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by Garland L. Thompson

t is a truism to say that General Motors’ (GM’s) Ed Welburn, like all the others born in the post-World War II baby boom, grew up in a tumultuous era. And like so many others, he also heard another trusim: That anyone could grow up to be anything, even president of the United States.

I But the truth turned out to be more powerful than the tru-

ism. And Welburn’s own truth — his ambition and drive — led him to a place no one around him ever expected to see him reach, even to sit down in a car at a car show in Washington and share a joke with the first-ever African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama.

The backdrop is important, for the tumult through which

Ed Welburn lived and grew was industrial as well as social, economic and political. Civil rights campaigns and loud protests over discrimination played a huge part. But Welburn’s personal campaign at GM was waged far away from those noisy public battles. It was powered by several factors: Welburn’s own quiet persistence; his excellence at work no one around him had ever seen a Black man do; and GM’s corporate drive to survive and succeed in a world turned upside down by recessions, oil embar- goes, and massive competition from offshore automakers.

Size of the climb

In the beginning, that social backdrop was stunningly disheartening. During Welburn’s childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s, African American lives and dreams were so sharply curtailed it took a massive boycott campaign to let Rosa Parks sit where she wanted on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, armed National Guardsmen to open the way for nine Black students to walk to classes at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and federalized Mississippi National Guardsmen to stop a riot led by a retired Army general and get James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Welburn, undeterred, followed the advice he’d received from GM professionals and enrolled at historically Black How- ard University, majoring in fine arts and industrial design. The recession of the late 1950s, bringing with it a flood of European car brands into the American market and the American automak- ers’ “compact car” answer, was old news by the time Welburn graduated, but the appetite of Americans for smaller, more fuel- efficient automobiles had not gone away.

From Howard U. to Harley Earl’s legacy Welburn graduated in 1972, into his dream job on GM’s Detroit design team, welcomed into the studios with his high “bush” hairstyle by Bill Mitchell, the successor to GM’s first design chief, Harley Earl, whose space age-design Cadillac Cyclone concept car had inspired young Welburn at the Philadel- phia International Auto Show so many years earlier. The OPEC oil embargo burst into the news the very next

year, prompted by Persian Gulf producers’ anger over U.S. and its western allies’ support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Americans found themselves struggling to keep their cars’ gas tanks filled, paying high premiums for the gas that was available. Companies like General Motors found themselves on the wrong end of a consumer trend, as Americans rushed to the showrooms of foreign carmakers selling smaller, more fuel- efficient models. GM and its Detroit competitors, Chrysler and Ford, now were forced to compete with European products that had better gas mileage and Japanese products made under the exacting regimen of statistical process control pioneered by American Edwards Deming, manufactured in plants supplied by “just in time” parts delivery.

A hard learning curve

That double whammy forced massive change in the American auto industry. GM fought back, first experimenting with more fuel-efficient, smaller models of its own. It partnered with Toyota to build the New Motor Manufacturing Initiative in California to learn more about how its Asian competitors were succeeding, and ran a joint manufacturing works for several years. Then it launched Saturn, a new kind of car company with a new way to make cars, learning lessons GM could take into its plants around the United States and elsewhere. Ed Welburn, its first-ever Black designer, was working at Oldsmobile, a GM company that made bigger cars, but even there, at that time, his drive and his designs won plaudits. His Aerotech concept car and land speed record contender got driven to a world closed-course record 257.123 miles per hour by legendary Indianapolis 500 racer and Can-Am sports car driver A.J. Foyt.

Lessons learned, time to apply them Welburn joined Saturn for a two-year assignment in 1996, working at its Russelsheim, Germany, design studio. He returned to head GM’s Advanced Design Studio in Warren, Michigan, where he was responsible for innovative vehicle design for all brands. Among other things, he led development of GM’s concept cars, including a new generation of hydrogen-fuel-cell concepts, working at the intersection of cutting-edge engineering and cutting-edge design. In 2002, Welburn became executive director of body-on- frame architectures, responsible for the three truck studios in the Warren, Michigan, design center.

For perspective, remember that trucks, especially pickups, USBE&IT I WINTER 2015 23

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