Chester County Leadership – Ed Welburn, Retired Vice President of Global Design at General Motors

Ed-Wilburn-VISTA Today

Berwyn native Ed Welburn, the retired Vice President of Global Design at General Motors, spoke with VISTA Today about his most prominent memories of his hometown, his passion for cars, graduating from Conestoga High School, and his choice to attend Howard University, where during his junior year he secured an internship at G.M.

Welburn also discussed how, as a youngster, he would write a letter every year to G.M. hoping to work there one day, and how he ultimately spent his entire 44-year career there. He further revealed some of the accomplishments he’s most proud of and what he’s been up to in retirement.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1950, the oldest of two children, at Chester County Hospital in West Chester and grew up in Berwyn. In my junior year of high school, my parents moved us to Malvern.

Ed’s father, Ed Welburn Sr’s, body shop in Berwyn.

What did your mother and father do?

My dad was an autobody repairman. He and his brothers had a shop, Welburn Autobody, in Berwyn for many years.

My mom had two Master’s Degrees in social work – one from Bryn Mawr College and the other from University of Pennsylvania.

What memories do you have of growing up in Berwyn?

Don’t laugh, but what I remember most from growing up in Berwyn was cars, hoagies, and Tastykakes!

And it definitely had that small-town feel. I remember getting a speeding ticket, and I went to the judge’s house, sat at his kitchen table, and he lectured me on how serious it was that I had gotten a speeding ticket on Lancaster Avenue.

Did you play sports in high school?

I ran track in junior and senior high school, and I was quite good in the long jump and the triple jump. In fact, I held the school record for a time. But sports was always secondary to sketching cars – I did it every day.

Young Ed reading a car magazine at age 11.

Interesting! When did you know that you wanted to design cars?

I started drawing cars when I was around two-and-a-half. At age 8, my parents took me to the Philadelphia Auto Show. I saw a concept car and said, “when I grow up, I want to design cars for that company.” I didn’t know which company it was, but from reading car magazines at the time, I figured out the car I saw at the car show was from Cadillac.

I wrote my first letter to General Motors Design when I was 11 years old and stayed in touch with them all throughout school. Once a year, I’d write them a letter, and a gentleman by the name Milo McNaughton in GM’s design department would answer my letters.

Did you work while you were in high school?

No – my sole focus was on academics and sports. But I did while in college, and two summers, I worked at Roth Chevrolet in Paoli doing oil changes, lube jobs, and I drove the tow truck. At the time, I would do anything to be around cars, and they actually paid me – it was great!

I recall that many people at the time were buying sports and high-performance muscle cars from Chevrolet, and as a kid doing oil changes, I was able to drive those Camaros and Corvettes, which I loved.

Were you a good student?

Math was easy for me, though other subjects were a bit more difficult.

Where did you go to college?

This is where the plot thickens!

Conestoga is one of the finest high schools in the state, and I had a focus on art and math there. In my senior year of high school, I started to apply to colleges and design schools. My GPA was good and my SAT scores were good, but my art portfolio was not stellar.

I remember my first rejection letter from the Pratt Institute in New York. Then I got another one from a school in LA. And then another and another. The last school I applied to was the Philadelphia College of Art. There, I had to bring my artwork in person and put it on the wall. It became clear to me that my work did not measure up and I was not prepared for a career in design. Ultimately, I was rejected from there as well.

My cousin, Clark Welburn, persuaded me to apply to Howard University in Washington, D.C. I applied to Howard and was accepted.

Were you upset that your work wasn’t matching up with those other students at the time?

I was definitely feeling knocked-out like I had just been in a fight with Muhammad Ali. That being said, I was inspired to create a new plan.

Was Howard a good choice for you in hindsight?

It was a great choice. While every other school rejected me, Howard University embraced me. They had a school of fine arts, so it was a school of art, drama, music, and more. Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen and more were at Howard when I was, so it was a great time to be there.

Looking back on that time, what music were you listening to?

