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Aerodynamics comes around again at GM

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Aerodynamics comes around again at GM

Experience with Aerotech helped shape Volt



Something snapped in Ed Welburn this summer.

Welburn, who heads General Motors’ 1,500-person worldwide design staff, had never driven his breakout design: a 1980s Oldsmobile research car called the Aerotech, which later set speed and endurance records. His career took off after he completed the car, leaving no time to drive old, experimental vehicles.

But this summer, he walked into a studio in Warren, where designers had posted photos of aerodynamic vehicles for inspiration.

“There was Aerotech, and it was like, ‘OK, that’s it. I’ve got to drive the car,’” Welburn said.

The 59-year-old GM lifer got his chance Friday at GM’s proving grounds in Milford. He didn’t match the more than 257 m.p.h. A.J. Foyt reached in 1987, which is still the world’s closed-course speed record. A Corvette pace car limited his top speed to 62 m.p.h. But that was still fast enough to evoke his exclamation — “Boy, I’ll tell you, that is a crazy car!” — that crackled over the radio as he made a sharp turn.

Aerotech has always been about more than speed for Welburn. He says designing the car gave him a respect for aerodynamics that resurfaced in the Volt and has become crucial as GM seeks to boost mileage of upcoming cars. And the Aerotech project established engineers as Welburn’s allies, helping him smooth over some of the common tension between the artists and the scientists that work on GM’s cars.

Welburn learned lesson early

"It's going to have an Indy car chassis, 1,000 horsepower, and A.J. Foyt's going to drive it. How'd you like to work on it?"

Welburn was working on the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in 1985 when Len Casillo, design boss for Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, made that pitch for the Aerotech.

Designers typically produce several sketches for a car, but Casillo picked the first idea Welburn, then in his mid-thirties, brought him. The wind tunnel work wasn't as easy. General Motors' ambitions for the Aerotech meant it had to have the least amount of drag possible. The final product had less than half the drag of a typical Indy race car.

That success positioned Welburn to lead GM's renewed design focus on eliminating drag for better fuel economy. It also meant Welburn, in his first Aerotech drive on Friday, could watch autumn leaves flow effortlessly over the Aerotech while he roared down straightaways at GM's Milford proving grounds.

The Aerotech has no spoiler or air flaps -- just an aerodynamic shape born out of countless adjustments in the wind tunnel. That shape and 1,000 horses combined to give A.J. Foyt record closed-course speeds. A few years later, in 1992, a four-liter Aurora V8 engine went into a slightly altered version of the Aerotech, getting 300 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and setting two speed endurance records: an average 170.761 m.p.h. for 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) and 158.386 m.p.h. for 25,000 kilometers (15,534 miles).

The Aurora version is the car Welburn drove Friday, retrieved from its home at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights. He hung back from the pace car GM made him follow, catching up from time to time to hear the engine's roar. Even at the proving grounds, the car turned heads, with a construction crew stopping to stare as Welburn passed.

"I wanted to drive it a lot faster, but ... " Welburn's voice trailed off as he pointed sheepishly at the pace car driver.

'In the wind tunnel'

Welburn's 38-year career at GM has in one sense come full circle. While he has risen from the young Oldsmobile designer to GM's vice president of global design, GM is once again emphasizing aerodynamics in an attempt to increase fuel economy ahead of stricter government standards and an anticipated rise in gas prices. That plays to Welburn's training on the Aerotech.

"To this day, everything that we're working on, I want to know how the vehicle's doing in the wind tunnel," he said.

Take the Chevrolet Volt, due for release in November. When GM put the original concept vehicle in the wind tunnel, the aerodynamics were so poor that the vehicle would only have had a 34-mile electric range, compared with the targeted 40, said Bob Lutz, the now-retired GM vice chairman.

"It was so bad that the drag coefficient was better if we put it in backwards," Lutz said.

So Welburn called in Max Schenkel, GM's technical fellow for aerodynamics, who had worked with Welburn on the Aerotech.

"With the Volt, we had to learn how to trick the air into thinking that it was a long shape by shaping the tail," Welburn said, noting the spoiler and the hard edges at the rear corners.

Now, all of Welburn's design staff is undergoing aerodynamics training led by Schenkel. Welburn's comfort with working with engineering is unusual, Schenkel said.

"There's always a certain amount of tension: 'I designed this thing, and now you want to change it,' " he said.

Welburn also plays to his designers' competitive streaks.

To motivate his staff, he often assigns two teams to compete on a vehicle -- a strategy that produced the current, strong-selling Chevrolet Camaro and Cadillac SRX. But his experience on Aerotech, where his on-the-side sketches caught the eye of a design boss and turned into a dream assignment, informs a different philosophy, one that spawned the Cadillac CTS coupe:

"I think that every design team should have a little side project," Welburn said.



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I can haz 1989 Regal Coupe? They were one of the most aerodynamically efficient vehicles available at the time... I think today only the dedicated hybrids (Pruis/Insight) beat it by any measurable amount.

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Sigh, I love me a coupe.

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I can haz 1989 Regal Coupe? They were one of the most aerodynamically efficient vehicles available at the time... I think today only the dedicated hybrids (Pruis/Insight) beat it by any measurable amount.

the 88 W bodies had a cd of .28 i think, which was one of the best at the time and perhaps still would be among the best of many cars available today.

i almost think at least the 88 GP would look pretty nice on the market again now.... the regal had some odd proportion and greenhouse issues. it looked good, but the front end looked a bit squished.

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GM's Ed Welburn finally drives Oldsmobile Aerotech record-breaker he designed

by Dan Roth (RSS feed) on Oct 1st 2010 at 8:39AM

Of all the people longing to drive the Oldsmobile Aerotech back in the 1980s, you'd expect that the cars designer would have taken it for a few spins. Despite having his first sketch for the project turn in to the record-setting aerodynamic research vehicle, Ed Welburn's closest contact with the Aerotech was during long wind tunnel sessions.

Having risen through the ranks during his nearly-40 year career at General Motors, Welburn is now oversees GM's worldwide design staff, and his memory was recently jogged by seeing photos of the Aerotech posted in a design studio. Being the chief has its privileges, so Welburn's desire to drive his creation turned into a trip to the Milford proving grounds, where a 1992 version of the Aerotech was waiting.

A Chevrolet Corvette set the pace at a sedate 60-something miles per hour, despite the Aerotech's V8 sourced from the Oldsmobile Aurora. While he may have only just gotten to drive the Aerotech, the car has had a significant effect on Welburn since he first penned it. The aerodynamic attention to detail he learned on the Aerotech has informed all his work since then. The Chevrolet Volt owes a lot to the Aerotech, because Welburn had the patience and discipline to work out the design for better airflow, as well as bring engineering and design together for a harmonious relationship, another seldom-seen skill among car designers. While the Oldsmobile brand has been shuttered, the Aerotech stands as a significant achievement, and the various speed and endurance records the car set have yet to be broken.



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