Expelled From Design School, Larry Shinoda Designed an Icon
Most people haven’t graduated from the Art Center College of Design. Granted that most people also haven’t attended the school, but a healthy number of those who have been accepted also fail to graduate from the demanding institution. But few of those go on to become design legends as Larry Shinoda did.
Lawrence Kiyoshi “Larry” Shinoda was born in Los Angeles, CA in 1930 and grew up loving cars, sketching them, like many other boys, in his grade-school books. His talent was fostered and while he messed around, racing hot rods on Los Angeles’s streets, he decided to pursue a career in auto design that led him to Art Center.
But he found the curriculum stifling, sometimes too whimsical and impractical. Labeled a malcontent, he was kicked out of Art Center and, based on later interviews, seemed relieved by his expulsion. But his connection to the school would serve him well as he was invited to present to Ford (after he’d been kicked out) by a product design teacher.
Ford’s designers were so impressed by his work that they hired him a few months later. Shinoda’s first stint lasted about a year, after which he went to Packard for an even shorter stay–seven months. Work at Packard was so slow that he wound up working on the Indy 500-winning Watson-Offenhauser and helping to shape its body. It was at this point that Shinoda’s career took off.
General Motors hired the mostly self-taught prodigy as a senior designer after only eighteen months in the industry. Following a much-abbreviated orientation, Shinoda went to work in the Chevrolet studio where his design proposal for the 1959 Chevy caught management’s eye. They selected his work as it was a radical departure from the ‘58s and also pioneered a new fabrication method that allowed for much tighter, sharper creases.
An opportune, coincidental drag race with GM’s Vice-President of Design, Bill Mitchell, further cemented his stature in the studio. One night, shortly after designing the ‘59s, while driving home in his 1955 Ford Thunderbird he happened to line up next Mitchell at a red light. Mitchell was in a red, supercharged Pontiac and, wanting to show the T-bird up, took off as soon as the lights changed. Shinoda didn’t back down, with a Stroppe race-prepped Ford stock-car engine under the hood, and outran Mitchell easily.
A few days later, Mitchell visited the Chevy studio inquiring about the white T-bird and was pointed to Shinoda. He asked Shinoda to pull it into the garage and “just about had a heart attack.” The car was equipped with a full roll cage, two four-barrel carburetors, headers, and heavy-duty shocks. The car convinced Mitchell that Shinoda was a die-hard racecar guy and he was immediately switched to working on the Corvette.
It was in this role that Shinoda helped design the now-legendary 1963 Chevy Corvette, the split-window coupe. In typical fashion, people debate who came up with the initial concept, but it is clear that Shinoda was the man who refined and finalized the design. Many years later, he claimed that the car was supposed to be much more aerodynamic than it actually was, but that he and Mitchell had been misled by the engineers.
Shinoda would ultimately be responsible for the Mako Shark concept that led to the third generation Corvette and the XP-819, a mid/rear-engine Corvette concept developed in the early ‘60s. In 1968, GM Executive VP “Bunkie” Knudsen was hired by Ford and managed to hire Shinoda once he got there.
His first project was to design a high-performance version of the Mustang that he dubbed the “Boss” supposedly in tribute to Knudsen. Following the Boss, Shinoda led the design of the 1970-3 Mustangs too, but when Knudsen was fired in ’69, Shinoda left too.
It was shortly after this that Shinoda opened his own studio and began consulting for the large Detroit automakers. He was one of three freelance designers working under contract with American Motors Corp. on the Jeep ZJ, which later became the Grand Cherokee. He continued working as a designer into the late 1990s when he died of heart failure while awaiting a kidney transplant. The fact that he designed the most beautiful American car ever is reason enough to acknowledge him, but when you consider his role in so many other projects it’s astounding that more people don’t know his name.