November 13, 1997 – Corvette, Mustang & Jeep designer Larry Shinoda dies

What qualities must one possess to build the legacy of three of the United States’ most recognizable brands? Repertoire? Desire? Drive? For auto designer Larry Shinoda, it was all that and so much more.

Born in Los Angeles in 1930, Lawrence Kiyoshi (Larry) Shinoda would spend his early teens locked away by the US government at a “War Relocation Camp” for Japanese civilians living in the United States. Fellow hot rod enthusiast Bob Hirohata also spent time in these camps. The unwarranted detainment during WWII did not hold him still, however. He later recalled sneaking past the barbed wire to go fishing in a nearby water source. The camp is also where he began to experiment with design and engineering. He constructed two reclining chairs, one for his mother and one for his grandmother, which drew awe from fellow detainees.

After being released, his family moved to Colorado for a short time, where they lodged with family and worked the land. Not one for farming, he returned to Los Angeles by the time he was finishing high school. He later began working at Weiand, a performance intake company now owned by Holley, while obtaining his associates degree. After graduation he joined the Air National Guard and served in Korea. Upon returning, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design in LA. His automotive journey soon took off when he began building and racing hot rods.

Shinoda hot rods

Larry Shinoda, back left, with the Chopsticks Special

Shinoda dubbed his first hot rod, a 1932 Ford, the “Chopsticks Special.” A 298 flathead V8 engine powered the a machine that would set the stage for his future endeavors. His hot rodding pursuits continued with the “Chopsticks Special IV,” a 1929 Ford roadster that showcased his prowess with a flathead V8 and Ardun OHV heads. The culmination of his skills and dedication led him to victory in the “A” Hot Roadster class at the inaugural NHRA U.S. Nationals in 1955.

Moving to Detroit

In 1956, Shinoda’s talents caught the eye of industry executives, and he became the talk of Detroit, with several automotive giants chasing after him. His encounter with Ford’s Gene Bordinat marked the beginning of his association with major players in the industry. After a brief stint with Packard, where he met John DeLorean and designed the body and paint scheme for the 1956 Indianapolis 500-winning car, Shinoda found his true calling at General Motors in September 1956.

1959 Stingray Racer

At GM, Shinoda’s star rose rapidly. Assigned to the Chevrolet studio after impressing with his designs, he played a pivotal role in shaping the 1959 Chevrolet line up, introducing sharper fins that became a defining feature. While his innate talent and audacity got him enough attention, an impromptu drag race victory against Bill Mitchell in 1958 further solidified his place in the elite circle. Following the win, Mitchell invited him to be involved in “special styling projects” at Studio X.

Throughout his twelve years at GM, Shinoda’s legacy was etched in the form of groundbreaking concept cars. The Mako Shark show car and CERV I were testaments to his innovative spirit. Collaborating with Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, Shinoda played a pivotal role in refining the XP 819 and other concepts, laying the groundwork for the iconic 1963 Corvette Sting Ray design.

1963 Mako Shark I concept

Shinoda’s influence extended beyond the Corvette. In 1965, he played a key role in the redesign of the Chevrolet Corvair, giving it the sleek “Coke bottle” shape that defined an era. However, it was his move to Ford in 1968 that marked a new chapter in his career.

Shinoda moves to Ford

What cars did Larry SHinoda design?
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302

Hired by Ford President Bunkie Knudsen to enhance the styling and sales of the Ford lineup, Shinoda’s impact was immediate. His first project, the Boss 302 Mustang, became a high-performance marvel. Shinoda’s design, characterized by a reduction in chrome ornamentation, set the stage for the 1970-1973 Mustang models. Unfortunately, his tenure at Ford was cut short after Knudsen’s departure in 1969, signaling the end of Shinoda’s time with the blue oval.

Shinoda – it’s a Jeep thing

Larry Shinoda’s journey in the automotive world didn’t conclude with his departure from major manufacturers; instead, it evolved into a dynamic chapter defined by independence and tenacity. After leaving Ford, Shinoda ventured into the realm of independent design, establishing his own firm. His creative spirit found expression in collaborations with General Motors, Ford, and various aftermarket companies, solidifying his reputation as a design maestro.

In 1985, Shinoda found himself embroiled in a design competition with an American Motors Corporation (AMC) internal team, alongside fellow contractors Giorgetto Giugiaro and Alain Clénet. This contest centered around the envisioned XJC, later unveiled as the Jeep ZJ, or the renowned Jeep Grand Cherokee, following Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC in 1987.

The contractual complexities of this venture shed light on the challenges faced by even seasoned designers. Despite the agreed-upon compensation of $354,000, AMC only paid Shinoda a fraction—$135,000. The tumultuous relationship escalated when AMC executives criticized Shinoda’s design as ‘terrible’ and ‘brutal,’ demanding the destruction of the clay model. Yet, contradictory actions followed as AMC secretly moved forward with Shinoda’s design, a move that would only surface publicly when the Grand Cherokee debuted at Cobo Hall in 1992.

The legacy of Larry Shinoda

Bound by a non-disclosure agreement for five years, Shinoda harbored the truth about the contentious contract until 1992. The revelation and subsequent legal battles unfolded as Chrysler, AMC’s successor, settled with Shinoda for over $200,000 shortly before his death on November 13, 1997.

Larry Shinoda’s legacy endures as a testament to his indomitable spirit, innovative designs, and unwavering dedication to pushing the boundaries of automotive excellence. His influence, etched in the curves of iconic cars, continues to inspire a new generation of designers and enthusiasts alike.

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