A wide variety. I liked a lot of the Motown music at the time. My brother and I loved Jimi Hendrix as well (I remember we drove to Philadelphia to see Hendrix perform at the Spectrum).

A few years ago, I was in the design studio at General Motors, and they were playing Jimi Hendrix in the background. I told those young designers that I had seen him in concert – they couldn’t believe it!

Who were the people who made a difference for you and helped you get to where you are now?

I always had tremendous support from my parents. Additionally, the instructors at Howard were very supportive.

At the end of my junior year, I did a summer internship at General Motors. I mentioned Milo McNaughton earlier, and he’s the one who suggested I apply for the position. At the end of the internship, I was called into the boss’ office. They told me to go back to Howard for my senior year and come back for a job when I graduated. I never had a job interview, never applied for the job, but I had the job.

I’ll never forget my first day – driving through the gates of campus, walking into the design building. I ultimately spent my entire 44-year career at G.M.

Anyone else have an impact on you?

Many different people at General Motors Design were my heroes. I was in a very supportive and collaborative environment with the leaders on down from the very beginning.

When I walked in the door at the beginning, I was the very first African American hired to design cars for GM – that certainly got the attention of everyone. With that being said, everyone was incredibly supportive.

Did you ever think to yourself, “How did a kid from Berwyn get here?”

As I often say, we were not wealthy, but my childhood was rich. I would write a letter to General Motors every year, and I would dream of this career. I had always wanted to work with cars, and I was fortunate enough to spend my entire career doing so.

Looking back on your career, what is one innovation or idea that you’re most proud of?

I’m told that I’ve worked on over 540 different cars. I never kept track, but someone at GM did! For years, I worked in Oldsmobile, and Cutlass Supreme was very successful. I went through so many generations of different cars during my time with GM. In fact, eleven vehicles that I worked on were Motor Trend Car of the Year winners.

When I was named VP of Design in 2003, I lobbied for a change in the way things were structured from a design perspective. There were design centers around the world that worked for GM, but did not work together or report to one central leader or entity. In 2005, the company supported my idea to restructure and operate out of one central location to share information and ideas. I think that was my most significant contribution to the company.

Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, what are you focused on?

A number of things! I spend a lot of time with my family and grandchildren. I’m now almost four years into retirement from GM, though I hate the word retirement because I’m still doing a lot of work. In fact, I’m the Executive Producer of a major movie in development – the script was just delivered to me a few days ago.

I’m also on the board of Tony Bennett’s foundation, Exploring the Arts. The foundation supports quite a few schools in New York and LA, and I visit the schools often to spend time with the students.

And I still draw every day. Recently, I’ve been drawing a lot of shoes – athletic and gym shoes. It’s been a lot of fun, and I have a meeting in New York on that subject in a few days.

I also judge classic cars at different shows around the world – Pebble Beach, Amelia Island, Radnor Hunt, the Peninsula Classics, and others.

Do you have a favorite car of all time?

There are several, but the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe might be my favorite. That was a beautiful car.

What do you do with your free time when you’re not doing all that?

I probably should be getting more exercise because I love to cook.

My kids are all grown up and they are just so cool – it’s so much fun to spend time with adult kids.

I have a daughter in Washington, D.C., who’s married with two children, and my son lives in Chicago.

I recently re-married, and my wife and I have a home here in Pennsylvania and a home in Michigan. She has four children from a previous marriage.

So needless to say, I enjoy a lot of family time.

Finally, Ed, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

Midway in my career, I happened to get on the elevator that the executives would ride on, and I was joined by the Vice President of Design. He turned to me and said, “keep an eye on these guys,” as he pointed to the hallway where the executives were housed. “You can learn what to do and what not to do,” he went on to say.

And I’ve always remembered that – I’ve learned a lot from what people do right and also what people do wrong, and why it’s wrong. It’s always a great learning experience.

I also like the saying, “hope is not a strategy.” You need to have hope, but you also need to have a plan. You can’t just hope you’re going to get the job or receive different things in life – you need to have a plan to achieve what you want.

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