Posts Tagged ‘GM’

h1

Red Ink and Black Crayons: Drawing the Future at GM and Chrysler

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was the picture of a man who was right where he always wanted to be.

The setting wasn’t spectacular. This was the 2010 New York Auto Show and General Motors, just climbing back from bankruptcy, did not splurge on space or amenities.  But there was Welburn, a quiet Black man whose bald pate was reflecting the overhead spotlights, seated on a plain stool between two of the latest products from his creative palate.

On his left, glistening on a slowly moving turntable, was silver, supercharged, 556-horsepower, Cadillac CTS-V; on his right, the new edition to his growing rolling flock, was a silver CTS-V station wagon.

Which prompted the question: “Ed, why would you make a 150 mile-an-hour station wagon?”

“Because we can,” replied Welburn, grinning. “Besides, does that look like a station wagon to you?”

In fact, the functional station wagon did not look like one at all. The rear was more tapered, the windows were trapezoids under a sloping roof reminiscent of Acura’s crossover, the ZDX, and the front was the aggressive grill of the Cadillac cat.

“Who wouldn’t want one?” asked Welburn.

The question was not really rhetorical. Buses and trains are modes of transportation. Cars are the largest form of utilitarian art most families ever invest in.  It is how a potential buyer feels in or next to a car which closes a sale.  And while news from the various 2010 auto shows was that GM and Chrysler are coming back from the brink and again competing in the marketplace, success will not rest on the existence of small cars, fuel efficient hybrids, the use of quality materials, and the latest electronic gadgets. That technology is widely known and every car company has them.

To sell cars by the millions, GM and Chrysler will need fleets with pizzazz, with flair, with allure, with styles that will bring buyers back into the showrooms saying “wow!” as they reach for their check books.

The future of these two troubled, historic, American automakers now rests largely with the fertile imaginations of two Black artists: the sculptor, Ed Welburn, Vice President for Global Design at GM; and the graphic designer, Ralph Gilles, Vice President for Design at Chrysler LLC.

The two men are cut from different cloths.

Welburn, the 60-year-old Philadelphia native, is a generation removed from Gilles, whose Haitian parents stopped in 1970 in New York to visit relatives and give birth to him on American soil before immigrating to Montreal, Canada where he was raised. Welburn grew up in the era of the 1950s “hogs;” those long cars with huge tail fins whose styling cues came from lumbering, big-winged, Air Force bombers. Not surprisingly, while his wife tools around in the sleek, Saturn Sky roadster – one of Welburn’s favorite designs – Welburn prefers to tool around in his vintage, yellow and black, 1969 Camaro.

Giles, on the other hand, is a product of the 70s and 80s, when stealth jets and sleek, fast, fighters dominated the design cues of transportation artists. While his hand is in all of Chrysler’s cars and trucks, his wheel of choice is a black on black, 640-horsepower, 200 mile per hour, Dodge Viper.

And they are artists with different missions and starting points. General Motors came out of bankruptcy a slimmed-down giant with four successful, ongoing brands – Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet – which Welburn had been developing new cars for. He was most sorry to lose Saturn, a line he had just finished completely redesigning.

“But I understand it fully,” he said. “It is a business, like they said in The Godfather, which is still my favorite all time movie. I’m still proud of those designs.”

At Chrysler, on the other hand, Gilles is starting from scratch with no new cars in the showrooms and in the immediate pipeline. Chrysler ended a stormy relationship with Mercedes by bringing in a new CEO, Robert Nardelli, whose chief qualification was having spent the previous five years running down Home Depot, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s worst chief executives, and walking away with  a $210 million severance. Nardelli cut cars he didn’t like, including the aggressive Dodge Magnum, the signature Dodge Durango and the iconic, retro-styled, PT Cruiser. But he did not green light a new set of winning wheels.

