Profile: Larry Shinoda
Interview with Larry Shinoda
© Wayne Ellwood, 1995
Used here with permission by the author
I met with Larry Shinoda at his offices in Livonia in March of this year (1995). Larry had been kind enough to give me a few hours of his time as I passed through town on my way to the Chicago Chevy/VetteFest event. We talked about his career as a designer and especially the shark years for Corvette.
I had prepared myself with some of the basic research using information I had collected over a period of time, but Larry cautioned me about taking too many of the earlier articles too literally. It seems that even the most diligent of authors sometimes get things out of context. Larry prefers the article written by Mike Antonick in "Corvette; The Sensuous American" and another article by Don Sherman ("SharkSkinner", Sports Car International, March 1995) as the best overviews of his career.
It is impossible to talk about Larry Shinoda outside of the "total picture", so we covered a lot of ground in the few hours we had together. But, since we Sharksters really focus on our own years, I'll try to isolate that part of our conversation. I just have to mention some of his earlier experiences and his current work, however, just because they are so interesting.
Larry Kiyoshi Shinoda was born March 25, 1930 in California. He displayed his artistic predilection for both art and cars early in life and followed this love unfailingly. He studied art for two years at Pasadena City College and then, after a tour with the army in Korea, attended the Art Centre School of Design in Los Angeles. Larry didn't quite graduate; in fact, his departure was negotiated, as he puts it. Having been told that he didn't have to attend classes, just hand in the assignments, he did just that. It seems that at least one Californian had not yet developed the (now-famous) laid-back style, and one of the school instructors requested that he just leave.
All of this took place in the heat of the California "hot rodding" boom. And Larry was right in the middle of it. Larry had a special affinity for fast cars and built himself a very fast 1929 Ford roadster. Coincidentally, his first major job was with Ford (1954). As the job would take him to Detroit he made the transportation costs for his 1929 roadster part of the package. The Ardun-powered Ford roadster won the first NHRA Nationals at Great Bend, Kansas in1955. More about that later!
From there it was on to Studebaker-Packard in January of 1956 (just in time for its demise). GM was just a short career hop in September of the same year.
That's the short story on Larry's years leading up to the 12 years he spent at GM. But there are buried treasures here. I will let Larry pick up the story.
Q. YOU HAVE A FAIR AMOUNT OF DRAG RACING HISTORY, BUT YOU DON'T SEEM TO SPEAK ABOUT IT TOO MUCH.
A. That's because no one asks. But I really did a lot of things very early in my career. I should tell you about one or two of them.
I guess my first real successful car was that old 1924 Ford roadster. I won the first NHRA Nationals at Great Bend, Kansas, in 1955.
It had an Ardun engine. In fact, that engine was built by Clem Tehow of Clark and Tebow engines. They ran Ardun engines at a lot of places. He had sent the heads out for some work but they were returned only part way done. They had cast iron valve seats threaded into the aluminum heads. They would unscrew themselves so the engine never ran for crap. I went to see Zora (this was before I went to work for GM) and bought a brand new set of heads. He told me that I needed to put better valve seats in, so I had a friend of mine who was a machinist in California make some aluminum/bronze valve seats for me. We cut the heads so that the valve seats were actually tapered the opposite way and "froze" the valve seats in. We did this by heating the heads in an oven and then putting the machined valve seats in as a slight press fit. When the heads cooled those seats were in there forever. Zora told us to run the engine for a couple of cycles and then regrind them.
The other funny part was that we ran the engine on Henry Dunn's dynamometer. He ran cars at INDY and told us that if the engine put out more power than his INDY car he wouldn't charge us for the time. If it didn't, he would charge us a nominal fee. Jack Power, who had helped me, agreed. I called Zora to come and watch. The Offy engine put out 417 HP. Zora and myself didn't have much experience with nitro-methane additives but we wanted to beat the Offy engine, so we dumped in about a 40% mix. The test showed a 425 HP rating sustained for the full 10 seconds. It was just starting to detonate when they shut it off. No charge for the dyno.
I sold my interest in the car to Jack Powers (in pieces) in 1956. There had been a small argument at the time of sale so I left the car in pieces and Powers couldn't get it back together. He asked for help from George DeLorean but he couldn't get it back together either. The car is still in Detroit and DeLorean claims to know where it is. But now he won't tell me.
If anyone knows where it is, call me.
Q. COULD YOU PICK UP THE STORY AROUND THE TIME THAT YOU MOVED TO GM?
A. In 1956 1 had just joined Studebaker/Packard. I had moved to Great Bend (IN) and was working on the 1957 "Clipper" for Packard when the die shop requested payment in advance before converting the molds to dies. The handwriting was on the wall; in early April the word came down that there was no program. We were self employed so they would still send us our pay check every second Tuesday but there wasn't much to do. You could ask for a transfer to South Bend to work for Studebaker; you could go to Grosse Point Yacht Club to scrape on Bill Schmidt's (VP Design) boat; or you could do whatever you damn well pleased. I had been hanging around Indianapolis a lot so I took off for there.
At Indianapolis I picked up with the John Zink Special team. This was a very competitive Offy-powered car built by John Watson. I designed the body work and paint for the car. It was driven to victory by Pat Flaherty that year, 1956, reflecting (I hope) not only the efforts of the whole team but some of my contributions.
It was spring when I left because the leaves weren't on the trees yet. By the time I got back in the fall, I couldn't recognize my own house so I had to go to a pay phone and call a friend to remember, where I was living. After that everything was oriented to developing my portfolio to apply for work at GM it was largely oriented to my work at INDY.
