Ed Welburn, the quiet architect of General Motors design renaissance the past decade and a leader credited with breaking through racial and social barriers in corporate America, announced plans to retire July 1, the company said today.

Welburn, who turned 65 in December, was GM’s first African-American designer and is the highest-ranking African-American executive at a major auto industry company. Through his creativity and persistence, Welburn, hired in 1972, worked his way up to become vice president of global design in 2003. Over his career, he became a larger-than-life figure in automotive design circles, re-imagining GM classics that had grown stale, giving them fresh looks, including Buicks and Cadillacs.

His awards and accolades for design work are many. The General Motors Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts was rededicated in Welburn’s name in January. And the Free Press last month honored Welburn as the first recipient of the Detroit Free Press Automotive Difference Maker Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his acceptance speech and presentation, Welburn talked about his design philosophy, the importance of his background as a sculptor and the pressure that came with being the first African American car designer hired at GM.

“When a designer creates a sketch, he or she signs their work, and that sketch is placed on display in front of everyone, and when you are the very first African American hired to design cars for General Motors, everyone wants to see what you can do. Talk about pressure. I mean incredible pressure,” he told a crowd at the Detroit Athletic Club as he accepted his award. “I quickly realized there was no grace period, no quiet time, or anything, I was in the big leagues.”

Michael Simcoe, vice president of GM International Design based in Australia and Korea, will succeed Welburn and begin his transition May 1, the company said. His replacement has not been named.

Lifelong desire

Welburn began drawing cars as a toddler in Philadelphia, where his father and uncles ran a car repair shop.  He settled on his vocation during his first trip to the Philadelphia Auto Show at age 8.

:”In the Cadillac exhibit there was this concept car called the Cyclone, a very streamlined vehicle, almost missile-like. And it was sitting on a bed of angel hair to give it that feeling of floating over the clouds,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I told my parents, not only do I want to be a car designer, but I want to work for that company.”

At 11, he addressed a letter to  “General Motors Design, Detroit” asking how to become a car designer. Some kind soul at GM opened it, and sent the aspiring artist recommendations about what to study. That led to a degree in sculpture and fine arts from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

In his early days at GM, Welburn worked on projects that included the Buick Riviera and Park Avenue, Oldsmobile Aerotech world-speed record car, Oldsmobile Antares concept and Intrigue sedan. He worked on the Saturn brand and in Germany, returning to Detroit to run advanced design, which produced concept vehicles for all GM’s brands. His next stop, and perhaps the one that assured his rise to the top, was head of design for body-on-frame trucks, creating the Chevrolet Silverado, Cadillac Escalade and other models that produced billions of dollars in profit.

Perhaps Welburn’s most lasting impact has come in in the last seven years leading a renaissance of GM design reflected in dozens of new vehicles that resonate with consumers and are driving the automaker’s revival since its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring.

He understood how many of the company’s vehicles through the 1980s and 1990s fell short of their aesthetic and marketing targets, but he could draw on a wealth of experience and a keen eye for younger talent that together rejuvenated the cars and trucks GM has introduced in recent years.

“Ed knew the competition was changing” in the 1970s, said John Cafaro, global director of Chevrolet car design who started at GM alongside Welburn. “He understood the gravity of those times and knew things were coming unglued. He has a rich experience of how not to do things — and how to organize projects and motivate people to do things right.”

Quiet leadership

Beyond his sense of automotive aesthetics and emotional appeal to customers, Welburn’s most lasting impact was through his ability to motivate and lead people with an uncanny mix of listening, constructive criticism and awareness of each co-worker’s dignity that is rare in any corporate environment.

“He listens to everybody and values their ideas,” said Clay Dean, head of GM advanced design. “He has an open mind and fosters creativity. He allows you to explore. That’s the greatest gift a leader of design can have.”

For more than a decade, the secret to getting anything done within the GM design staff is to utter two magic words, “Ed asked.”

“The union guys will do anything for him,” said Helen Emsley, GMC and user experience design chief. “All you have to do is say, ‘It’s for Ed.’ ”

During his ritual walks through the studios, which were nearly a daily occurrence, Welburn was known for leaving unsigned Post-It notes with questions or suggestions.

He often stopped and joked with with young designers, learning about them and sharing stories from his reservoir of GM design history.

The GM culture, especially in design, was not always so collegial. Designers in the past were afraid to make mistakes and push boundaries. Welburn changed that.

“He makes this a safe environment for people to develop their ideas,” said Bryan Nesbitt, design chief of Buick and global architectures. “He gives people credit. It’s not all about him.”

Contact Greg Gardner: 313-222-8762 or ggardner@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12