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.
The General Motors Years
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).
Post GM Years
When Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen left GM in 1968, he recruited me to follow along. I had met him originally when I was working on the Zink Special at INDY. He had asked me some questions about aerodynamics and apparently liked my answers. We became good friends. When he asked me to return to Ford with him I thought it would be a good challenge. It took a little bit longer than expected to get me in, but he did create the new job of Director, Special Projects Design Office for me. I was in charge of all high performance production and limited production vehicles.
The primary project I was recruited to work on at Ford had been a possible two-seater sports car to compete with Corvette. We were also competing internally with the deTomaso (Italian) firm for final design and production. This is a pretty standard approach to designing new cars; there are always internal competitions to force the various groups to do their very best. Then management gets the final word on which design goes ahead. In this case, my design (called the Mach 2C) lost and the deTomaso design won. I did a lot of different projects.
I also worked on the design themes for the Boss 302 and the 1971 Pinto. But my work with the Torino Talladega and the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler I and II cars were really good mixes of design for aerodynamic efficiency with performance. My Torino Talladega was approximately 15 MPH faster than a production version. If it takes about 20 HP to gain each additional MPH at the high end (around 18OMPH), then the design was worth about 300 HP. To me, that was a success.
Apparently, there were a few others at Ford who didn't quite share my enthusiasm, however. Mr. Knudsen decided to move to White Motors about 16 months later and, politics being what they are, I went with him.
In 1976, following his departure from White Motor Corporation, Larry started his own company, Shinoda Design Associates Inc. From there it has been a matter of following his heart, dedicating his energies to projects which intrigue him and, not coincidentally, permit him to continue new Corvette concepts from time to time. The Rick Mears Corvette project has been one of Larry's most successful "post-GM" Corvette projects and it will be covered in an upcoming issue. Larry picks up his review of current history.
Q. WHAT OTHER CURRENT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON? ARE YOU STILL DOING A LOT FOR FORD?
A. Well not really. We're trying to do work for Ford but this BOSS Mustang car model idea seems to have them a little upset. The kit, by Revell-Monogram is starting to sell well. Juef is also building a kit based on the Coletti car, the 429, 604 c.i. version. It will be yellow and will say "Boss" on it.
I am also doing some motorhomes for Monaco Coach, in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the large vehicles based on their own chassis which they build in-house. They are about the size of a Greyhound bus. They cover quite a range of sizes but the signature series is the one I am currently working on. They have just introduced two smaller series called Executive and Dynasty. They are also working on a new unit called the Windsor.
Q. SINCE 1989 WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROJECTS YOU WORKED ON, ESPECIALLY THE WORK WITH NIPPON PAINT? YOU SEEM TO HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN A LOT OF IMPORTANT PROJECTS.
A. Well, one of the most interesting ones is something called "Gashopper". It's really a two-seater moped with weather protection.
The Nippon Paint deal is to be a "net-worker" for them. I can use my contacts to help introduce their product to people that they don't normally have access. I know a lot of the top people in the companies whereas they, as paint suppliers, tend to be limited to the purchasers. Mazda used their paint 100%, but Toyota only sourced about 10% from Nippon Paint, mostly primers not top coats. I set up some events which eventually helped them meet the right people in order to present their ideas. In this way, they improve their market share. Same with Honda and Mitsubishi. In fact, another company called Daihatsu is located right in their hometown but didn't use them. Historically they used Kansai Paint like a lot of the other Toyota companies. We still haven't made big progress there but...
I also participate in their color shows and do a little presentation. The last one in 1990 had "vitality" as a theme so I took some examples from the Geneva and Detroit Auto Shows and put together a little slide presentation that lasts about 8 minutes.
Q. I AM ALSO INTRIGUED BY THE WORK YOU DID ON GRAPHICS AND UNIFORMS FOR EARNHART AND OTHERS.
A. Yes, I actually did most of the work for the Dale Earnhart cars. Also the Corvette GTP color scheme as it was becoming successful with Rick Hendricks. Now it is interesting to hear why the GTP program was canned just as it was coming around. Ryan Falconer did most of the engine work but Herb Fischel doesn't really appreciate Ryan as much as some other people do. So, there may have been a lot of corporate reasons but it didn't help that Falconner wasn't politically correct. But when they wrote him out of the deal the whole program sort of went down. At least, that seems to me to be the most significant factor.
LARRY KIYOSHI SHINODA
March 25, 1930 - November 13, 1997