Some of the industry’s pioneers and gamechangers
Every February, the United States celebrates African Americans’ contributions to society. Black History Month can be traced back to a week in 1926 when Black historians held the first organized commemoration. In the decades that followed, the Civil Rights Movement prompted huge strides in legal and cultural progress, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month official.
At around the same time, Black professionals, including car designers, finally began to get some of the opportunities and recognition they deserved. In honor of Black History Month and the next generation of artists, we’re highlighting seven prominent Black designers. All of them have left an indelible mark on one of the essential economic and culture-defining aspects of American life — the automobile.
As GM’s first African American designer, Edward Welburn is a legendary figure. Despite growing up in the 1950s, a tumultuous time for the African American community, seeing the Cadillac Cyclone at the Philadelphia Auto Show as a child sparked his creativity. After establishing himself as a talented designer, he moved from Buick to Oldsmobile in 1975, where he was promoted to chief exterior designer. Welburn shaped Saturns in the ’90s before leading GM’s body-on-frame teams in the early aughts through successful Silverado, Tahoe, Camaro, and Escalade redesigns. A clear trailblazer, Welburn retired as Vice President of Global Design in 2016.
The son of Haitian-American immigrants, Ralph Gilles’ American success story started in the snowy climes of Montreal, Canada. An aunt sent his drawings to Chrysler’s then-chairman, Lee Iacocca, who encouraged Gilles to continue his journey. Hard work through school paid off, and in 1992, the automaker hired Gilles. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship ever since — Gilles designed the Chrysler 300, a car that took the industry by storm by reimagining the grandeur of classic American sedans. After leading the teams behind vehicles like the Dodge Charger and SRT Viper, Gilles is now Head of Design for FCA (Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, recently renamed Stellantis), and continues to define the automotive landscape.
A prolific designer whose career ended too soon, Michael Burton was as passionate about cars as helping the next generation of artists have the same opportunities. Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, with parents who were career GM workers, Burton knew his destiny was designing cars. He went on to work at each of the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, GM). A brilliant mind, equally skilled in crafting exteriors and interiors, Burton’s credits include work on the 1979 Mustang, the 2004 Cadillac SRX exterior, the GMC Acadia interior, and the 2007 Buick Enclave. Until his passing in 2016 from cancer, Burton spent much of his free time mentoring young designers.
Like Ed Welburn, Crystal Windham has stuck with General Motors her entire career. Since 1994, the Farmington Hills native has risen through the ranks at GM, working her way up to Director of Interior Design for Cadillac, breaking significant racial and gender barriers along the way. Windham oversaw redesigns of the Chevy Malibu, Equinox, and Volt. She manages the entire Cadillac design portfolio, improving processes and leading large-scale redesigns like the 2021 Escalade, one of the most technologically advanced SUVs ever built.
Not everybody can say they once designed plane interiors for the Sultan of Brunei. Then again, Earl Lucas isn’t your average car designer. He’s led an impressive career, working with Ford on several successful, significant projects like the Ford Flex, which garnered significant accolades. His reimagining of the 2010 Ford Taurus brought the brand’s large sedan back into position as a proper flagship vehicle. Meanwhile, Lucas has worked at Lincoln, adding his eye for luxury to the 2000 Navigator, 2007 MKX, 2013 MKS, and 2018 Navigator.
When the 2011 Hyundai Sonata debuted, it shook up the car market. It boosted the South Korean automaker’s market share significantly, thanks largely to the sweeping, modern body styling courtesy of Andre Hudson. Like many on this list, Hudson got his start at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. After graduating in 1998, he worked at GM for years, contributing to the Chevrolet SSR, Cadillac Sixteen concept, 2005 Hummer H3, and the Saturn Sky. After moving to Hyundai North America, Hudson’s 2011 Sonata exterior won a global competition, putting his name firmly on the map and changing the midsize family sedan landscape.
Chris Young’s time at Ford has allowed him to tap into powerful insights from his forerunners. While working on the design team for the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport, he studied the designer who penned the first sketches of the original 1966 Bronco, McKinley Thompson. As Ford’s first African-American designer, Thompson didn’t receive the credit he deserved. Young has taken this history to heart, spreading awareness about Thompson’s contributions. Today, Young is a widely celebrated designer, working alongside Earl Lucas and others on the Lincoln Navigator, MKZ, and Continental.