Designing the future

Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 2:53 p.m.
When the Pontiac Solstice rolled off the assembly line this summer Ed Welburn was all smiles.
"It's a joy," he said. "It's got a striking interior, a very dramatic design, and its easy to understand."
The reaction was understandable. Welburn had been a rising designer with the world's No. 1 auto maker when GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz called for a new sports car two years ago. Welburn led the concept team that came up with a small affordable roadster aimed at the market long owned by the "Zoom-Zoom" leader, the Mazda Miata and a newer competitor, the Chrysler Crossfire. By the end of November, the Solstice had overtaken the Crossfire in sales, and was gaining ground on a newly redesigned Miata.
Between the time Lutz called for a new roadster and the Solstice hit the pavement there were two major changes in GM's world. First, Welburn was promoted to vice president for design, putting him in charge of all of GM's 11 design studios worldwide and making him the highest-ranking black executive in the auto industry.
Secondly, GM began hemorrhaging money, culminating in the loss of more than $2 billion in the past fiscal year, its bond rating tanked, and it is cutting more than 30,000 jobs. The company, which once developed half the cars on the American road, now has less than a quarter of the market share as consumers have flocked to more exciting and better performing cars, many of them made by Chrysler, Toyota, Mazda and other foreign competitors.
Part of GM's fiscal problem stems from management difficulties and the billions of dollars spent on health care for existing and retired workers. But its biggest difficulty lies in a lack of public enthusiasm for many of its automobiles. And if the firm is to reverse its decline, then the company will need to bring out a host of exciting, new, innovate, eye-catching cars for its Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Hummer, Chevrolet and Saturn operations. Its future, then, depends on the ability of Welburn's teams of artists to come up with the next generation of head turning cars that will pull buyers back into GM showrooms.
That is not an easy task: designers don't just sit down and draw a car; they also have to predict the future. Automobiles begin as concepts, evolving into a drawing and then a full size clay model. But the process begins one year, and comes out two to four years later - when tastes, politics, fashion and the nation's economy may have changed radically. In addition, car companies tend to have a "branded" tradition, where there are similar characteristics in a line. That doesn't always work.
With the Pontiacs, for example, Welburn said the current family has grills and front views that are all variations on a theme. The Bonneville has the same front as the Vibe and G-6, and the Grand Am is a sportier version of the GTO and Grand Prix. The one exception - though it does have a distinct Pontiac grill - is the iconoclastic Aztec SUV, which never really caught on.
In the Chevrolet line, the Corvettes are a distinct American niche, but the rest of the line, Welburn conceded, is comprised of similar variations on a theme. The Aveo is a small Cavalier and stodgier version of the new and relatively dashing Cobalt. The Malibu is a family version of the 4-door Cobalt. The Impala has a distinctive look, though it may be time for an upgrade that keeps its character but appeals to a new market.
"With Chevrolet," he said, "there is a lot developing, there is a lot unfolding that will be distinct to that brand."
"The new Solstice," said Welburn "is an icon for the Pontiac brand. If you look across from the Solstice to the Pontiac G-6 you'll see that the grills are the same.
"That was all done on purpose."
They are not, however, clones as the G-6 is a larger, more powerful coupe than the smaller, nimble Solstice roadster. But they are undeniably related. Which may or may not be a winning strategy. Not all members of a car family have to look alike and, in some cases, the differences may be a strength.
Chrysler, for example, has taken a different tack, using similar parts to make the best selling Chrysler 300, the sporty Dodge Charger, and the Dodge Magnum station wagon. They all have the same Hemi engine, windshield and chassis. The two Dodges share the aggressive Dodge grill, and the Charger and Chrysler 300 share much of their interior. The difference comes from modifications to the outer skin, which gives the three vehicles different, unrelated looks though they are three versions of the same car.
Welburn, on the other hand, wants to keep family lines intact, while making the car families, as a whole, more exciting to look at and experience. That's a difficult task.
"It is extremely important for every brand to have a distinct character in the marketplace as crowded as ours," he said.
His best example, and one he was involved with before he became the man in charge of GM's crayons, was the Cadillac, a brand he sees as evolving, rather than departing, from its roots.
"Going back to the '50s and early '60s," he explained, "the Cadillacs each had a distinct look. In particular, the fins of the early cars were sheer as we moved into an age of jets. Before that, they were big and expansive, influenced by the designs of the military planes of the late '40s and early '50s." The point, he said, was that the Cadillacs were large sedans tied to the latest in aeronautical design. "When the philosophy was developed for the latest Cadillac," he explained, "a lot of the inspiration came from the fins. It's a very dynamic design, and I trace the lineage back to the fins from the '50s and '60s."
