strategy: think, and act, small. A natty dresser who has his own Italian tailor and can spend hours shopping at Barneys, Welburn figures that each of GM's eight brands can act as its own fashion line, catering to car buyers who increasingly put a premium on style. "There are so many choices now," he says. "It's a real advantage to have all these brands."

Welburn oversees an army of 600 designers at 11 studios around the world, but don't expect proclamations of design philosophy from on high. So soft-spoken he's almost inaudible, Welburn is the antithesis of the ego-driven car designer. Since taking over several months ago, he's been busy traveling the globe to meet his designers on their turf. His message: take risks and you will see your wildest dream cars on the road. After all, Welburn's the guy who gave life to the Chevy SSR hot-rod pickup and the edgy Cadillac Escalade. Though he is pushing his designers, he's not pushing them out of the way. When they struggle, he talks them through it rather than foisting his own drawings on them. "When the boss's sketch comes in," he says, "the designers drop their pencils." Welburn's crew is getting raves for its latest creation, the finely tailored Buick Velite convertible with its gleaming, shield-shaped grille. But skepticism remains. "The difficulty he faces," says auto consultant Wes Brown of Iceology, "is bringing stylistic flair into GM's conservative, mainstream cars."

Welburn has stared down long odds before. At just 11, he wrote to GM, declaring his intention to work there as a car designer--though no black person had ever worked in the automaker's studios. To his amazement, GM wrote back with a suggested course of study (sculpture, fine arts) and a brochure on its summer internship program, which he entered a decade later as a student from Howard University. From his first day on GM's design staff, Welburn furiously cranked out sketches and slapped them on the studio drawing boards. The other designers dropped everything to see what he could do. "It was the first time somebody black was putting sketches up on the board," he says. "I quickly realized I was representing more people than just myself."

Welburn's big break came by way of his childhood obsession with hot rods. In the 1980s, word came down that the GM brass wanted to develop a 1,000-horsepower racer that would overtake Mercedes for the land-speed record. Welburn, then working on mundane family cars, still compulsively doodled race cars in his spare time. When he heard about the supercar project, Welburn dashed off a road rocket in the shape of a teardrop on the back of a napkin and handed it to his boss, who declared: "This is it." But Welburn wanted to keep scribbling. "I have other ideas," he told his dumbfounded boss, who responded: "What are you talking about? This is it." That napkin sketch eventually became the Oldsmobile Aerotech, in which A. J. Foyt clocked 259mph on a mile stretch of Texas racetrack in 1987--a world record that still stands.

Then Welburn's career went full throttle. He designed a string of Indy 500 pace cars and eventually landed the plum job of running the SUV-and-truck studio, which hauls in most of GM's profits. Besides the hugely popular Escalade, he oversaw the design of the Hummer H2. He has even ought styling advice from rappers on the next Escalade, striking up a friendship with Xzibit, host of MTV's "Pimp My Ride." When Xzibit rolled up in his H2 at the NAACP Image Awards this year, he pulled Welburn off the red carpet to give him a demo of his booming 12-speaker stereo. "He dug it," says Xzibit, "but there were so many people around, we had to turn it down." Welburn's personal style won't land him on "MTV Cribs" any time soon. He prefers classic jazz, gourmet cooking and dry vodka martinis--shaken, not stirred--in one of the 100 antique cocktail shakers he has collected. Still, Xzibit ought to like Welburn's whip: a '69 Camaro with 17-inch rims and a bumblebee paint job.

Welburn pulls that Camaro into his GM parking space as early as 4:30 a.m. He likes to start his day walking among the works in progress in GM's warren of studios. As tradesmen who sculpt clay into cars arrive later, they greet him warmly with "Hi, Ed," not "Mr. Welburn." And he seeks their opinion on his designers' work. But when he comes back for a formal product review with Lutz, Welburn asserts his authority. As they inspect work on a big pickup truck, Welburn breaks with the tradition of giving the boss the first say. "I'm totally unhappy with that grille," Welburn tells his designers. "I'll work with you on it later." Rather than feeling upstaged, Lutz is impressed by Welburn's tact. "He didn't say, 'That front end is a piece of crap'," Lutz noted later. "He said it very gently, with that soft voice."

Can the soft-spoken stylist get GM in gear again? Richard Koshalek, president of the revered Art Center College of Design, sure thinks so. Over dinner at the stately California Club in L.A. recently, Welburn got so worked up about the future of auto design that he pulled out a red marker and scrawled a car on Koshalek's dinner plate. "He's irrepressibly creative," marvels Koshalek. Welburn has come a long way from the living-room floor with Dad, but he hasn't lost touch with his inner scribbler.