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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

In The Rearview Mirror: The Top Black Automotive History Makers From This Past Decade (2010-19)

photo credit: LE

While most of us are familiar with Elon Musk, the lead driver behind the all-electric luxury car company, known as Tesla, many of us would be hard pressed to identify blacks in the automotive industry who also played key roles in blazing new trails over the past decade.

As a new decade turns the corner, JeffCars.com has identified the top black automotive trendsetters and pioneers, who were either given the keys (or keyfobs) or literally took the keys (or keyfobs) to make their mark in history, during the years of 2010 to 2019.



photo credit: Hyundai

Andre Hudson
In 2010, at the time, Hyundai's Andre Hudson broke out of the box, putting the Korean company, who was known for its value pricing and uneventful designs on the map. With its fluidic design theme, Andre Hudson’s hot-selling Sonata became a game changing vehicle for the brand as well as the automotive industry. Hudson, the Korean brand’s first black car designer, created a stylish four-door sedan, that accounted for 40 percent of the brand’s sales, during its peak. The success of the Sonata, as well as its pint-sized sibling, the Elantra, which was also designed by Hudson, generated so much cash for the company, they were able to launch an all-new luxury brand, Genesis, to compete with the likes of Lexus.

With the launch of the Genesis, as an all-new luxury brand, Hudson served as the lead designer of the brand’s flagship vehicle, the G90. Ironically, Hudson has gone on to lead the design studio a start ups, helping the industry shift to the future with all-electric and fully autonomous vehicles. Hudson is one of a handful blacks on the globe, who has made it to the top of his field, heading a design studio.

Coincidentally, since Hudson's departure, Hyundai has made several missteps, with  the Sonata in terms of styling. The recently released 2020 Sonata, has taken styling cues from Hudson’s barrier breaking design, adding curves to a previous bland design. Also many midsize cars in the industry have copied the styling cues from Hudson’s sexy looking 2011 Sonata.

photo credit: LE

Earl Lucas
After successfully reviving the 2010 Ford Taurus and spending several years overseas, Lucas returned with another bang in 2018 with the all-new Lincoln Navigator. 

For almost two decades, Lincoln had been hanging on with the ailing and extremely dated Navigator, as the Cadillac Escalade literally dominated the segment. Coincidentally, Lucas added his artistic magic to reimagine the bold and fresh looking SUV, making it a hit for the brand, out Cadillacing the Escalade.

As a result of consumers shift from cars to SUVs, crossovers and trucks, over the past decade, the Navigator has become the new standard of luxury for all SUVs. Cadillac, which has dominated the fullsize luxury SUV segment with the popular Escalade, for years, is currently retooling their vehicle in hopes of making it competitive again, when it makes its world premiere in February. These days the Navigator is flying off the lots with an average transaction price in the $90,000 range.

Lucas is one of two high ranking black cars designers for the automaker. His hit-selling SUV is helping Ford Motor Company to stash away the much needed cash to invest in the electric and self-driving movement. Lucas' design has also aided in reestablishing Lincoln division as a luxury brand once again.


photo credit: Savoy

Thomas Moorehead                                            The National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD) have fought for decades, making sure that black folks and others of color get their fair share of dealerships. According to research, the black community represents approximately 8 percent of new vehicles sales, but own less than 3 percent of today's new car dealerships. 

In 2014, Thomas Moorehead cracked the ultra luxury market club, becoming Rolls Royce’s first and only black dealer. And in 2016, he also made history again, driving into the super exotic sports car market, as the first and only black dealer to acquire both a Lamborghini and a McLauren store. 

Unlike with today’s Cadillacs, Lexus and Jaguars, with Moorehead's three high-end franchises, you won’t find the invoice cost, the cost the dealer paid, on of any of these models online. You’ve got to have some serious loot to afford to purchase and/or lease one of these. Successful businessmen have found one of the quickest way to create generational wealth is to have access to the keys (or keyfobs) to the dealership franchise system.


photo credit: GG

Godwin Gabriel
As car sharing programs like Uber and Lyft hit the scene this past decade, undercutting the price of a traditional taxi cab service, transportation specialist Godwin Gabriel, drove onto the scene in 2015 with Moovn. The global car sharing company not only covers his home country, Africa, but also key major cities in the U.S. Unlike his competitors, Gabriel pride himself on steering away from surge pricing, which drives the price up when there is a high demand and limited car sharing services available.


photo credit: GM

Denise Gray
In some circles, Gray is quietly known as the Elon Musk of the electric car industry. Gray, who is a trained engineer, has remained under the radar and out of the spotlight, as the highest ranking black female in the industry. In 2015, Gray became the CEO and President of LG Chem Power Inc, U.S. division. LG Chem is a Korean-based company. The company she leads supplies hybrid batteries (and plug-in applications too) to a number of today’s major carmakers. Like Musk, she’s changing the game in the electric car world. General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Volvo are all clients of Gray’s company. These automakers would not be making inroads in the electric car movement if it were not for Gray’s company.


photo credit: Toyota

Sandra Phillip Rogers
In 2015, Rogers became the first black women in automotive history to serve as the general counselor and chief legal officer for a major automaker. Rogers, who is the highest ranking black female at Toyota, oversees all of the legal issues for the automaker. Under her legal umbrella, her responsibilities range from overseeing cyber-security to safety lawsuits to global business transactions to employee issues. If its legal related and pertains to Toyota or Lexus, Rogers hands are all over it. Her ultimate goal is to minimize the legal exposure for the automaker.

