DETROIT — Ed Welburn grew up idolizing automotive designers Harley Earl, Sergio Pininfarina, Bill Mitchell and Chuck Jordan.
This week, he'll join those legendary names in the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Welburn, who retired as General Motors' design chief last year after a 44-year career with the automaker, is one of four inductees to the hall of fame this year.
"They've been my heroes all my life," Welburn, 66, told Automotive News. "I can't even say I stand among them — it's that humbling — but to be listed among them is a huge deal to me. Just think of the cars that they have designed."
Welburn, the first person to oversee all of GM's design centers around the world, can claim more than a few notable cars to his name as well, including the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, two generations of the Camaro and show-stopping concepts such as the Cadillac Ciel and Buick Avista.
He'll officially enter the hall of fame at a ceremony Thursday, July 20, in Detroit.
Welburn, whose passion was ignited by seeing the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone concept at the Philadelphia auto show in his hometown, wrote a letter to GM at age 11 asking how he could get a job as a designer. He dutifully followed the head of personnel's recommendation to keep sketching cars, and Buick's exterior studio hired him out of Howard University in 1972.
In 2003, Welburn became only the sixth design chief in GM's history, as well as the top black executive at any global automaker.
Among his responsibilities was unifying 2,500 employees at GM's 10 design centers around the world into one cohesive organization. He hopes that is what he's remembered for, perhaps more than any individual vehicle released under his watch.
"There are a lot of individual vehicles that I'm proud of," he said, "but you can't achieve those kinds of vehicles unless you have created the organization that I think we put in place."
That task was made even more difficult by the upheaval created by drastic cost cutting and GM's 2009 bankruptcy.
"If anything it made the design organization stronger," Welburn said, "and if you really look back at what was developed during that period, there's a lot of great work that was done."
As for occasional designs that didn't go over well, he said he just doesn't dwell on them. "You can look at a couple products and say, 'Boy, I wish we would have pushed a little harder,'" he said.
Aside from the high-horsepower muscle cars that tend to get associated with automotive designers, one vehicle Welburn said he's particularly proud of in retrospect is the 2013 Buick Encore. An early entry into the now-booming small crossover segment, the Encore has become the top U.S. seller for a resurgent Buick.
"It was a cool project," he said, "and it has made a significant difference for the brand."
Since leaving GM, Welburn founded a consultancy in downtown Detroit called the Welburn Group. He's working on a book about automotive design and continues to judge classic cars in the Concours d'Elegance shows at Pebble Beach and Amelia Island. Last year, he designed a graceful trophy for the annual North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.
Welburn also is waiting to see more of the vehicles designed under his watch as they're released. A few that he signed off on, including the Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse, have been seen, but there are many that were in the early stages of work and will roll out over the next few years.
"When you see it on the street, it's like you're seeing it new again," he said. "There are certainly more to come. I can't wait to see them."