GM design head Ed Welburn draws plans for retirement

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Ed Welburn is not planning a traditional retirement when his 44-year career at General Motors Co. comes to an end in July.

The 65-year-old global head of GM Design plans to publish a book, launch The Welburn Group consultancy firm and continue working with the automaker on the design, engineering and build of new design campus that’s part of a $1 billion investment at the Warren Tech Center.

“I’m not going fishing. I’m not going to sit home watching TV. I have things I want to do,” he told The Detroit News on Friday — a day after his retirement plans became public. “I’m going to be rather busy. The list is long.”

Other plans include continuing to work with students and judging Concours d’Elegance classic car competitions, as well as “a few other initiatives” that he has up his designer sleeve.

Welburn said he’s been “seriously” contemplating retiring from GM for three or four years now, with now being the right time to start a new chapter of his life.

“I think people were surprised that I have my plans as well organized as they are for the future,” he said in his passionate, yet calm tone of voice. “But you have to do that. You need a clear vision in anything you do, whether it’s designing a car or planning your life.”

Before shifting gears to “retirement” on July 1, Welburn plans to travel to the automaker’s global design studios in Australia, South Korea, China, Germany and other countries. He also plans to ship his silver Chevrolet Corvette C7 Z06 to Rome for an epic road trip to “key places” in Europe, including the Le Mans and Goodwood race tracks.

“To be able to drive a car of your own design on a trip like that will be really cool,” he said.

The automaker’s global design footprint is one of the legacies Welburn will leave behind — not to mention decades of car and truck designs that ranged from the Buick Riviera and Park Avenue in the 1970s to concepts like the 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj and 2015 Buick Avenir.

The one car Welburn says will hold the dearest place in his heart is the current-generation Corvette, which debuted in Detroit in January 2013.

“You’ve got the history of that brand; you want to build on that history,” Welburn said. “It needs to be a Corvette and not resemble anything else, and yet it’s got to be new and it’s got to be different.”

He added the C7 Corvette has had a positive effect on the “form vocabulary and details of every other Chevrolet that we’re developing.”

Other favorites of Welburn’s include the 2016 Buick Avista that debuted earlier this year and the 2006 Camaro concept. That car resurrected the Camaro nameplate from extinction and led to the fifth generation.

“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in Cobo Hall,” Welburn said on the debut of the Camaro concept. “The reaction that people had, it was an emotional reaction.”

Bob Lutz, retired GM vice chairman and former GM head of product, who promoted Welburn to lead the automaker’s design operations, also reminisced fondly about the Camaro’s resurrection in the Motor City: “There were grown men with tears in their eyes,” he said. “It was that compelling. That design was so good that the basic design is going to live for another generation in the new Camaro, successfully.”

Lutz described Welburn as a “brilliant designer” who was a “very good teacher and coach who could be a unifying influence in design rather than creating factions.”

Welburn was coached by GM as a child on steps to take to become a car designer after the 11-year-old Welburn wrote a letter to the automaker about his ambitions of becoming a car designer.

When asked if his career lived up to his dreams as a child, Welburn responded: “It was way beyond my expectations. I just wanted to design cars. I never thought of, never dreamed of being in this position.”

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 will succeed Welburn.

Simcoe, who is based in Australia and South Korea, will be GM’s seventh design leader and will begin transitioning into his new role on May 1.

Welburn said he worked “very close” with CEO and Chairwoman Mary Barra and global product head Mark Reuss in selecting Simcoe as his successor before it went before the company’s board.

“He’s a great designer and a great leader,” Welburn said of Simcoe. “I have an incredible amount of respect for him. … No doubt, I feel he is the right person to lead GM Design right now.”

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