We all drew cars on the backs of our school notebooks when we were kids, though very few of us with the fervor, ambition, or skill of Ed Welburn.
“I’ve been drawing since I was 2 and a half, maybe 3. I was drawing all the time and nothing but cars,” says Welburn, who retired from General Motors recently after 44 years with the company, including the last 13 as GM’s sixth design chief.
Welburn’s parents took their car-crazy son to the Philadelphia Auto Show when he was 8. That fateful visit ignited a passion in him that led to one of the top jobs in automotive design.
“I’ll never forget this, walking in, and my mother was on my right, and my father was on my left,” he says. “It was a dream car, and it was unbelievable. It was, like, a pearl white. And I just loved that car, and I told my parents, ‘When I grow up, I want to design cars. I want to draw cars for that company, General Motors.’”
The car? The Cadillac Cyclone XP-74 Concept, a two-seat, bubble-topped convertible designed to wow the crowds at GM’s Motorama shows, which ran from 1949 to 1961. It was officially revealed to the world February 1, 1959, as part of the inaugural Daytona 500 festivities.
“First time I saw it, they had it on a bed of angel hair,” he says of his initial encounter with the Cyclone at the Philly show, “which was used quite a bit in those days.”
The car was developed late in Harley Earl’s reign as GM’s first design chief just as his successor, Bill Mitchell, transitioned into the top job. Both Earl and Mitchell often drove Motorama cars during their commutes to and from work, so the Cyclone was built to run farther than your typical auto-show catwalk. They began their project by grabbing a standard chassis off the Cadillac assembly line (225 inches long on a 130-inch wheelbase for the ’59 model year) and shortened it dramatically to 196.9 inches on a 104-inch wheelbase. Interestingly, the Cyclone is just 1.4 inches longer and rolls on a wheelbase 10.6 inches shorter than the 2016 Cadillac CTS.
The Cyclone’s 390-cubic-inch, OHV V-8 was detuned a bit, to 325 horsepower, with an estimated 430 lb-ft of torque. A two-speed rear differential was coupled to the conventional three-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, effectively doubling the available forward gear ratios to six. The bubble top was designed to automatically raise and lower from behind the clamshell-style rear deck, though in reality, it’s operated manually, making top-up motoring cumbersome. (“Gun slots” in the doors allow for toll payment, although given the Cyclone’s 44-inch height, you’d need some seriously long arms.)
GM was experimenting with an early form of autonomy at the time, and the Cyclone was touted as a technologically advanced machine. Among its most forward-thinking features were the radar-based “proximity devices” located in its front nosecones, designed to scan the road ahead and audibly warn the driver of objects in its path. Pretty far-out stuff back then, but similar tech has become commonplace on today’s cars. In order to be ready for the Daytona 500, it was built without the two-speed rear, autonomous technology, or the power mechanism for the bubble top.
Earl had already begun enjoying his retirement by the time the Cyclone was finished, although he was on hand at Daytona for the car’s reveal. Meanwhile, Mitchell was moving fast to get beyond the be-finned, chrome-laden prairie schooners of his predecessor. As it was trucked back to Michigan from Florida, Mitchell called for the Cyclone to be fitted with the missing high-tech gizmos, to be repainted Silver Pearlescent Lucite, and to have its tailfins cut down to something more tasteful. When Welburn first saw the car in late 1960, it was still white, with the NASA-esque GM Air Transport logos still adorning the rear quarter-panels.
A series of memoranda on file at GM’s Heritage Center outlines delay after delay in getting the serious pieces of XP-74’s “Phase II” design off the ground and how Mitchell eventually lost interest in the project. GM installed a locking mechanism for the bubble canopy and Delco radar components for the nosecones, but otherwise the Cyclone made the auto-show circuit rounds looking as-is through early 1964. The lower fins near the bottom of the car’s “fuselage” rear fenders already hinted at 1961-’62 Cadillac styling, and they would remain untouched.
Later in 1964 GM finally cut off the Cyclone’s big upper fins and fabricated new ones more reminiscent of a 1963-’64 Cadillac. It repainted the car Mitchell’s prescribed shade of silver, added a new egg-crate radiator grille, new knockoff center hubs for the wheels, and revised the backup and brake lamps. It then used XP-74 to replace XP-777, the 1962 Chevrolet Monza GT Coupe, on the United Delco display at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair.
