Secret service agents flanked both sides of the vehicle. A crowd of reporters snaked behind a rope about 20 feet away. Camera flashes documented every possible angle of the meeting taking place.

It was a strange setting for a private conversation.

But sitting alone inside a 2013 Chevy Malibu, President Obama and Ed Welburn had just that last month during the Washington Auto Show.

The conversation came at the end of a short tour, in which Welburn, the vice president of global design at General Motors, introduced the president to seven of the company's latest vehicles, a lineup made possible by Obama's fiscal bailout of the nation's reeling auto industry only three years ago.

Inside the Malibu, Obama offered Welburn a candid assessment of all that had transpired in the meantime.

"He let me know how proud he was with the work that I do, and I was just like, 'Wow,'" Welburn said. "At the very last vehicle, he did ask me, he just remarked that the design of GM cars has gotten so much better in the past few years."

Their meeting was notable for obvious reasons, namely it was a very public connection between the president and a high-ranking auto industry executive at a time the federal auto bailout is under considerable scrutiny.

But it was notable for another reason, one unmentioned by the horde of reporters standing only 20 feet away, and perhaps one unnoticed by Obama and Welburn themselves. On the Jan. 31, the eve of Black History Month, the first African American president was meeting with the first African American to lead design at a car company; Welburn leads the biggest in the world.

View Gallery: A Look At Influential African Americans In The U.S. Auto Industry


Making history

Not that Welburn, 61, pays much attention to such designations.

Long before he rose over to become the highest-ranking African American executive in the domestic auto industry, and long before he was the industry's first African American designer in 1972, he was just a kid obsessed with cars.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, his father owned an auto body shop that provided early inspiration. At age three, he pulled all the books off his mother's bookshelf and drew sketches, simple ovals with wheels, on the blank pages. She wasn't happy.

He built soapbox derby cars. As he got older, he was a neighborhood favorite: Kids flocked to his backyard, because he knew how to fix their bikes. He devoured car magazines. As a teenager, he drove a tow truck for a Chevrolet dealership.

But it was at age 10 that an experience at the 1960 Philadelphia Auto Show cemented the course of his life. Fifty years later, he vividly recalls the details at a moment's notice.

"My parents take me in, and there's this Cadillac concept car that looks like a missile, and it's on a bed of angel hair to give it this above-the-clouds look, and I mean, that's it," Welburn said. "I looked at my parents and, I mean, this is what I want to do when I grow up and for that company."

A letter to GM set him in motion as a young man

After seeing that Cadillac Cyclone, he went home and wrote a letter to General Motors, asking about careers in car design. What did he need to do? What courses should he take? Where should he go to school?

Much to his surprise, Welburn received a detailed response.

Upon graduating from Howard University, one of the schools recommended in that letter, Welburn started in the GM studios in 1972. His initial assignments included work on the Buick Riviera and Park Avenue.

At the time, he never considered that he was GM's first African American designer. He was busy fulfilling his childhood dream. In retrospect, he tacitly understood that there would be extra attention focused on his work.

"The first sketches that went up, they were curious what I would do and wondered what my designs were like," Welburn said.

It wasn't only attention from his superiors.

"There were a couple of other African Americans in the building, but not in creative roles," he said. "They kind of felt like they needed to keep their distance from me, because they didn't want to do anything that would blow this big deal, you know what I mean? That felt a little funny to me."

He quickly moved to the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and then managed the creation of the Oldsmobile Aerotech, a concept car that Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt would drive to a world closed-course speed record of 257.123 mph.

Hitting the top

From there, Welburn's career began an ascension that reached precedent-breaking levels in 2005, when he was named the sixth vice president of design in the company's 102-year history. That role was later expanded when his role expanded to include oversight of ten GM design centers across the globe.

Most recently, he's led a decade-long renaissance of his beloved Cadillac and knitted together a consistent Chevrolet design throughout the company's global network. For the first time, there is a design plan that links all Chevys wherever they are sold beyond the bowtie logo

It has not always been easy. While his career trajectory has always been upward through his 40-year career at General Motors, the company itself navigated turbulent financial and political waters when the fierce recession hit the auto industry in 2008, and total U.S. sales plunged to 10.6 million in 2009.

While the country debated whether the auto industry was worth saving with a federal bailout, work needed to continue. Welburn gathered 800 or so designers from GM's North American operation in the company's Warren design center, and delivered a message.

"I said to them, 'I know you read the headlines every day and every place you go, you hear about the challenges of General Motors,'" he said. "I said, 'You guys stay focused on what you do, and when we come out on the other side of this, everyone is going to know what the GM products are.'"

He swears the designers did their best work during that periods.

Today, the process is much more nimble at GM than it used to be.. It helps that Welburn has a direct audience with CEO Dan Akerson, who took over the company in Sept. 2010. Welburn is a member of his executive committee. That wasn't always the case with previous design chiefs.

"They were much further down in the organization," he said. "Now, there isn't waste in the system. There's still more to do, but it's come a long way."



Some old ways are still the best ways for Welburn

In some ways it has. And in others, General Motors design has come a long way by remaining rooted in the past. Product design is progressing at a rate faster than ever, and designed with computer software by engineers. At GM, Welburn places equal value on the decidedly throwback practice of sculpting the latest car designs in clay.

"There are some people who feel, 'I can't believe you still use clay, and why aren't you just doing it all on the computer,'" he said. "They're not designers. Great design requires both."

Outside the design studios, Welburn has helped entrench GM's long-standing relationship with Howard University. He serves as a liasion between the company and university. Last month, the GM Foundation donated $70,000, and has given more than $1 million throughout a 30-year association with the university.

At the same time, he's established a relationship with Detroit's own College for Creative Studies and serves on its Board of Trustees. Together, they've established a program that gives Detroit Public Schools students chances they may not otherwise receive to pursue careers in automotive design.

"I met with the president of CCS, and said we're looking for more African Americans in design, and you don't have any at your school, so we worked together to start a program," Welburn said.

A diverse base of designers is important to him for the simple fact that he's making cars for a diverse base of customers. It's also a chance for him to honor his past and broaden the past for the next generation of car designers.

"I very rarely even talk about that at all, but I do realize what I do is important," he said. "I just love what I do. If it helps open doors for others, that's great."