LARRY SHINODA'S LAST INTERVIEW

by TOM BENFORD

This article originally appeared in the
December 1997 issue of
Vette Magazine

PHOTOS © 1997 by LIZ BENFORD

If anyone ever put a Car Designer Hall of Fame Roster together, Larry Shinoda would most certainly be near the top of the list; the Corvette Sting Ray, the Z-28 Camaro and the Boss 302 Mustang are but three major works to his credit in the past, with his more contemporary accomplishments including the Rick Mears Corvette and the Shinoda Boss for the later-generation Mustang. The Shinoda Design signature was to influence a special edition of the Ford Contour; he also intended to do a limited production run of his C5 Split Window Prototype and a new signature line of Cragar wheels. Larry and I had spoken many times on the phone, but it was at the 1997 Corvettes at Carlisle show that we finally got together face to face. Over dinner at the California Café Larry filled in some the blanks in his history for me and my wife, Liz. Little did I know then that I would be the last writer to interview him in depth before his untimely and unexpected death less than three months later. As a lasting legacy and homage to him, I'm honored to share this candid interview with you here.

Tom & Liz Benford with Larry Shinoda and their 1963
Split Window Coupe at Corvettes at Carlisle, 9/23/97.
  1. Let's start by getting a little background information on you, Larry. You started developing your artistic talents in grammar school, continued through high school and then attended and graduated the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles; is that correct?
  1. No, I didn't graduate - I was kicked out. They told me I didn't fit in there; my ideas and desires weren't consistent with there expectations, so I was construed as a malcontent, which, in truth, I was.
  1. Were you always interested in drawing and designing cars?
  1. Yeah, but all the time I was attending Art Center they never let me draw a car, which is kind of stupid, since that's why I went there in the first place. But the teachers there thought differently and they had me in all kinds of stupid classes. The only class that made any sense was the perspective class, which did help me. But the drawing for illustration, the watercolors class, most of the classes weren't anything I was interested in. Then they found out that I had quite a bit of talent making things with my hands so they had me making forms and models of objects for other students to draw - spheres, triangles, cubes, things like that, which didn't make me very happy. And they never gave me the product design class, but I sat in on one that also covered airbrushing and I actually learned how to use an airbrush, even though that wasn't part of the training that I went to the school for. So when I got kicked out I didn't really feel too badly. About a month after that the airbrush/product design instructor invited me back to show my work to Ford when the company reps came to interview students, and I actually wound up getting hired. This was back in 1954; I started with Ford in January of 1955.
  1. How long did you stay with Ford?
  1. Exactly one year. I went to Packard in January of 1956. I stayed at Packard for about seven months total time, but there was only about two-and-a-half to three months when there was concerted work done. Things were very slow and the company was in financial trouble. To fill up my work week I was invited to go down to the marina to scrape the barnacles off the owner's boat, but I declined that offer and went off to Indianapolis and worked on a car that won the Indy 500.
  1. And whose car was that?
  1. Pat Flaherty drove the car. It was an H.A. Watson-built car with an Offenhauser powerplant, and I had done the styling on it.
  1. And then you went on to GM after Indy?
  1. Yes. In September of 1956 I came onboard at GM as a senior designer.
  1. Most people would call that a meteoric rise in your career - not too shabby for someone who had gotten kicked out of art college only a couple of years prior to that.
  1. Yeah, I was doing OK. But you have to understand that I was basically pretty much self-taught. What I didn't know, I picked up from other designers and I never got to the point of doing real fancy illustrations.
  1. Was Bill Mitchell your immediate boss when you went to GM as a senior designer?
  1. No, they put me into an orientation class that was supposed to last six months, but I was only in there a couple of weeks. Then I went to work in the Chevrolet studio. Apparently I had designed a car I guess they really liked while in the class. They took my drawing and hung it up on a Friday, I came back on Monday and it was gone. Then they told me I was being transferred to the Chevrolet studio. When I rolled my tabaret into the Chevrolet studio, my drawing was on an easel and they were modeling the damn thing full-size, so I was really kind of shocked.
  1. Was it a concept car?
  1. Yeah, it was kind of a concept car. They were getting ready to do the '59s which were intended to have a bolder look than the '58s, which were already done.
  1. Are you the guy responsible for the outrageous fins the '59 Chevy had?
  1. Yes, pretty much so, but the fins I had originally designed didn't have that bird shape to them - it was basically a straight V-shape. The real deep undercut body style was my idea, too. If you look at the '58 Chevy you'll see that the fenders are really big, fat and puffy. The reason for that is that the tool that welded the pieces required lots of room for the jaws to get inside to pinch weld the fenders. What I did with the'59 was design the fenders so they could be pinch-welded from the outside and then cover the weld with a molding, so you got that real thin section. So that was my design, and I did get some kind of an award for designing it and showing the manufacturing method.

Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda
March 25, 1930 - November 13, 1997

  1. So you were already causing a stir in the Chevy design division - when did Bill Mitchell appear on the scene?
  1. He was already there, but shortly thereafter he came into the studio one day. He had a Pontiac with a supercharger on it, and he had been driving home from work one evening. At the time, I had this white '55 Ford that had a 352 Ford stock car racing engine in it that had been shipped to me by Bill Stropp. I installed the engine in it, along with all the other goodies, and I basically had a street-driven NASCAR stock car. Well, I pulled up next to Mitchell at a red light one evening, the light changed and Bill took off, smoking the tires. I waited until he hit second gear, and then I passed him in first. He turned off at the next light. Then he came into the Chevy studio and he's telling McKeegen, the boss, about this white Ford that blew his doors off; he said he thought it must have had a Cadillac engine in it. And McKeegen says, "Hey, Larry - you have a white Ford, don't you?" and I answered, "Yeah". Mitchell wanted to see my car, so I brought it into the garage, and when I popped the hood open he just about had a heart attack. The engine had dual four-barrels, headers, heavy duty shocks, the car had a roll cage. Eventually I sold the car to a group of guys who ran it in the MARK races and did quite well with it.
  1. So now you had Mitchell's attention and he knew who you were.
  1. Yeah, he knew who I was. So then he recruited me to work on the Sting Ray sports race car. This was 1958, by the way. Pete Brock and a guy named Chuck Pohlmann had actually done the theme drawings and the first model of the Sting Ray. Then I was given the model and told that we had to change it so that it would fit on the SS chassis, because Mitchell had purchased a spare Corvette SS chassis. It wasn't a complete redesign, but we did have to chop and stretch, shorten and so forth. But it all worked.
  1. Were the hideaway headlights and split rear window already evolving at this point?
  1. No, the Sting Ray sports race car was a roadster, with the headlights mounted behind the grille. The split window design came later when we started working on the '63 Corvette as a coupe model, but this car was the basis for it. When we did the coupe, the roof line was higher and we had to work the headlights up - it was a fairly major job of restyling from the sports race car to the production coupe, and I was the only designer in the studio working exclusively under Bill Mitchell's direction. There was a studio manager that I was supposed to report to, but he was an engineer and had his hands full, so he was bypassed and I answered directly to Bill.
  1. Was Zora working closely with Mitchell at that point in time as well?
  1. No, Zora was doing his own thing with the engineering department while we were doing ours with the styling. The two departments interfaced when necessary, but the actual marriage of the engineering and the styling came a bit further down the road.
  1. Were you still working out of the Chevrolet styling studio, or had you already migrated to Mitchell's secret Studio X?
  1. All of this stuff was being done in Studio X.
  1. Where exactly was Studio X located - rumor has it that it was underneath Mitchell's office, is that right?
  1. No, it was underneath the front lobby. It was a fairly small studio, but it had big doors so you could move models in and out. The entry door was on the side of it, right across the hall from the rest room. We used to have a board on the inside of what was a kind of divider wall to keep people from looking right in.
  1. So how secret was Studio X in reality?
  1. Well, people like Chuck Jordan had a key, but he was told to say the hell out. Chuck Jordan was, at one time, the director of design. I don't think Mitchell liked him very much. He was kind of a snooty guy who didn't like me and he didn't like Tony LaKing very well. We used to have a picture of the Indy 500 Gasoline Alley on this divider board, a nice shot that I had taken. Next to it we had a small sign that said "Studio X", which was later called "Advanced Studio 5".
  1. So it sounds like it wasn't the best kept secret at GM Styling.
  1. Most people knew what it was, but very few were invited in. We also had a sign on that divider board that said "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." Every time Chuck Jordan came in he would tear the sign down if we weren't around. He'd tear it in two and throw it on the floor. Apparently he didn't realize that we had a whole bunch of these signs. So we put another one up, but underneath it we put a picture of a Nikon camera, and on the Nikon camera we put "Now we know who the prick is". This was on a Friday, and when we came back to work on Monday, both signs were torn in half and laying on the floor. Mitchell walked in right after we got there and said, "Who the hell would do that?" We told him he knew who did it, and Bill said, "Yeah - the son of a bitch!" He called Jordan up and said, "Hey, why are you tearing the goddamn signs up?" Jordan stammered and stumbled and knew that he had been caught, and Mitchell told him, "I don't want any more of that shit going on!" and it was at least two or three weeks before he tore down another sign.
  1. Mitchell's office had formerly been Harley Earl's, and legend has it that the desk was on an elevated platform or dais at the end of a long runway, intended to intimidate and diminish those who came in to see him. Is that true?
  1. No, it was a big office but the desk wasn't elevated. It was a free-form teakwood desk, though - it was beautiful.
  1. OK, thanks for setting the record straight. Rumor also has it that Mitchell was not the easiest guy to work for; any truth to that?
  1. No, I never found that to be true. He was always easy to work with as far as I was concerned. I was able to talk him into certain things, but then there were times when he wouldn't budge on some things. There were occasions, however, when he would put everyone in there place with a statement like, "Don't flatter yourself, kid - I'm the one who does Corvettes here." That was one of his favorite jibes.