Meanwhile, sometime in 1963, Welburn, then 11 years old, famously wrote a letter to GM and said he wanted to be a designer when he grew up. “I asked for information, schools, training,” Welburn told me in 2011. “They sent good information.”
Welburn never stopped pursuing his dream, even interning with GM Design while finishing up his degree, not at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where so many American designers studied, but at Howard University in Washington, D.C. GM hired him for its Advanced Design Studios in 1972, and he moved to the Oldsmobile Exterior Studio in 1975, where he went on to draw his most famous creation, the mid-’80s Olds Aerotech speed-record car. After matriculating through Saturn, global advanced design in Germany, and body-on-frame (trucks), he replaced GM’s fifth design chief, Wayne Cherry, in 2003.
“I’m not supposed to drive it,” Welburn exclaims. One of the handlers yanks the Cyclone’s fuel filter and cleans it as dark storm clouds gather over the Design Dome.
Welburn was Bob Lutz’s choice. Rick Wagoner was CEO at the time, and his futile job was to stop GM from bleeding red ink and losing market share. While the near future didn’t work out so well for Wagoner, in 2005 Welburn was promoted to the new title of vice president for global design. He reopened GM’s super-secret Studio X and retired from the company having revived the sort of design exuberance for which the Earl and Mitchell studios were known.
Eight years into Welburn’s tenure as design chief, I drove his dream car for the Summer 2011 issue of Motor Trend Classic. My assignment was simple: Get good photography of the car with the fabulously mid-century modern GM Tech Center as a backdrop, drive the car within the confines of the Tech Center to get an impression of what it’s like to pilot the thing, and interview Welburn about the car.
When we arrived early that morning, Welburn didn’t want me to get behind the wheel. I told him I would treat it with kid gloves, that I’ve driven many other priceless cars, that we’ll attempt no 0-60-mph runs or skidpad tests. Later that day, he gave in.
“Just keep in the back of your mind that you’re driving my childhood dream,” he reminded me.
It wasn’t in the back of my mind. It’s all I could think of as I piloted the earthbound fighter jet of a dream car at speeds up to 40 mph. I even had the handler raise the bubble top. Later, during the interview, Welburn explained why he didn’t want me to drive the Cyclone: He never had.
“I worry that driving it will take away a bit of the magic.”I understood where he was coming from. After all, it’s essentially a cut-down, two-seat 1959 Cadillac, with all the handling that description implies. There’s nothing particularly magical about it in that sense. But neither is there anything that should disappoint Welburn.
Fast forward five-plus years, shortly after he officially announced his retirement date. A drive of the car is arranged for Welburn as a sendoff present. We meet on the 60th anniversary of GM’s Global Tech Center, the Eero Saarinen-designed campus that houses the company’s design facilities. After a brief conversation inside the Design Dome, Welburn steps outside, where a trio of vehicle handlers are trying to start the Cyclone. It has been used sparingly since I last drove it, and it’s not going well — as you’d expect of a 57-year-old car that sat in a garage for much of its life.
“It was worth the wait, 44 years at GM, never driving it.”
After all these years since that day in Philadelphia, after all that’s happened at GM good and bad, after his illustrious career, the car that started it all for him is right there, waiting to be driven, but the automotive gods are conspiring against him. The engine is coughing and sputtering.
“I’m not supposed to drive it,” Welburn exclaims.
One of the handlers yanks the Cyclone’s fuel filter and cleans it as dark storm clouds gather over the Design Dome. After it is reinstalled, the V-8 finally cooperates and turns over, but now it’s raining, and with the manual bubble top folded under the rear deck, the handlers quickly pull the Cyclone under an awning. A few minutes later, the clouds mercifully break and the sun shines again.
Let luck be a Cyclone today. Welburn runs out to help dry the car.
“The rain added to it all. Because I was out there with a rag, wiping it off. And I really enjoy washing a car. You understand the form, the shape, the details,” he offers.
Welburn finally slides behind the wheel. He selects drive. Looking like a lost member of the Rat Pack in his sharp navy plaid suit, with a smile as big as GM’s profits (circa 1959 and 2016), he drives up and down the road in front of the Design Dome. He wheels the car to an outer road within the Tech Center, takes it for a real spin, then returns to pick me up. The V-8 suddenly starts another coughing fit, and I get no more than 50 feet of my reprise run. But Welburn got his drive, and that’s all that matters.
“It was worth the wait, 44 years at GM, never driving it. It was just so cool … just me and that car driving … it was so cool.”