Renowned GM design chief Ed Welburn to retire

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Ed Welburn’s childhood dream of being a car designer will come to a close after 44 years of shaping General Motors Co.’s lineup into the diverse fleet or cars and trucks it is today.

The soft-spoken, passionate global head of GM Design on Thursday announced he’ll retire July 1. Fifty-five years ago he wrote a letter to GM as an 11-year-old, and said he wanted to be a car designer. The automaker responded with advice on what he needed to do to make that happen, which led to one of the most distinguished design careers in automotive history.

Welburn, 65, has played instrumental roles in designing several generations of the Detroit-based automaker’s most recognizable cars, including the latest critically acclaimed generations of the Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro.

He joined GM as an associate designer in 1972. Welburn took the hem at GM Design in 2003, adding global division responsibilities in 2005. He was the first African-American to oversee design for any automaker.

Welburn worked with the Buick Riviera and Park Avenue the 1970s and the Hummer H3 and Cadillac Escalade in the 2000s. More recently, he oversaw concepts like the 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj, 2015 Buick Avenir and 2016 Buick Avista. He is credited by many for continually evolving GM’s design language.

“I absolutely love what I do. Yes, I did write a letter when I was 11 years old to General Motors,” he said during an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts in January, when GM and the museum surprised him by rededicating the institution’s GM Center for African American Art in his honor. “I’ve spent my entire career with GM Design, and it is a labor of love with every product. I treat them all the same, whether it’s a Corvette or a Spark or whatever.”

Under Welburn’s leadership, the automaker built a network of more than 2,500 design employees at 10 GM design centers in seven countries — the U.S., Germany, South Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India. They are responsible for the design development of every GM concept and production car and truck globally.

GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra in a statement Thursday credited Welburn for making GM Design “among the most respected and sought-after organizations in the industry.”

Welburn, who was not available for an interview, has never been one to hide his passion for the company and automotive industry — from onstage premieres of new car to speaking candidly to reporters and analysts.

“He’s really inspired some iconic designs, and I think he’s retiring at the top of his game,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Rebecca Lindland. “Every time I see that Chevrolet Corvette, I think it’s just an iconic vehicle.”

Lindland described Welburn as “one of the pillars that makes the auto industry so great” — echoing comments made by Barra earlier this year.

“Ed Welburn has an unparalleled track record of design in the automotive industry and also artistic leadership in the city and well through the country and the world,” Barra said Jan. 11 at the DIA. “And he has generously coached and mentored many, many promising young designers.”

One of GM’s veteran design executives, Michael Simcoe, will succeed Welburn. The 33-year GM Design veteran and vice president of GM International Design has been selected to succeed Welburn as vice president of GM Global Design.

Simcoe, who is currently based in Australia and Korea, will be GM’s seventh design leader and will begin transitioning into his new role on May 1. Welburn will work with him to help with the transition.

Mark Reuss, executive vice president of Global Product Development and Global Purchasing and Supply Chain, said Simcoe “is known for his ability to take diverse ideas and mold them into great products that surprise and delight our customers.”

Simcoe has been in his current role since 2014, overseeing GM’s production and advanced studios in Korea, Australia and India. He joined GM in 1983 as a designer at Holden in Australia and has worked in several increasingly important positions including director of design for GM Asia Pacific and executive director of Asia Pacific design.

He most recently led the team responsible for the critically acclaimed Buick Avenir Concept, but he will have some tough shoes to fill.

“Ed Welburn led General Motors design through one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, including bankruptcy and the paring down of numerous brands — and now the automaker is enjoying a product renaissance,” senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “Welburn can retire from GM with that as his legacy.”

(313) 222-2504