  1. Did he ever address that to you directly?
  1. Yeah, he said it to me once or twice, but he never stressed and emphasized it with me the way he did with other people like Charlie Jordan.
  1. How did Jordan manage to get into the design department if he was such a thorn in Mitchell's side?
  1. Harley Earle brought Chuck Jordan in. Jordan's family owned a major portion of Sunkist Orange - some very wealthy folks. Harley Earle knew all of these so-called blue-bloods, and I don't think Mitchell cared for that too much, but Jordan finally became vice president.
  1. Was the whole split-window idea one that originated with Mitchell?
  1. Yeah, kind of; but it wasn't anything new, you know. There was a car that Art Ross had done, it was an Oldsmobile we called the Brass Rocket, that also had a split windows with a fin running down the middle. And there were a lot of other cars that were done with split windows, so it wasn't anything that outrageous or new.
  1. Be that as it may, the split window on the '63 coupe made it the most identifiable Corvette ever made. Would you say that's an accurate statement?
  1. Yeah, but it was kind of an afterthought when they cut it out for the '64 model.
  1. One of the automotive publications recently referred to you as 'Bill Mitchell's private designer'. How accurate is that?
  1. Well, that's basically right. I always did the things Bill liked to see, so I worked on his private projects exclusively.
  1. Did he always like your ideas, or were there some that fell by the wayside?
  1. I can only recall one time that I went too far, and that was when we were doing the Shark. The '63 Corvette was all finished, and they needed something to ballyhoo the Corvette. So they took a '61 Corvette as the basis of the car they would call the Shark, but it had to be outrageous. So we took some of the cues from the '63, but exaggerated everything. So what we had here was an exaggerated '63, but on the earlier '61 chassis. To make it look more shark-like, I designed a grille that looked like it had teeth that interlocked. They were really straight pieces, but they were set in so that they interlocked, and when you looked at it from the front, they appeared to be really pointy even though they weren't. I was pretty happy with they way the wood mockup looked, so we went to a clay model, and Mitchell came into the studio and saw it. "Whoa - you guys deliberately made it look like a fish," he said, "What are you trying to do - get me fired?" That was the first time he ever said "ouch" and the only time he ever told me I overdid it.
  1. While you were working on the concepts for the Sting Ray Split Window Coupe, did you have any inkling as to how important this car would be and what kind of effect it would have on the automotive world?
  1. I knew it would be an important car, but I had no idea of the scope of how important it was going to be. I really fought for the hidden headlights, and I wanted to make it sleek and a lot more aerodynamic
  1. It sounds like your ideas had some opposition.
  1. Bill Mitchell had been led down the primrose path by some engineers who said that it was going to be a "ground effects" car with a sort of reverse-airfoil shape that was going to suck the car to the ground. But they were completely full of crap; it lifted the front up and the car ended up with extremely high drag and really high lift.
  1. Were you aware of that possibility from a design standpoint?
  1. Yeah, and I argued with Bill and the engineers about it. So when they did the Sting Ray sports race car, to alleviate it, the car ran with a real negative angle of attack with the nose down. That's the only way the Sting Ray would work. But it still had terrible front-end lift, and several times coming off a turn and heading down the straight-away, the front wheels would actually lift off the ground.
  1. Now, thirty-four years down the road, in retrospect does it surprise you that the car has achieved the status and recognition it has?
  1. Let's talk a bit about your relationship with Zora Arkus-Duntov. Was he fairly easy to work with, too?
  1. Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. If he had some strange idea you couldn't talk him out of it.
  1. Is that due to the fact that he was given free reign on the engineering side of things?
  1. Yes, that's right.
  1. Now that Zora has passed on his memorabilia and autographs are greatly sought after, and some forgeries are surfacing. Can you elucidate on that?
  1. The only instances I know of were the certificates of authenticity for the leather jackets that were being sold by one of the major Corvette catalog houses a while back. Zora would sign them and then send them to me for me to sign. Well, I'd start signing them and then, maybe every eighth or ninth, I'd find a certificate he had missed. So, I just signed Zora Arkus-Duntov for him rather than send them back and forth again, and I don't think anyone ever noticed the difference. He knew I was doing it, and he thanked me for signing the ones he had missed. The reproduced signatures on the jacket tags were the real thing however.
  1. At 67 years of age you still manage to keep quite busy. I understand you're doing work with the ExtrudeHone company in Pittsburgh and discussing the possibility of producing a limited run of your C5 Split Window Prototype design. If that all comes about, when might we actually see something?
  1. If it all comes together, we might be showing it at the Detroit Auto Show in January.
  1. You've got a deal going with Cragar wheels, too, right?
  1. Yes, they contacted me and I agreed to design a new product for Cragar. I designed a wheel that basically takes their old SS design and brings it into the modern era. They'll be doing 17", 18" and 20" wheels in my design, and it will be a Shinoda Design signature series.

As our after-dinner coffee was being served, I asked Larry if there was anything further he'd like to say about his days at GM in Studio X, and he responded, "Of all the Corvettes, I guess the '63 Corvette is probably one of my prouder jobs."

Larry passed away while working in his home on November 13, 1997 of a heart attack.

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