Today's military aircraft, however, are stealth jets, whose angular lines and suggested, subtle fins cut through the skies and radar. These, then, are the lines used for the angular shapes of the newest Cadillacs, from the sporty, two-seat XLR, to the trendy CTS sedan up to the ponderous Escalade SUV. "We want all Cadillacs to be recognized as having a similar look, a similar feel, a similar sound," he said. "They will not all have identical grills, but will have a grill recognized as Cadillac's."
Each brand will be overhauled the same way, he said. "They will not be identical, we won't have a small, medium and large version of the same identical design. You should be able to see the lineage between cars in a family, just as you do with the Cadillacs." To ensure that vision is translated to the company's worldwide drawing board, Welburn intends to transform the way the 11 design shops operate; shifting from boutiques dedicated to particular car groups or geographic regions to an integrated worldwide design shop.
"Great ideas can come from anywhere," Welburn said. "I actually put together three competing teams to develop ideas for the roadster. They came back with hundreds of sketches, and from that interaction came the Pontiac Solstice.
"It is very important that you have a central design house that has a focus on all the brands - one seamless design organization that can look at all of them."
That idea is in keeping with Welburn's background as a kid who grew up looking at a lot of cars. His father, Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in Berwyn, Pa., and young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out. His mother began encouraging him to read everything he could about auto design. By the time he was 11, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
"I was very interested in auto design," he said. "It was my dream to be a designer, and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African-American designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in."
He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors, "and I just let them know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa., who was interested in auto design and wanted their advice. What courses should I take in high school, and what other preparation would I need to go to a university?
"And the GM design team responded, and their advice was thorough. They do a very good job of responding to inquiries from young people."
The information was crucial. Future designers have to take the kinds of art courses in high school which would let them develop portfolios good enough to pass the competitive entrance requirements of top art and design schools.
"Somewhere around ninth grade," Welburn said, "you have to make sure you have the right course load to get into a design school. You can't just get to your senior year and say 'I want to go to a school and major in design because I have a good grade-point average.' It takes much more than that."
GM had given the young Welburn a list of colleges with fine arts programs that had a major in product design. From that group, Welburn chose Howard University, specializing in sculpting. The connection, particularly in this era of computer-assisted design, is not far fetched.
"When you think about it," said Davis Smedley, associate professor of art and coordinator of Howard's sculpture program, "the car is the largest form of sculpture that most Americans own. We don't buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either; our self esteem and identity is invested in them."
And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to be more than just well-engineered. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.
"In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first," Smedley said. "They make a full-sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture programs."
In 1972, Welburn graduated from Howard and began an uninterrupted march up the design ranks at GM, beginning in the company's design center in Warren, Mich. A year later, he got his first specific assignment as part of the Buick studio, where he helped design what became the 1977 Buick Park Avenue and the Riviera. In 1975, he moved to Oldsmobile, where he helped design the highly successful Cutlass Supreme and Cutlass Ciera and Calais. The Oldsmobile experience had a side benefit.
In the mid-80s, Oldsmobile had a 1,000 horsepower engine whose capabilities they wanted to test in the extreme. The Indianapolis race-car chassis was being developed by an English firm, and the driver was to be none other than the legendary A.J. Foyt.
"I was designing the Cutlass Supreme," Welburn recalled, and off to the side of my desk I had sketches of streamlined and high-speed vehicles. Everyone knew I had a thing for very aerodynamic vehicles that could run at Le Mans."
Still, Welburn was surprised when GM asked him to design Foyt's car.
Welburn, working on an Oldsmobile Calais, first designed Foyt's 1985 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. Two years later, his high-performance Oldsmobile Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, would set a world land-speed record, averaging 257 miles per hour and topping 300 miles per hour. The Aerotech also won the Award for Design Excellence from the Industrial Designers Society of America. In 1988, Welburn would return to Indianapolis with a Pace Car derived from his newly designed Cutlass Supreme.
Welburn's design philosophy has been a mixture of melding the old with the new. The Cadillacs, with their Air Force lineage, are one successful example. His 2004 Chevy SSR, a car with a pickup body and retractable hardtop that converts it into sporty roadster, resembles the Chevy Camino's of the '50s with its big bold lines, though the art deco, half-moon chrome door handles are strictly a modern touch which, surprisingly, does not seem out of place. The new, Chevy HHR expands on that theme.
GM's evolving design shop will also become more diverse. "It is my goal to bring more women into design," he said. "It is extremely important to do it. The chief designer of the Buick Rendezvous was a woman, and every time I talk to a woman who owns a Rendezvous they say it's a perfect fit for them. And I smile and tell them Liz Wetzel was the designer."
The Rendezvous, a midsized SUV, has a few innovative touches male designers never thought of. The center console for example, instead of being solid, is two tiered with a tray on the bottom that can securely hold a pocket book or briefcase.
How Welburn's new design team performs will be evident in the next year or two as the cars begin rolling out of the assembly plants and into the showrooms. GM has bet the franchise that Welburn will do just fine.

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