Chrysler, which went bankrupt and become the partner of Italy’s Fiat, is primarily a domestic auto maker. It is the weakest of the three American car companies and, historically, it has concentrated on large sedans and trucks – and area where Gilles made a name for himself. He now wears two hats: president of Dodge cars and vice president of design for all of Chrysler. His mission is to take Fiat’s expertise with developing small, fuel efficient cars, and make those little boxes appealing to American tastes in addition to ensuring that Chrysler’s remaining brands turn out an arresting fleet of high performing, eye catching sedans, SUVs, and trucks.

That requires something of a race against the normal three-year development timeline. Chrysler introduced a new Grand Cherokee in June – characterized chiefly by a remarkably upgraded interior – and hopes to produce modified or new versions of the rest of its line by the end of the year. But it will take more than tinkering with the interior to keep Chrysler in the black.

General Motors is still the world’s largest auto maker and Welburn, as design chief, controls a variety of crayon boxes to meet the world’s disparate motoring tastes. He is the sixth design chief in GM’s history, with his stamp on every vehicle conceived by the more than 1,600 designers at the company’s 11 design studios in eight countries.

“I don’t think what I am doing is the same as what Ralph is doing,” mused Welburn.  “I have a lot of respect for Ralph. But I am dealing with a global design organization dealing with a lot of different cultures. I am in and out of a lot of places I never thought I would be in and out of, and leading teams of people from cultures I never thought I or any one else of African American descent would be leading.

“I’m working with Australians for that market; folks from China or Korea for the Asian market; or Brazil or here in the United States. I don’t dwell on that, but it doesn’t escape me at all that it’s a long way from Philadelphia.”

For a young Ed Welburn, the 1958 Philadelphia International Auto Show was the key to his future. It wasn’t the eight-year-old’s first exposure to the intricacies of cars. His father, Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in nearby Berwyn, Pa., and young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out.

“The ‘50s were a very car-oriented period,” Welburn said. “And it was a period in which cars had a lot of flair. You could easily identify different brands by their looks. They all have very strong character.

“It was a very exciting auto industry, and I grew up in a family where there were always new cars around.”

But the Auto Show was special. Designs were changing as American society shifted into a mobile culture. The automakers were experimenting with new designs, configurations and bold styles.

“I like a design that has flair,” said Welburn, “that is very expressive and has character that can mean very different things on different types of vehicles. Some designs need to be expressive, and others need to be quiet.

“But they all have to be contemporary. And that is what the big fins on the cars – especially the Cadillacs – were all about. They were built on the new technology of the time.”

His parents encouraged him to read everything he could about car design and by the time he was 11, he said, “it was my dream to be a designer, and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African American designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in.”

He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors “and I just let them know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa. , who was interested in auto design and wanted their advice.  What courses should I take in high school and what other preparation would I need to go to a university?”

GM responded with a high school curricula and a list of the competitive colleges they recruited from. Welburn followed their advice and went to Howard University, which allowed him to design his own course of study, specializing in sculpting. He joined GM’s design center in Warren, Mich., in 1972 and began a steady progression upward.  In his early years, the Cutlass Supreme, 1977 Buick Park Avenue, and the Oldsmobile Riviera sprang from his creative pad. Then, in 1985, GM asked him to design a 1,000-horsepower car for the legendary race driver A.J. Foyt to pilot in the Indianapolis 500. His 1987 Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, set a world land speed record, averaging 257 miles per hour and topping 300 on the straightaway.

In 2003, GM promoted Welburn to vice president of design, making him the highest ranking black executive in the auto industry. Two years later, the title was expanded to head of global design. In that capacity, if he is not globe-trotting, Welburn is in his office facing the equivalent of a giant video parlor.

“The screen I am looking at,” he explained, “is 18-feet wide. Today, the studio in Brazil is working on a car for their emerging market, and it’s like I’m in the studio with them – but I’m here in Michigan. The guys in our studio in Australia are part of the design review because I asked for their input. Every studio has roughly the same equipment. It is fast moving, full of energy and very creative.”