I had quite a bit of trouble trying to get an interview at GM. The Personnel Director at GM let me sit outside his office for three days without recognizing my request to have my portfolio reviewed. After that I wrote to Jules Andrade, because the Personnel Director had told me that it was Jules who had reviewed my portfolio and said it was no good. Jules, of course, had never seen it. I knew that. It had never really been out of my sight in the Personnel Director's office area. Anyway, Jules asked me back for another interview.
So then when I came in and opened the portfolio, the first car on top was the INDY car. So Jules Andrade went and got Mr. Earl. In about 20 minutes Mr. Earl came in (we always called him Mr. Earl) and opened up the portfolio and saw the INDY car. He flipped a few pages through to the Packard stuff and then back to the INDY stuff.
He asked how much it would take to get me to come to work for them. I added about $200 to the number I had thought up. Earl added another $200 and that was that.
Q. YOU WORKED IN A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT STUDIOS. CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF OVERVIEW?
A. I began work with GM in September 1956, along with John Z. DeLorean who had also been at Studebaker-Packard with me. Also Hulki Aldikaeti, who was largely responsible for the Fiero, joined GM about that time. GM puts all its new designers through a six month orientation, mostly to learn the corporate game; I was given a clean sheet in just three weeks. During those three weeks, my designs attracted the attention of Chevrolet, so I was assigned to that studio and started work on the 1959 Chevy. I then moved to the Pontiac studios where I worked on a few of the 1960-61 wide track cars and even a concept for a 700 HP two-seater sports-type car, based on the Tempest. I'll come back to that later.
I got lucky with my next studio change. I think it mostly came about as a result of a drag race on the way home from work. It was 1958 and Bill Mitchell had replaced Harley Earl as Head of Design at GM. I basically smoked him in a stop light tournament; I was in my 1955 Ford, which was really more like a full-fledged NASCAR racer, when he rolled up beside me in this red Pontiac. I didn't see him again for a couple of weeks but then he showed up in the studio and asked if my car had a supercharger. I told him it had only two four barrels but he knew that there had to be more to the story than that. So he asked me to bring it in to the GM garage so they could look at it. GM was very eager to keep abreast of the competition. It wasn't long after that he recruited me to assist with "special styling projects".
Of course, "special styling projects" was corporate jargon for projects which usually involved racing, despite the Automobile Manufacturers' Association ban on corporate sponsored racing. This was the time that Mitchell convinced Ed Cole to sell him the tube frame chassis from the mule for the (cancelled) Corvette SS sports-racer program. As Styling Chief, Mitchell paid a nominal sum for the hardware and we rebodied it. This was the car that became Sting Ray "racer". This car had a pretty colorful history in its own way.
Bill tapped a lot of sources inside GM for technical and engineering support, including Zora's group. Of course, this was also one of our first efforts at using aerodynamic forces. Chuck Pohlmann and I did most of the final design in the "hammer" room after the basics had been set out in his Research Styling Studio. They had come up with the idea of the inverted wing form for the body; we now know that this created quite a bit of lift instead of down force but it was a learning experience. Also, the car was rebodied a couple of times and even painted red. The first bodyform was a fairly thick lay up of fibre-glass, so it was quite heavy. We later refined that and made a lightweight body better suited to racing. Bill wanted to paint it a kind of candy apple red at one point too; but it came out of the paint shop looking more like tomato soup. It also showed up in an Elvis movie and was then restored to its original silver with the (second) lightweight body.
There were a number of special experimental and show cars which followed after that. You can see an evolution in the lines for a lot of them. The Corvair MONZA GT is probably my favorite but you can see that there are a lot of "lines" that appear again in the Aerovette. Also, the Chapparal 2C and 2D built by Jim Hall carry a lot of the lines of the GS-IIB that we did as a follow-on to the Gran Sport. Each of these cars is really a story in itself, however.
This car (Sting Ray racer) was the direct inspiration for the new 1963 Corvette, and Mitchell had most of the ideas clear in his mind. He had sketched out some "lines" which reflected the theme he was trying to achieve. Again, Chuck Pohlmann in the Research Styling Studio had a hand on the first version. Then I was called back from an assignment in the Body Development Studio with Ron Hill and put in Studio X, which was located under the main building's lobby to work on the 1963. I was made lead designer and it was my job to take the concept and manage the project through to finished design. I had a lot of great people working with me. Tony Lapine was my Studio Engineer; Ed Wayne was the Studio Manager. The late Tony Baltzar and his staff did the model work. The ideas we generated were turned into real-world form in the Production Studio headed by Clare McKichan and Irv Rybicki. This was an exciting time for me. It was the first car for which I had total responsibility.
After that, I was put in charge of Studio III, in the "warehouse" across the street. John Schinella was my assistant and we had two other designers (Allen Young and Dennis Wright) who did a lot of the work. This is where we worked on a number of show cars (Mako Shark II, the Astro series and GS II-B) and the 1968 model. For the 1968, we produced a winning concept, in competition with Henry Haga's studio. The job of turning it into the final street car was then turned over to Haga's studio.
Q. DID YOU EVER WORK ON SOME EXPERIMENTAL CARS THAT YOU THOUGHT HAD POTENTIAL BUT JUST NEVER SAW THE LIGHT OF DAY?
A. Well there are always a lot of ideas that don't get pursued. There were a couple of other projects which I feel quite strongly about. The XP-819 car and the MONZA-GT were both designs which influenced a lot of my work (Editor's note: These cars will be covered as specific separate articles in this, and future, issues). Also, we did work on one Pontiac sports car that I think should have been built. Nina Padgett wrote an article for Auto Week onetime about this car, called "Speed Racer" but it never got printed. It was in the same vein as the Corvette and was Tempest-based. Some of my sketches showed it as a 421 double overhead cam Pontiac engine putting out about 700 HP (giggle).