Black Designers Are Reinventing America's Most Iconic Cars

Crystal Windham, Cadillac’s director of interior design, shows off the upcoming Celestiq.
Crystal Windham, Cadillac’s director of interior design, shows off the upcoming Celestiq.
Screenshot: General Motors

Regardless of whether you buy the hype behind Cadillac’s upcoming EVs — the Lyriq and Celestiq — you can’t deny the ambition behind them. General Motors’ flagship is on the verge of its most dramatic reinvention in generations. And it’s happening, in part, thanks to Crystal Windham.

Windham is Cadillac’s director of interior design. She’s been at GM for 27 years, first as a design manager on midsize car projects before heading up Chevrolet interiors starting in 2009. GM’s interior quality has seen a jump over the past decade — particularly with the 2014 Impala and 2016 Malibu — and Windham led the teams that made that progress happen.

Now Windham is doing the same for Cadillac’s next chapter. She’s described the experience of working on the Lyriq and Celestiq as “a dream” in interviews. It’s easy to understand why. How many people get to reinvent a brand like Cadillac, or work on a product of the Celestiq’s caliber?

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It’s a big moment, and Windham knows it, as she told Black Enterprise upon the Lyriq’s reveal last summer:

“As African Americans, Cadillac has a huge impact on our culture. When you drive a Cadillac, you have arrived. It is a symbol of success and we want that to continue. And with that, I say I bring a sense of pride. Not necessarily trendy pride, I want us to move the world and influence the industry. It was a great honor to be in the position to help elevate the brand in this way.”

There are other stories like Windham’s, of Black designers shaping the future of the most storied brands and nameplates in the American auto industry. Chris Young is a user experience designer at Ford who most recently worked on the Bronco Sport. He discussed his path to his eventual career with the Detroit Free Press last year:

“I remember, as a child, the mailman came by and I told him I wanted to be a car designer,” Young said. “At the time, I wasn’t a big math person. I would rather design and draw. And the mailman said, ‘Are you sure you want to get into that? It might be really hard for you.’ He was implying not a lot of Black people do that. I said I was going to do it anyway.”

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Before the Bronco, Young’s interior touches could be observed in the 2015 Mustang and 2016 Lincoln Navigator and Continental. I can’t recall the launch of any car that corralled mainstream attention like the Bronco and Bronco Sport. It’s safe to say Young and his colleagues captured the spirit of the moment there.

McKinley Thompson Jr. was Ford’s first African-American designer and worked on the Blue Oval’s most recognizable nameplates, including the Bronco and Thunderbird.
McKinley Thompson Jr. was Ford’s first African-American designer and worked on the Blue Oval’s most recognizable nameplates, including the Bronco and Thunderbird.
Photo: Ford
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The design of the original Bronco can be traced back to one of the first major Black car designers in the industry, McKinley Thompson Jr. Joining Ford in 1956, Thompson worked on icons of the era, including the Thunderbird, Mustang and GT40. He also penned one of the earliest sketches of the original Bronco, something that Ford itself wasn’t even aware of until a recent trip through its own archives, as noted by a story in Detroit Free Press published in 2020:

“We found the very first design of the Bronco, and it was signed,” said Ted Ryan, Ford’s archivist and heritage brand manager [who was hired in 2018]. “We started googling and we were like, wait, this is a McKinley Thompson. It was a discovery. He was not the designer of the Bronco but he worked on the very first sketches. He was groundbreaking in his passion for design. He went on to work on the Mustang, Bronco, Ford trucks and the T-Bird.”

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Like all kids who love cars, I spent the bulk of my school days doodling imaginary vehicles in my notebooks. One of the designers that inspired me in my youth was Ralph Gilles, one of Stellantis’ global design heads. Following the recent merger, Gilles will focus on the legacy Chrysler brands, as well as Maserati and Fiat’s Latin American operations, while Jean-Pierre Ploue will lead the other half of the Stellantis portfolio.

Chrysler is a bit lost these days, but it has had one bright light shining for the past two decades: the original 300, a car Gilles co-designed with Freeman Thomas. The 300 wasn’t only highly awarded but provided the marque with a desperately needed purpose and identity through the aughts. Gilles also gave us the Dodge Magnum on the same LX platform. It only lasted six years, but Gilles’ ability to realize a muscle-bound wagon for the U.S. market at all is an achievement in and of itself.

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Ralph Gilles began leading Fiat Chrysler’s design in 2015; he’s now one of Stellantis’ two design directors.
Ralph Gilles began leading Fiat Chrysler’s design in 2015; he’s now one of Stellantis’ two design directors.
Photo: Stellantis

Gilles has much more on his plate these days. He oversees the design of half of an international auto conglomerate. But his team is producing beautiful stuff. I’ll risk the ire of our resident Jeep expert and say the Grand Wagoneer looks fantastic — exactly how I think an ultra-premium Jeep should — and the Grand Cherokee L is an effective distillation of that design.

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Gilles has said that, within FCA, he never struggled to find acceptance in his career. Still, he’s pushing the company to be more diverse internally, having told Robb Report in October that “...the goal is that the company reflects society.” Overall, Gilles feels equal representation in the car industry is far from where it needs to be:

“We have a long way to go. Dealers are starting to get more diverse, but you have to understand that people of color haven’t had the means to buy dealerships in the past and are just now coming into buying power. But nobody wants a handout. They want tolerance, open-mindedness and opportunity. But no handouts.”

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The number of minority-owned car dealerships was slowly on the rise, at least before the pandemic. Last year, Automotive News reported that there were 1,243 minority-owned dealerships in the U.S. in 2019, compared with 1,214 in 2018. Still, that total only made for just 6 percent of all dealerships nationwide. The number of Black-owned dealerships especially dwindled during the Great Recession and never properly recovered. While cars are being designed by an increasingly diverse group of people, the dealer experience — customers’ first point of interaction with these brands — is still lagging behind in inclusivity.

Of course, there’s always more work to be done. Still, it’s encouraging to look forward to a new generation of American cars and know that, as Gilles said, they’ve been created by a diverse group of individuals that more closely resembles society than in previous years. And these cars — the Lyriq, the Bronco, the Wagoneer and so on — will continue the cycle and inspire the next generation of designers.

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Ed Welburn, seen here presenting the Buick Avista concept, left GM after 44 years at the company in 2016.
Ed Welburn, seen here presenting the Buick Avista concept, left GM after 44 years at the company in 2016.
Photo: General Motors

Add the C8 Corvette to that list, too. Just before retiring from his position as GM’s Vice President of Global Design in 2016, Ed Welburn worked on a few projects that wouldn’t be revealed to the public for a couple of more years. One of those projects he had a deeper involvement in was the first mid-engined Corvette, a car that had been wished for and waited on for well over half a century.

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The C8 Corvette capped Welburn’s 44 years at GM. In a career that began with a tail light for a ’75 Pontiac Grand Ville and included the experimental Oldsmobile Aerotech, he became the first African American to lead a global automotive design organization. Though, as Welburn said himself to Car And Driver, he never really got hung up on that last point.

“When I started at GM,” he told C and D, “I was the first African-American designer they had hired. I never thought anything of it before I got there. Then I was the first African American to be made a chief designer. Then I was the first to be an executive designer. I think the greater challenge was more for them than it was for me.”

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. 2017 Fiesta ST. Wishes NASCAR was more like Daytona USA.

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the-easter-bunny
ROBOT TURDS

Thanks for mentioning Ed Welburn, one of the best car designers of our times.