General Motors created the art of automotive design when GM was the first automobile manufacturer to open a specific design studio assigned to make sure products extended beyond simple function. There have been some notable models that were not GM’s finest moments. But there have also been — and will continue to be — models that take your breath away.
“Our global team is united around its passion for designing vehicles that make an emotional connection with customers,” said Ed Welburn, GM vice president, Global Design. “What was true 85 years ago is still true today: A designer’s role is to create a beautifully executed exterior with great proportions to draw you in, and an interior environment that invites you into a relationship that develops and grows.”
Welburn, the sixth design chief in GM’s 104-year history and the first to have global vehicle design leadership responsibilities, will serve as honorary chairman of another visionary group at the 25th annual EyesOn Design Automotive Design Exhibition on Sunday, June 17. Proceeds benefit the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology’s efforts to find scientific breakthroughs to help those with severe vision loss.
Under Welburn’s strategic eye, each of GM’s eight global passenger car brands is distinctive in form and vocabulary from one another as well as from other brands in the marketplace. Cadillac and Buick have each undergone a design renaissance, and Chevrolet has become a global brand with a globally recognized design language. Vehicle introductions that have helped propel GM’s resurgence include the Chevrolet Camaro sports car, Malibu midsize sedan and Cruze compact car; the Cadillac CTS Coupe, GMC Terrain, and the Buick Enclave and LaCrosse.
The award-winning Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle with extended range went from concept to production in just three years. Volt won North American Car of the Year honors and, along with its European sibling, the Opel Ampera, the European Car of the Year award as well. GM’s other award-winning global brands include Holden in Australia and Wuling and Baojun in China.
Welburn and his global design team say their best work lies ahead. Tomorrow’s classic cars, he said, are on the sketchpads and computers of today’s designers. GM Design is at the forefront of an ongoing global product renaissance that will see 70 percent of the vehicle portfolio replaced within the next three years.
“Our global structure allows us to design more new vehicles and to dedicate more people using the latest technology and tools to bring them to market,” said Welburn. “The diversity of thought, experience, culture and perspective we foster here is unrivaled, and it fuels our creative process. Though we have multiple design centers, our mission is clear: Every new product we develop has to be a home run; each one has to be a great vehicle.”
GM was the first automobile manufacturer to single out automotive design. On June 23, 1927, the Executive Committee of General Motors approved the creation of a new department to “study the question of art and color combinations in General Motors products” and hired Harley Earl, a custom coach builder from Hollywood and the creator of the 1927 LaSalle, as its leader.
Earl’s entry into the auto industry doomed rival Henry Ford’s “the customer can have it any color he wants as long as it is black” motto. Among Earl’s numerous accomplishments are the development of concept cars; the yearly model changeover; the vehicle tailfins of the 1950s; the traveling Motorama auto shows and the development of the iconic Corvette. Earl also is credited with hiring the industry’s first female automotive designers.
Earl also was responsible for identifying architect Eero Saarinen to design the GM Technical Center campus, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized around the world for its mid-century architecture.
GM Design vice presidents following Earl were William Mitchell (1958-1977), Irving Rybicki (1977-1986), Charles Jordan (1986-1992), Wayne Cherry (1992-2003) and Welburn (2003-present).