Black Auto Designers Lead the Way at GM and Chrysler

As boys, they asked carmakers how they could join their club; as men, they design for two of the Big Three.

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Ed Welburn (left) and Ralph Gilles.

At the 2010 New York Auto Show, Ed Welburn, General Motors' chief automobile designer, sat between his creations. On his left, glistening on a slowly moving turntable, was a silver, supercharged, 556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V. On his right, a CTS-V station wagon that can do 150 mph. When asked why he made a family car that goes so fast, Welburn replied, "Because we can."

To sell millions of cars, both GM and Chrysler LLC must make buyers say, "Wow!" As it happens, two black automobile designers control the destiny of these troubled American automakers. Pennsylvania-born Welburn became vice president for GM Design North America in 2003. Two years later he was named GM vice president, global design, and became the first person to lead all of the company global-design centers. New Yorker Ralph Gilles is the vice president for design at Chrysler.

The two men are different, but each wrote a letter as a young man that changed his life. Welburn, 60, grew up in the 1950s seeing cars with huge tail fins that took cues from Air Force bombers. His wife drives a Saturn Sky roadster; Welburn's car is a 1969 Camaro. Gilles was a kid in the 1980s, when fighter jets influenced car artists' sketches. Now he designs cars and trucks, and his ride is a 640-horsepower Dodge Viper.

They have different missions, too. General Motors is a slimmer giant since bankruptcy, with four successful brands: Cadillac, Buick, GMC and Chevrolet. Welburn was sorry to lose Saturn, whose line he had just redesigned. "But I understand," he says. "It is a business."

Gilles has no new Chrysler cars to show, and it has been that way for a while. After Chrysler's relationship with Mercedes ended, the company brought in Robert Nardelli, ex-Home Depot CEO. He cut cars he didn't like, including the Dodge Magnum and PT Cruiser. But he didn't greenlight any ideas.

Chrysler joined forces with Fiat after bankruptcy and is mostly a domestic automaker. The Big Three's weakest company makes sedans and trucks. Those are the specialties of Gilles, who is also president of Dodge. His goals are to study Fiat's small, fuel-efficient cars and create automobiles that appeal to Americans. Recently, Chrysler introduced a new Grand Cherokee.

General Motors is still the world's largest automaker, and Welburn controls many ways to meet the world's disparate tastes. His stamp is on every vehicle conceived by 1,600 designers in 11 studios in eight countries. He says, "I am working with Australians for that market; folks from China or Korea for the Asian market."

When Welburn was a child, he saw his future. His father owned an auto body and repair shop, and Ed watched him work. Then, Welburn says, "Cars had flair and there were always new cars around." Soon he dreamed of designing cars. So the 11-year-old wrote a letter to General Motors asking what courses to take and what else he should do to pursue his dream.

GM sent him a high school curriculum and a college list. Welburn followed the advice and studied sculpting at Howard University. After graduation, he joined a GM design group. During those early years, he created designs for the Cutlass Supreme, 1977 Buick Park Avenue and Oldsmobile Riviera.

In 1985 he received a challenge. GM told him to design a 1,000-horsepower car for race-car-driving star A.J. Foyt to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Welburn's 1987 Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, later set a world land speed record, averaging 257 mph.