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.
Now, if Welburn isn't traveling, he leads design conferences on an 18-foot video screen in his office. Participants depend upon his understanding of cultural nuances. An example is the Buick Lacrosse. A Michigan team developed its exterior, and a Shanghai team designed the interior. "The design is much better than what either team would have developed," says Welburn. The car is a hit in both countries.
Across Town at Chrysler
The process is less smooth at Chrysler, but Gilles, 34, a design executive since 1998, can design under pressure. He says, "Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude. Chrysler's main competitors will be Volvos, Audis and other imports."
In 2004 the company needed a high-end sedan, reminiscent of a Bentley, with rear-wheel drive that turned heads and could be parked next to a Mercedes without embarrassment. Gilles' design team created the Chrysler 300, and he says, "It's one thing to make it look good, but the engineers brought it home."
From Sketches to Designs
Everything began for Gilles when his aunt saw that, unlike most children's drawings, his work was clear and made sense. She encouraged him, and he sketched wherever he went. At age 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, asking what he should do to become a Chrysler designer. "They wrote [back], and that was all I needed," he says.
Gilles attended Detroit's College of Art and Design, which trained about 40 percent of Chrysler's designers. He joined the company after his 1992 graduation. Within a decade, he was running one of Chrysler's seven design studios. Gilles equates design work with moviemaking. "You talk about the scenes before you film. It's like that with cars. No one person designs a car."
While Fiat and Chrysler unite, Gilles mostly repackages cars. That means ensuring that the Dodge Caravan is not just a lower-cost version of the Chrysler Town and Country. He added 20-inch wheels to the Dodge Nitro and made 19-inch rims standard on the Dodge Charger. But, he says, this year, "We are just playing with cosmetic changes."
In the fourth quarter, there will be a new edition of the 2010 Viper, and a redesigned replacement for the Durango. His team is also working with Italian designers to alter the Fiat 500 for American tastes. In 2010, Chrysler skipped the auto shows. "Had it been a normal year, the practice would have been to have 14 to 16 models at the Detroit Auto Show," Gilles says. "We are not pre-showing them like we used to, but we are certain we can keep the excitement."
Chrysler's future rests on Gilles' ability to do that.
Roger Witherspoon writes the Shifting Gears column at www.RogerWitherspoon.com.