NEW YORK -- Ed Welburn no doubt drew some blank stares from a group of high schoolers at the auto show here last month.
Instead of hearing insider tales of sculpting Corvettes and Camaros, the students listened to the General Motors design chief riff on the Tavera, a bland SUV sold in India.
"It may be two families that pool their money together to buy this thing," Welburn said in an interview after his meeting with the students. "I take that as seriously as any other project we work on."
His choice of topic underscores perhaps Welburn's most important legacy as the sixth design head in GM's 108-year history: The globalization of a once-disparate collection of designers and studios. The soft-spoken Philadelphia native has shown an attention to detail never before paid to GM's far-flung vehicle portfolio, colleagues say. (He's been known to make day trips to Sao Paulo or Seoul to OK a vehicle design).
In the process, Welburn has orchestrated a renaissance in GM design, one that has helped GM recover from an era of badge-engineered blandness.
Welburn, who turned 65 in December, has been racking up the sort of accolades that come in the twilight of a distinguished career. During a ceremony in January to honor the designer, GM CEO Mary Barra said he "belongs with the legends Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell," the company's first two design chiefs, who served for a combined 50 years.
Colleagues say he's been in a reflective, soak-it-all-in mode during the recent auto show circuit, a sign he could be preparing to put away his sketch pencil for good. It's a career arc that began soon after he wrote to GM as an 11-year-old to declare his interest in car design (and got a response) and culminated in a seat in one of the auto industry's most hallowed chairs.