The participants in these global video design conferences depend on Welburn’s artistic feel for the strengths of his staff. “It really depends on the project,” he said. “I know my people and I know them all around the world. I know that the team in Australia has the emotion I was looking for.

“The team in Brazil is doing a fantastic job. But to give a different perspective, I didn’t want a team that was just like the team in Brazil. The team in the UK, for example, where they are strong, they are really strong with Cadillac – something edgy, something stealth like. They are not the studio I would have gone to for this assignment.”

Welburn sees the world as a global palate, with cultural changes in styles, tastes and textures. Asian artists, trained in intricate brush strokes and shades in jade, provide softer interior design cues for cars than the more brash Australian designers.

“I see the entire world more than anyone else in our organization,” he said. “I was in Korea, China and Australia, and while I enjoyed the time I spent in the studios, I also enjoyed walking the streets, riding the cars, seeing the automotive landscape and seeing how people use and personalize their cars.

In Dubai, the architecture is very edgy on the exterior and very light in color. Inside, it’s a shock when you see all the rich colors; brilliant colors that contrast to the exterior. We need to understand that taste as we sell cars in the Middle East.  In other parts of the world, it may be colorful outside the building but dark and quiet inside.  It is a way of looking at what artistic sense connects with people.”

An example is the critically acclaimed Buick Lacrosse, which was put together by a team from Warren Michigan, taking lead on the exterior, and a team from Shang Hai, China, taking the lead with the interior. The car is a hit in both countries, particularly China.

“The design is much better than what either of those teams would have developed on their own,” said Welburn. “There is an emerging design language coming out of China and it comes from their art, whether it is jade sculpture or cut paper.

“There were a couple of people who switched locations to help the blending process. Through virtual reality, we were looking at each others designs all day, every day, so it was a pretty seamless process.”

The process is far less smooth across town, where Chrysler is working to blend its American staff with those of the new Italian partners. But coming up with eye-catching designs is not a new task for Gilles.

In 2004 Gilles, then head of Daimler Chrysler’s creative Studio #3 was tasked with developing a new breed of cars to distinctly define the company’s major brands. His Jeep Liberty had already proved to be a successful link between Jeep’s comfortable, full sized, Grand Cherokee SUV and its small, off-road, warrior Wrangler.

“Dodge and Chrysler were separating themselves into different types of vehicles, with different customers in mind,” explained Gilles. “Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude.

“But Chrysler is more aspirational, more graceful with more high-end products. We’re going to a premium market where the main competitors will be Volvos, Audis and other imports.”

They had scored with the Dodge Magnum, a hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine masquerading as a family station wagon. They led the track with the 200-mile-an-hour, 500-horsepower Dodge Viper. And they added the Dodge Charger, an updated version of the muscle car of the past.

But it was the Chrysler division where Gilles’ studio needed to shine. Chrysler needed a high end sedan, with a classical look reminiscent of a Bentley, a rear wheel drive like the best from the company’s heyday, and a head turner engineered soundly enough to be parked next to a Jaguar or Mercedes without embarrassment.

The car, said Gilles, “would redefine us as a car company and it would be the kind of car the valets would park out front.”

What they came up with was the Chrysler 300. “That car was a perfect storm of all our ideas,” said Gilles. “That car really resonates.”

And when he sat in the drivers’ seat and stepped on the gas “I was almost in tears driving the car. It felt so right. It’s one thing to make it look good, but the engineers brought it home.”

Critics thought so, too, and Motor Trend Magazine named the Chrysler 300 its 2005 Car of the Year, beating out 24 competitors including Porsche 911, Lotus Elise, and BMW 6. Together, Gilles’ cars led the way in an amazing turnaround for DaimlerChrysler, whose bottom line went from an $806 million loss in 2003 to a $1.3 billion profit in the first nine months of 2004. In all, 2004 was a banner year for the 34-year-old artist from Montreal, Canada’s black community.

And it all began with crayons on a kitchen table.