Prior to Rogers being in this role, Christopher Reynolds, who is currently the highest ranking black executive in the history of Toyota, held Rogers seat before he continued to ascend the corporate ladder.


photo credit: JeffCars.com

Ralph Gilles
After Ed Welburn retired from GM in 2016, as the highest ranking black auto executive in the industry, Gilles temporarily assumed that role, until Manifred Fitzgerald was appointed to launch the Genesis luxury brand globally.

As the head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, every vehicle design that comes out of Ram, Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, The SRT Brand, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati has to be approved by Gilles. Gilles, who has yet to hit 50 and was a one time college dropout, before his brother encouraged him to put together a portfolio and reapply to school, is quietly making waves.

Gilles career and notoriety surfaced, as a young designer, when he added 'fire' to the fullsize car segment, with the design of the Chrysler 300 in 2005. Ironically, the vehicle which has gone through a few updates still looks virtually the same almost 16 years later. 

Under Gilles leadership, the automaker has done wonders with keeping aging vehicles like the Charger and Challenger fresh and relevant as the fullsize car segment is literally fading away with his crosstown rivals from Ford and GM.

Currently, we’re not sure what his senior level executive leadership role will be as Peugeot merges with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, making these two combined powerhouses the fourth largest automaker in the world.

As of October 2019, Gilles has resumed the title as the highest ranking black auto executive in the industry.


photo credit: M

Manfred Fitzgerald
In 2016, Manfred Fitzgerald was hand-picked by the Koreans to launch Hyundai’s first luxury brand, the Genesis. Fitzgerald became the first black person in the history of the automotive history to be handed the keys to launch a global luxury brand and create a dealership distribution channel. He faced a number of road blocks, while birthing the new brand, which led to sales taken a nose dive in a market that has been begging for SUVs and crossovers. Currently, the brand only sells cars. Prior to his Fitzgerald’s exit this past October, he was the highest ranking black auto executive in the industry. 

Unbeknownst to most, the top two individuals driving the Korean luxury brand were black men. In fact, the head of the U.S. division was Erwin Raphael. Never before had a black person been given the keys (or keyfobs) to launch a luxury brand in the U.S. 

Since Fitgerald’s departure, Raphael has taken a step back to assume the number two seat for the U.S. division, after a few internal changes.

Prior to Tesla’s roadster hitting the market in 2009, the last luxury makes to launch in the U.S. were Lexus and Infiniti, during the late eighties.


photo credit: G

Edward Welburn
After spending four decades at General Motors, as the automaker’s first black car designer, Ed Welburn, used his artistic gifts and calm leadership style to make billions for the automaker. Before he retired in 2016, he was the highest ranking black automotive executive in the industry. Not only did Welburn play a key role as GM’s first vice president of global design, his leadership at the time kept the company afloat, during the Great Recession, as a result of the breath-taking designs his team of designers turned out, as the automaker was being hammered by the media for accepting a government bailout.

Welburn took a non traditional route to become a designer, since none of the mainstream design schools accepted him. He was turned down by 16 design schools. To aid Welburn in living his dream, Howard University, a HBCU, created a car design program specifically for Welburn. Welburn was also responsible for overseeing the design of President Obama’s Presidential limo, which was known as ‘The Beast.’ 

In a full circle moment, after no predominate white institutions (PWI) accepted Welburn into their design programs, Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, which schooled Ralph Gilles, Andre Hudson and Earl Lucas, awarded the creative design genius with a Doctorate of Fine Arts in 2017.

Over the years, Welburn’s designs made many dealers millionaires, as well as helped many of those who built the cars at the auto plants maintain a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

According to automotive experts, one in five cars on the road today are attributed to Welburn.


Dr. Gladys West
In 2018, the world discovered that Dr. Gladys West had a hand in the development of today’s navigation system. In the late 50s, when the mathematician was working on a secret mission at Northern Virginia’s Dahlgren Naval Base, she had no earthly idea … decades later her contribution to manually calculating the accuracy of the GPS would play a major factor in today’s navigation systems (and infotainment centers). 

Had it not been for one of her sorority sisters probing West, as she was working on drafting her accomplishments, we would still be in the dark and unaware of this unassuming ‘Hidden Figure,’ who keeps us from getting lost.

photo credit: UAW

Rory Gamble
Like President Obama, who walked into a firestorm as the U.S. economic system was collapsing right before his eyes, Rory Gamble, the first black person to head the UAW (United Auto Workers), faces a similar situation.

Gamble was approved in December 2019 to take over the dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with federal investigations related to embezzlement and bribery charges under previous leaders. 

Gamble will lead more than 400,000 members, as he looks to place the organization in good standing again, while rebuilding the confidence of union members. 

Thankfully his organization just wrapped up one of the longest strikes in GM’s history as they renegotiated a new contract with the Detroit Three – GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Many automakers in the U.S. white collar workers benefit from the UAW, regardless if they are unionized. Like many school systems, many of the major automakers close for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. This employee benefit is a direct result of what the union has negotiated for its blue collar members.

About The Writer

Jeff Fortson hosts Auto Trends with JeffCars.com, a weekly radio program which airs on SiriusXM and in select radio markets throughout the U. S. Fortson's program is the only syndicated urban radio show airing throughout the U.S. and Canada (as well as the only weekly automotive program airing on SiriusXM). Fortson's show format includes one-on-one engaging conversation with many of today's multicultural automotive influencers and pioneers. Unlike a typical car program, Fortson's conversations can touch on a number of topics.

For airtimes, visit JeffCars.com.

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