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03 May 11 16:43
Ed Welburn on 100 years of Chevrolet's Style and Innovation
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Over the last century, Chevrolet has been responsible for some of the most significant and groundbreaking designs in automotive history. From its utilitarian yet stylish pick-up trucks through to the cutting edge looks of each generation of Corvette, via cars like the BelAir which helped define the era they appeared in. The bowtie logo has adorned some of the most iconic shapes of motoring. Even some of Chevrolet's designers, such as Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, have gone on to become as legendary as some of the cars they penned.

The very first Chevrolet – the Classic Six of 1912 – was highly regarded for its elegance and sophistication and, a century later, the brand continues to turn heads, with cars like the Volt and Camaro, among others, celebrated for their innovation and appearance. As Chevrolet embarks on its second century, it remains a leader in coming up with advanced designs at affordable prices. Who knows which cars will become automotive icons in the next 100 years?

The man with the enviable job of setting Chevrolet on this path is Ed Welburn, global vice president of design at General Motors. He stepped into the shoes of his "absolute heroes", GM designers Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, back in September 2003, but despite the awe-inspiring responsibility of following those who have become legends, he admits that "I'm having more fun now than at any other time during my career at GM." Born in Philadelphia in 1950, Ed's father co-owned a body shop. "In those early days, I was surrounded by cars," he remembers. His intense interest in all things automotive meant that, at the age of 11, he even wrote to GM to ask about a future job as a car designer. A helpful letter back suggested what he should study at school, and gave details of the internship program. Ed paid attention to those details, and won a place; after graduating from Howard University in Washington D.C., he was hired full-time by GM. From the early 1970s onward, he worked at several GM design divisions culminating in his appointment as the corporation's chief designer a few years into the 21st century.

Here he looks back at what he regards as some of the most noteworthy and iconic designs from Chevrolet's history.

1912 Chevrolet Classic Six The Classic Six was the first car to bear the Chevrolet name after William Durant and Louis Chevrolet came together to found a company building cars using the famous Swiss race driver's last name. It was a large, luxurious and powerful machine, boasting the biggest capacity engine of any Chevrolet up until the 'big-block' V8 era of 1958. The imposing vehicle carried a price tag of $2150, which made it much more expensive than most of its contemporaries. Very much Louis Chevrolet's dream car, it was designed in collaboration with his friend, the French engineer Etienne Planche. Unveiled in 1911, it was launched in 1912, but lasted only until 1914 after the company's focus shifted towards more affordable machines, something that prompted Louis Chevrolet to resign as he disagreed with Durant's policy. A total of 5,987 were constructed. "This was the first Chevrolet, so it's very significant," says Ed of the Classic Six. "Louis Chevrolet used all his experience and background to create it and make history."

1936 Chevrolet Suburban The Suburban wasn't just a significant model for Chevrolet, it was an important vehicle for the car industry as a whole. Arguably it was thefirst Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV), a tough, no-nonsense load carrier featuring a station wagon body on the chassis of a small truck. Actually christened the Suburban Carryall – for it could pretty much carry anything – its origins could be traced back to 1933 and a wooden eight-seater body on half ton truck frame, intended for National Guard and Civilian Conservation Corps units. When made available to the public, it gained an all-metal body fitted with either rear panel doors or a tailgate. "They were doing a crossover between a car and a truck," says Ed of the vehicle that gave birth to what is now the longest continuous name to be used on a car. "And it's got a cool interior, too, a real neat one. One might consider it the first crossover, and it's very much related to the Captiva."

1948 Chevrolet Pick-Up Trucks (in the small commercial vehicle sense) and vans are as big a part of the Chevrolet story as its cars. And the 1948 range was one of the most significant series the company produced. Arriving in summer 1947, they were the first GM automobile products to have a completely post-war design, making them among the most up-to-date vehicles anywhere. Not a bad claim to fame for something meant to be utilitarian and hard-working! The mainstay of the range was the versatile and practical half-ton pick-up, which saw service all around the world. "You just have to smile when you look at one," is Ed's opinion of the friendly looking load-lugger. "It's a real workhorse of a truck. The shape was just beautiful, but it still did its job well. It was clean, basic and affordable."

953 Chevrolet Corvette "It was the first Corvette," says Ed of the Chevrolet that grew into an automotive legend. Created by the similarly legendary GM styling chief Harley Earl, 1953's Corvette two-seater sports car was intended to shake up Chevrolet's image, as well as battle the wave of sporty European imports flooding into the U.S.A. One of its more novel features was its fiberglass construction. Initially though, the car wasn't a big hit, and it was only with the styling tweaks of a few years later that it became a true success. "It was a design for years that I didn't care for that much," admits Ed. "But now I absolutely love it. I'll never forget the first one I saw. I must have been about seven, and walking down a tree-lined street. One came around the corner, rumbled along through the fallen leaves and then was gone. And I was, like, 'Wow, that was cool!'"

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Chevrolet completely revamped its cars for 1955, with what it dubbed the 'Motoramic' look for the top-of-the-range Bel Air plus the introduction of the fabled 'small-block' V8 engine. Exhilarating performance and a flamboyant, confident and colorful style were what made the 1955 Bel Airs – coupes, convertibles and station wagons - stand out from the crowd. Such was the distinctiveness of General Motors cars from the period 1955 to 1957 that they received their own nickname, 'Tri5'. "In my opinion, the '55 Bel Air is the best of the Tri5s," asserts Ed. "It was such a departure from 1955, so fresh, so contemporary. This was a car that looked more expensive than it actually was, something that could also be said about the Cruze today."

1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray "What an amazing car," says Ed of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, the model that took the Corvette range to new heights. Based on a show car penned by GM design chief Bill Mitchell, the angular and svelte Sting Ray was more sophisticated and civilized than previous Corvettes, yet in maturing, it didn't forget that its main purpose in life was to be exhilarating, both in how it looked and how it drove. Distinctive features of the car – which continued to be built out of fiberglass – were the electrically-operated pop-up headlamps and, on the coupe, a split rear window that would go on to become its main motif. "I've lectured on this car many times," says Ed. "Everything was new; in fact it was so new, they had to give it a new name, Sting Ray. Every Corvette since then has been influenced by it, even the current models. The dual cockpit interior is still part of the Corvette and the Chevrolet interior design today."

1967 Chevrolet Pick-Up Big, brusque and purposeful, Chevrolet's new generation of pick-up trucks for 1967 were tough machines designed to get the job done. Powerful and practical, with no-nonsense styling, they were marketed as general transportation as well as work vehicles, something that extended their appeal and profile into the mass market. "It's a very iconic American design," believes Ed. "You see that pick-up, and you also see a guy with blue jeans and a toolbox in the back! Many of the words I've used to describe the earlier pick-up also relate here."

2010 Chevrolet Camaro Ed is a big enthusiast of all Camaros and even owns a classic 1969 example himself. "But I decided to put the 2010 Camaro on this list before the '69. It connected with people worldwide. When we introduced the car as a concept, there were grown men and women with tears in their eyes. It's valued all round the world." When Ed and his team were working on the new Camaro, "I brought my one into the studio to inspire them. I told them, I want you to beat this!" Although there are echoes of the first 1967-1969 Camaros in the current car's muscular styling – such as the kick-up in the flanks beneath the rear side windows – Ed is keen to stress that the 2010 incarnation is "not a throw-back design, but very forward-looking. I'm always thinking of the future, but you have a great heritage with Chevrolet. You need to build on that; I wouldn't want to build a retro Camaro." He cites the confident and optimistic thrusting design of the new Camaro as "a positive sign to GM employees and customers. It lit a fire within the company."
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