Gilles was five when his parents took him to visit his Aunt Gisele on Long Island and she watched him drawing.  What differentiated Gilles from kids at that early age was the fact that his drawings were clear and made sense.

“My aunt saw my sketches,” Gilles, recalled, “and she turned to her husband and said ‘Hey Mike! My Nephew can draw! Give him some paper to draw on.”

So he began sketching wherever he went, passing dull moments in school with fanciful drawings of cars and other modes of transport. At 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, asking what it would take to become a design artist for the giant car company.

“And wow, they wrote me back,” he said. “I was so impressed. They wrote giving the different names of colleges they hire from, and that was all I needed.  I felt a certain loyalty to Chrysler because they wrote me, and it changed my life.”

Gilles attended the College for Creative Studies  in Detroit, which trained about 40% of Chrysler’s designers, and went to work for the firm after graduating in 1992. Within a decade he had worked his way up to head Studio #3 in Auburn Hills, Michigan, one of the company’s seven design studios. Gilles equates the design studio with a movie lot.

“I direct a studio to draw,” he said. “We get together with the other team members and exchange ideas. It’s like when you make a movie, and you talk about the scenes in the movie before you film the thing.

“It’s like that with cars. No one person designs a car.”

In the short term, Gilles is primarily repackaging the cars in the existing Chrysler fleet. “We are spicing up the Dodge Caravan,” he said so it would not simply be a lower cost version of the Chrysler Town and Country. He is adding 20-inch wheels to the sprightly Dodge Nitro and made 19-inch wheels standard on the muscular Dodge Charger.

But, he acknowledged, this year “We are just playing with cosmetic changes.”

That will change. There will be a new edition of the 2010 Viper “and we will have a replacement for the Durango in the fourth quarter. It is all new and redesigned. It has not a stitch in common with the previous Durango and is a thoroughly modern crossover.”

And his team is working with the Italian design shops to redesign the Fiat 500, a popular small, European car, to meet American tastes later this year.

Chrysler, which skipped the 2010 auto shows, is playing catch-up, which puts extra pressure on Gilles and his artisan crew. “Everyone is confused by our new business model,” he said. “Had it been a normal year, the practice would have been to have had 14 to 16 models at the Detroit Auto Show.

“The products are still coming. The level of work is being done – but we are not pre-showing them like we used to. There will be a much shorter lead time. But we are certain we can keep the excitement.”

Gilles has a track record of producing exciting, crowd-pleasing cars. Chrysler’s future rests on his ability to do it again.

h1

Doodling Sports Cars: The Art of Andre Hudson

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

From the perspective of a Denver middle school teacher, grading papers from Andre Hudson was a chore.

“Like a lot of kids,” the 33-year-old designer recalled, “I was always doodling on assignments and the teachers were not quite happy when I turned papers in with sketches of people and cars and boats on them. I never really imagined that you could make a career doing something like that.

“Then somebody gave me an automobile magazine since I had always loved cars. There was a sidebar story on Chrysler design and a story about a designer that had worked on the Dodge Viper concept. I was blown away. Somebody’s job is to go in and draw and design cars! I had never thought about it. Wow! This could be an amazing thing to do! That’s why I consider it a blessing to be able to do what I do for a living.”

Whether or not Black artists could do that for a living is a question the young Hudson didn’t ask. His middle school guidance counselors had no idea what it took to get involved in automotive design, or where to go for practical guidance. So Hudson went home and composed a letter to Bob Lutz, then at Chrysler Design, saying he was about to enter high school and wanted to know what it took to be a car designer.

“I would love to work for your guys at some point,” Hudson wrote. “I loved aircraft and cars and could you please enlighten me as to what I need to do to pursue a career?”

Three months later, young Hudson got home from school and found a letter from J.E. Hurlitz, then vice president of product design, stating the company was “thrilled with your excitement and willingness to work with us.”  If Hudson attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and earned a degree in industrial design he could join the Chrysler design team.    Three years later, Hudson graduated from high school, packed up, and headed for Detroit, unaware of the downward spiral of the Motor City.

