DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- In the dark winter months before General Motors filed for bankruptcy four years ago, its top designer, Ed Welburn, was growing increasingly frustrated with the negative news about the company.
He gathered his 300-member design staff in the cavernous domed showroom at the automaker's suburban Detroit studios for a serious, stand-up meeting.
There were no chairs. Welburn, 62, normally bookish and reserved, spoke with passion.
"You are better than what is being written and said about GM," he recalled telling them. "We're going to survive this, and when we come out on the other end of this very dark period, the world is going to be looking to see what General Motors is capable of doing. And they're going to be looking at design."
The result of Welburn's motivational moment: "The team really dug down deep -- they were angry," he said in a recent interview in his sleek, postmodern office. "And they created some of their absolute best work."
From the fires of Detroit's descent into near-death, GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group have forged some of the most distinctive designs since tailfins were soaring in the halcyon days of the postwar-era.
Models such as GM's Cadillac ATS sports sedan, Ford's Fusion family car and Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee are turning heads and stoking sales.
On the strength of stylish new showroom offerings, GM, Ford and Chrysler all gained market share in the first quarter for the first time in 20 years.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp.'s staid standard-bearer, the Camry, has endured three months of declining sales as the automaker ceded U.S. share this year.
'Safe is out'
Detroit's joy ride demonstrates that style now sells.
Consumers, coming out of a deep recession, are driving cars that average 11 years old and they're looking for more than just a new set of wheels. They want a car that looks new.
"Safe is out," said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with researcher LMC Automotive in Troy, Mich. "Instead of your bread-and-butter car that just gets you from Point A to Point B, buyers are looking for something with more individual appeal."
Detroit is delivering in a way it hasn't since GM's original design chief Harley Earl put the first tailfins on a 1948 Cadillac and his successor Bill Mitchell carved gills into the side of the 1963 Corvette Stingray.