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The politics of S.T.E.A.M. in auto design

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, Ph.D OW Oped | 11/27/2019, 11:39 a.m.

A few years ago, I wrote in this column a story about Ralph Gilles (pronounced jeels), the foremost Black auto designer in the U.S. Gilles, and the team he put together, “designed the car that saved Chrysler Motors.” That was the Chrysler 300C, also called the “Ghetto Bentley” because of its popularity with the hip-hop crowd and the jet-setters.

As the Global Head of Design for Chrysler, Gilles is still at it. Recently, he said, “Car design is a competitive field. There’s a huge artistic side to it. We don’t talk about the STEAM part of STEM enough.”

What he meant is that, “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (or S.T.E.A.M.) is applying art in real life, or placing art and design at the center of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

It is that penchant for drawing, sketching and painting automobiles that got him started on his professional journey in the field. He also was the chief designer for the new Chrysler 300 model that came out in 2016 and that is still selling very well for the company, along with the line of “fast and furious” Dodge Challengers and Dodge Chargers zooming around the streets.

Gilles is the head of the class of around 6 top auto design engineers in the USA who are Black. In Detroit, there are over 4,ooo engineers, but the artistic engineers, like Mr. Gilles, number less than 50. Globally, there are only 30 or so working Black auto designers, with room for more. That group also includes the first African American female Director of Design at General Motors, Crystal Windham. She was put in charge of GM’s North American Passenger Car Design, and had major influence on the redevelopment of the award-winning Malibu and GM’s Saturn.

Another major mover in the field was GM’s Director of Exterior Design and other top tasks, Michael Burton, who passed away in 2016. He was the major shot-caller for the re-design of the Cadillac STS.

Among that class of heavyweights in auto design is still Andre Hudson, who brought artistic verve to the Hyundai Sonata, and helped to make it Hyundai’s top selling North American automobile. He’s still at Hyundai, and has also been designated a Global Car Designer.

The master of that class of Black auto designers was, until his retirement in 2016, Edward T. Welburn. He worked for GM for over 44 years, assuming the title of General Motors’ Vice President of Auto Design. He was the man in this field.

Earl Lucas, still alive and thriving, is Ford Motor Company’s lead designer for large car programs. He helped to resurrect the Ford Taurus, and has been the chief designer for the Lincoln Navigator since 2017. 

For African-American youth coming into their own, thinking about an alternative foray into science and technology, auto design may be a very exciting option. One could live to see his/her creativity tooling the streets of American and global cities as all-electric vehicles, flying cars and driverless autos.

African-American tendencies for artistic interpretations of life—including music, dance, literature, painting, sculpture, etc.----can meld with the technologies of our combined futures. ST.E.A.M. can be another example of Afrofuturism.

Lets look forward, not just backward.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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