“Imagine the shock of this Colorado kid packing up his dodge shadow and rising out of I-94 corridor into downtown Detroit thinking where have I come to?” Hudson recalled.  “That neighborhood was abandoned and there were barrels with fires burning in them. It looks like I have landed on the set of Robocop.”

But College was a different world. This was the study of utilitarian art in motion. To designers, a car is a form of performance art and those who appreciate your work buy replicas to take home.

“Cars are a very emotional product,” he explained, “and as a designer of cars, they are extensions of you. Trains and aircraft and other types of transportation are more engineering than design driven and, therefore, the attachment is not quite that emotional.

“There is much more freedom of expression in vehicle design, and it’s what made the connection with me as an artist.”

In his junior year, he received a summer internship with Chrysler. But his work brought him to the attention of Ed Welburn, a design executive at General Motors, who hired him when he graduated.

Welburn, who would eventually become vice president of global design at GM, mentored Hudson, steering him through several projects as he grew as a design professional.  “I worked on several concept cars,” he said. “Your dream is to do that because you can get those dreams out on the turntable at shows.  But as you mature you realize the importance of not only getting the cover of a magazine for a month or two, but working on a product that you can see in your neighbor’s garage or your parents’ garage.

“It’s been a quest to hone my skills and put out products that my friends and family can drive.”

His seven-year journey through GM’s design system had the young Hudson working on big SUVs including the Chevy SSR and Hummer H3, as well as the slick, Saturn Sky roadster. He had a three month assignment in GM’s design shop in Coventry, England, which stretched to three years.

Hudson was eager to see the world, and looked forward to working in other GM design studios. But then, the Koreans came calling.

“I was intrigued with Hyundai,” he said. “They were on this mission to become much more – perception wise – than the staid company they had been. I was intrigued with the idea of becoming part of a company going through that growth process.

“Hyundai was up and coming and moving quickly. I felt it was time for something new for me.”

Hudson left GM to become the senior designer at Hyundai’s new studio in Irvine, California where he was to come up with a model for a new sports car. He came up with a head turner called the Genesis Coupe which, he said, “was a first for the new Hyundai.     “The company said we know we are building cars that are competent and highly rated in safety. But we are not stepping gout aesthetically to establish who we are. The Genesis was to say we are not copying or mimicking anyone. We are standing alone. We are ready for this.”

The Genesis was striking enough to earn a television debut as the high speed escape vehicle of Jack Bauer in the last episode of the adventure series “24.”           (  https://rwshiftinggears.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/rolling-with-the-road-runners/ )

In his five years with Hyundai, he said, “the biggest culture shock was the speed at which this company moves. I have worked on twice as many projects at Hyundai as I would have worked on at GM.”

Cars resulting from Hudson’s professional doodling which may now be found in neighborhood garages include the Elantra and Azera sedans, and the 2011 Sonata, now hitting Hyundai show rooms.

“The last generation Sonata was very conservative,” said Hudson. “It would blend into a parking lot if you went to a mall and tried to find your car. With this car we sought to establish ourselves as design leaders. We looked at what it was going to take to make an attractive and competitive design with its own distinct language. We didn’t want people saying we were making knock-offs of Toyota or BMW.

“The romance of many cars in the last decade or two has been lost to a very architectural, tectonic, product-like feel.  With the Sonata, you notice it has a three dimensional feel. Just as Ed (Welburn) use to say a car is the largest piece of sculpture working people will buy – that is true of the Sonata. You can follow a single line from the bottom of the grill through the hood, up the rail, across the roof and down the tail end. There is a beautiful inter weaving of details on the car. We call it fluidic sculpture.”

Whether the new Sonata catches on with upscale motorists remains to be seen. In the meantime Hudson, with his dream job and colored pencils, continues doodling.

%d bloggers like this: