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Seven Up: No Americans Left in the Detroit Three’s Design Leadership

Reflecting on Ed Welburn’s departure

Eighty-nine years ago General Motors Chairman Alfred P. Sloan created what must surely have been the world's first internal corporate design department, the Art & Colour Section, appointing a young Californian, Harley J. Earl, to run it. Earl did that for 31 years, in the process making General Motors the world's largest industrial enterprise — only the Soviet state employed more people than GM — and his own Styling Staff the world leader in car design. In the 58 years since Earl's retirement, only five men have held the corporate vice presidency that was awarded to Earl in 1940, which made him the first-ever designer to reach executive rank in a major corporation. The last of the five, Edward Welburn, is retiring today, with his hugely talented Australian replacement, Michael Simcoe, becoming the seventh of Earl's successors and the first not to be an American.

Simcoe joins Scotsman Moray Callum at Ford Motor Company and Canadian-born Ralph Gilles at Fiat Chrysler as representatives of the globalization of industry in general and the automobile industry in particular. Simcoe's career history is solid, his extensive Asian experience vitally important now that China is the world's largest automotive market. What seems most important to me is that Simcoe is actually interested in cars. He owns some truly choice vehicles, including two covetable Lancias and an Aston Martin, cars that require knowledge, tender loving care, and an appreciation for subtlety in design and engineering. That bodes well for the future as GM struggles to come back to prominence.

I'm in the advantageous -- perhaps even unique -- position of having known every single one of the GM design leaders. As an 18-year-old, I was hired by Harley Earl and worked under his direction until he fired me for having helped imagine the Mustang — as a four-passenger Corvette, not a Ford Falcon mechanical clone ("That's not your job, Bob!") -- and then for having the temerity to suggest that the 1961 Special should be a smaller car than Buick had ever done. Earl was a tyrannical leader who ruled by fear and loathing, although I have met people who knew him socially who said he was a gracious, charming, and particularly agreeable companion in private.

As a design leader, he was an orchestra conductor who picked up ideas from everywhere — the wraparound windshield with which he is commonly credited he discovered at a pre-World War II Paris auto show — and injected those ideas into the claustrophobic mix of hermetically closed studios in which designers were not allowed to see the rear of cars for which they were creating the fronts. It is widely conceded today that Earl held on to his job far too long, with his 1958 model year designs all overblown, cluttered, and disagreeable. He was said to have overseen the spectacular 1959 models, but they were in fact the result of a "palace revolution" by some of the younger designers, abetted by William Mitchell, his designated successor.

Bill Mitchell was himself a far better designer than Earl ever was. He could draw -- Earl could not -- and he had a better sense of form and volume than Earl did, given that Earl's eye point was several inches above an average man's, so he detested anything that rolled away from his view at the bottom of a car, leading to what journalists liked to call "Jell-o mold" designs. Mitchell was as capricious and irritating to the GM financial hierarchy as Earl was, but he did not enjoy the close personal friendship with the GM chairman that Earl had with Sloan, with whom he vacationed on the boss's yacht every year. Mitchell loved the idea of performance cars, commissioning the Stingray racer as a personal project and creating a long line of custom motorcycles and spectacular "leathers" in which he looked ridiculous. By the time his 19 years in command was over, the corporate suits were in a position to run roughshod over his designated heir, Irvin Rybicki.

Mitchell chose Rybicki because Charles Jordan and Clare MacKichen were so ferocious in their combat for the vice presidency that Mitchell simply gave up and chose a long term Styling Staff man who was not at all passionate about the job. Rybicki was a very good journeyman designer — the high perimeter body line of the 1960 Corvair copied by a dozen companies all over the world, from BMW (the 2002) to Zaz (the 966) was his — but almost totally uninterested in cars, per se. When he retired after nine years, during which the bean counters put GM on the high-speed motorway to bankruptcy with the infamous all-alike models, Rybicki took a job as salesman for a Michigan furniture factory. I heard that he never had anything but the latest GM luxury car in his garage.

Upon his retirement GM was no longer remotely a design leader, and Rybicki's successor, Charles Jordan, was not entirely successful in redressing the foundering ship. All one need to do is look at the bloated-whale Chevrolet Caprices of his regime to see that his six years at the top was not in the great Earl-Mitchell tradition. Jordan was enormously ambitious, more concerned with taking credit for work others had done than in creating things himself, as the cars he produced demonstrated. He was keenly interested in Ferraris, more out of interest in being associated with the marque than from genuine car enthusiasm. Most of his career was focused on furthering his career, and he was at least very good at that, reaching the place he so desired. That he was unflatteringly known as the "Chrome Cobra" was entirely due to his "House of Cards" approach to his professional life.

Wayne Cherry followed Jordan in the vice presidency pretty much despite himself. Cherry enjoyed a wonderful life in England as head of Vauxhall design but was torn out of that job by the German head of GM Europe and forced against his will to go to Germany to head Opel design, as Vauxhalls then ceased to exist other than as U.K.-assembled, badge-engineered Opels. From there he was pretty much obliged to return to Detroit and the top job. He landed in the mess created by the internal overhaul of GM processes after the disastrous reign of the infamous Roger Smith and after Robert Stempel and Lloyd Reuss were unceremoniously ousted. The inept management of GM created "vehicle line executives" who could — and did — override the design VP, who had no control over the final product (see Pontiac Aztek).

Bob Lutz was brought in, and he graciously allowed Cherry to retain his place beyond age 65 to refurbish his unjustly tarnished reputation. A not-really-serious worldwide head hunt for a new chief designer was carried on for well over a year, with candidates — most of them heads of other company design departments — invited to join GM with only the prospect of coming on top after what one of them told me was going to be "a knife fight."

Lutz finally chose Edward Welburn. Many believed the choice was of a malleable "GM lifer" whose presence would permit Lutz himself to be effective chief designer for the company. That may or may not have been true, but what is clear is that Welburn is both an excellent designer and, unlike the founders of GM Design, a genuinely nice guy who managed to navigate the ravages of bankruptcy, stupid mismanagement and incompetent interference in GM operations by bureaucratically appointed bureaucrats. Ed Welburn did a great job under incredibly difficult circumstances, and if he is the principal selector of his successor, one can say that he took a courageous step in selecting someone from the outposts of the empire.

I have met, shaken hands with, and spoken about design with Mike Simcoe, as I have with each and every one of the six men who have had this most important and most difficult of car design jobs. My take on Simcoe is that he, like Cherry and Welburn, is a nice guy. But he has the advantage of being a direct, get-it-done Australian. In my own experience, Aussies are the closest modern equivalents of the legendary Gary Cooper-style Americans who built up our country. Let's all hope Simcoe can beat the new GM system, which is still far too much like the old GM system.