Larry Shinoda: Looking back at a legend

Larry Shinoda

Designer Larry Shinoda is closely associated with two of the most renowned postwar American designs—the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and 1969 Mustang Boss 302. He was a red-blooded American, born in Los Angeles in 1930, but he and his family were not treated that way during World War II. Under FDR’s executive order, they were forced to relocate to Manzanar, a central-California internment camp for people of Japanese descent, from 1942–44. It was a humiliating experience for a U.S. citizen and had an indelible impression on Shinoda.

“The camp was a mile-by-half-mile, and there were 10,000 people interned there,” Shinoda told me in 1997. “The barracks had not been finished when we moved in and the roofs had no tar paper, so we slept with towels over our heads, which were dirty by the time we awoke in the morning.”

He worked in the camp as a part-time cook, and to occupy his spare time he designed and built furniture out of old orange crates, giving him an opportunity to exercise his creative side.

After the war, Larry got into the Southern California hot rod scene, building many competitive machines known as “Chopstick Specials.” He won his class in the 1955 NHRA Nationals in a 1924 Ford roadster powered by an Ardun V-8.

Larry Shinoda and a clay model of the Corvair Monza GT, 1962 at GM Tech Center
Larry Shinoda and a clay model of the Corvair Monza GT, 1962 at GM Tech Center
Courtesy of General Motors Design

A year earlier, in 1954, Shinoda had moved to Detroit after getting kicked out of Art Center in Pasadena, California, where he was labeled a malcontent. Still, he was able to get a job at Ford where he spent a year before joining Studebaker-Packard. There he worked with rising stars John DeLorean and Dick Teague. But Packard was in difficult financial shape so Larry took time off to work for A.J. Watson in Indianapolis, designing the livery of Pat Flaherty’s Indy winning 1956 Offy entered by John Zink.

In September of that year, Shinoda joined General Motors as a senior designer where he began to make a big impact, contributing to the bat-wing look of the 1959 Chevrolet.

That same year he was tapped by GM Design czar Bill Mitchell to design a special body for a race car that Mitchell had acquired. It was the test mule for the Corvette SS race program that GM suspended after a single race at Sebring in 1957. The effort was a victim of GM’s ban on factory racing, enacted after a recommendation in ’57 by Automobile Manufacturers Association.

In 1959, Mitchell procured the SS mile for one dollar, agreeing to run it as a totally private effort without support from Chevrolet or nomenclature suggesting otherwise. That accounts for Mitchell’s use of an all-new name for the car—Sting Ray. Dr. Dick Thompson drove the car and captured two SCCA class championships in 1959 and 1960.

Mako Shark I and II at the GM Tech Center.
Mako Shark I and II at the GM Tech Center.
Tino Rossini

Shinoda played a significant role in the Sting Ray Racer program, serving as a jack of all trades. “I ended up being the designer, mechanic, pit crew, and transport driver,’’ Shinoda said. “We had an open trailer and an El Camino pickup that I drove to most of the early races.”

Mitchell’s racing program put Shinoda was front and center through much of the Sting Ray’s gestation period and Larry played a starring role—along with Tony Lapine—during the delicate translation from the Sting Ray racer to real-world production car. “The guys around the studio called them the ‘Axis of Power,’ in reference to the Germans and Japanese during World War II,” Peter Brock said in a 2013 interview. (At age 19, Brock produced the original sketch that became the theme of the Sting Ray design.)

The split-window concept came later, and Shinoda took no credit for it. “There was a car that Art Ross had done,” Shinoda said. “It was an Oldsmobile we called the Brass (Golden) Rocket, that also had 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.”

Working with Lapine, Shinoda would become Mitchell’s most prolific hands-on designer during the early- to mid-1960s, helping to shape the Corvette Mako Shark I and II; the Corvair prototypes including Super Spyder, Monza GT and the Monza SS roadster; Astro I and II; the rear-engine XP-819 with John Schinella; Corvette Grand Sport GSIIB; and the Chaparral 2D race car. Shinoda also worked on the designs of two of Zora Arkus-Duntov’s pet projects—CERV I and CERV II.

The original CERV during 1960 Riverside Raceway runs
CERV II during track tests

Shinoda left GM in 1969, opting to follow Chevrolet general manager Bunkie Knudsen to Ford. There, he hit the ground running with the 1969 Mustang Boss 302, often cited as the best-looking Mustang of all time.

At Ford, Shinoda reverted back to his days as a hot rodder to make the Mustang competitive with the Camaro Z/28, by demonstrating to Ford that performance was more than just horsepower, but also suspension and aerodynamics. Shinoda was also influential in getting an appropriation to repave the skidpad at Dearborn. But less than two years into his stint at Ford, Knudsen was fired and Shinoda went down with him. Never one to be politically correct, Larry was too passionate in his opinions to care about internal politics and therefore relied on Knudsen as a protector. The two had to take a step down at White Motor Company where Larry designed truck cabs and tractors.

Shinoda remained productive for the rest of his life, later setting up his own design studio in Livonia, Michigan, where he designed racing transporters for Roger Penske as well as design projects for Cragar Wheels and Monaco Motorcoach. He also claimed to be the designer for a high-volume Chrysler product that is still in production today, although the fact that he did the work freelance—and Chrysler’s opinion on who gets credit—prevented him from divulging more.

Larry never lost his identify with the Corvette and even designed the logo for the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He also designed and sold an attractive aftermarket body kit for the fourth-generation Corvette.

Shinoda contracted kidney disease in 1996 and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he died of a heart attack in November 1997. He left us as one of the most recognized designers in the world, a guy who made every vehicle he touched look a little bit faster.

“I always admired him because he just didn’t take any shit from anyone,” Peter Brock says. “I think that’s why Mitchell admired him. He never tried to be a pleaser. He just wanted to be a leader.”