For all the magic, luster, and beauty that surrounded foreign cars of the past century, the American approach had long been one of practicality and cold presentation. It wasn’t really until after World War II that the automobiles and their owners started to reflect aesthetics and power that could match that of European models.
General Motors, for its own part, had the good fortune of having Harley Earl as an employee. As the father of modern car design, Earl’s eye for the artistic side of cars made him an indispensable “golden goose,” with ideas that eventually would become the industry standard.
One such idea was the concept car, which Earl introduced with the Buick Y-Job in 1938. No one up until that point had ever made a car for the sole purpose of exciting the masses, and it paved the way for GM to start investing creations that would gauge public opinion on a worldwide scale.
Fast forward 19 years, and Chevrolet was three years into its fledgling Corvette platform, itself the brainchild of, you guessed it, Harley Earl. The C1 was making a dent in the American psyche, but the time was fast approaching for a refresh that would really blow people away.
Under the direction of then-head designer Bill Mitchell, the wheels began to turn on a Corvette race car, one that would be able to compete in international events against the likes of Jaguar, Porsche, and Ferrari. Its influence would be the foundation for one of the most beloved generations of Corvette, and forever change the way others thought of American sports car design.
Picking Up The Pieces: The 1959 Stingray Racer (XP-87)
In 1957, Chevrolet’s faith in the Corvette was nearly squashed, and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Father of the Corvette, was tasked with revitalizing the nameplate before all hope was lost. He instituted a racing program, and had his team create the Corvette SS, a restyled C1 that weighed just 1,850-pounds and burned rubber with over 300 bhp.
Yet for all of its leaps and bounds in technology and ability–it recorded a top speed of 183 mph–the car was not without its faults, and it showed at the 12-hour Sebring race that year. The SS was forced out of the race from mechanical problems after just 23 laps, and it wasn’t long after when GM banned all sponsored racing. The revolutionary car was put into storage, and that was that.
Bill Mitchell, however, still believed the car showed potential, and wanted to carry on with its development. He arranged to buy the car for $500, and had his top two designers, Pete Brock and Larry Shinoda, put to work on it.
“Mitchell had to be very careful that upper management didn’t learn about his plans to create a ‘new Corvette’ as that would have been in direct conflict with top management’s directive,” Shinoda said. “This is why the project was initiated in secret, downstairs in Studio B, instead of ‘upstairs’ in the main Chevrolet studio.”
Mitchell funded the project on his own dime, requesting that the car be made into a roadster. Brock’s design (aided by fellow designer Chuck Pohlmann) appealed to Mitchell, and was picked for continuation as a full-scale prototype. It reached completion in 1959 as the XP-87.
As a concept vehicle, the XP-87 was quite incredible. Weighing 2,200-pounds and using a fuel-injected 283 ci V8 good for 315 hp, it had the makings of greatness that wowed the higher-ups and pleased investors. Fiberglass made it light, and balsa wood, ironically, made it strong. Dick Thompson, the “Flying Dentist” as he was known, was selected to race the Stingray for its maiden voyage in April 1959, where it placed fourth, and again a year later, eventually winning the SCCA National Championship.
The car was retired from racing after 1960, but Mitchell could never be satisfied to watch such a fine automobile sit idly by. He was often seen driving the car around Detroit for some time afterward, and its influence could be felt most keenly on the forthcoming C2s produced from 1963 to 1967. From the front fenders to the pointed rear, the “midyear” Corvettes owe a lot to the work done by Shinoda, Brock, and Pohlmann.
From Fishy To Fleshed-Out: The 1961 Mako Shark I (XP-755)
After the success of the XP-87, Mitchell was feeling empowered and emboldened enough to try for another home run. He pulled Shinoda aside and told him of the fishing trip he had taken off the coast of Florida. While there, he had caught a mako shark, had it stuffed, and then mounted inside his office.
From its blue top, white underbelly, and sleek silhouette, Mitchell had felt inspiration strike once again, and wondered if Shinoda could be pulled back in to do yet another interpretation of his boss’ grand vision. Shinoda agreed, and set about his work.
Borrowing some of the elements that had gone into the XP-87 (most notably the blistered fenders), the designer made modifications that made the car appear less extreme while still being a show-stopper. These included a lexan, bubble-top roof, side pipe exhaust, periscope rearview mirror, and a paint scheme that caused an infamous rumor.
According to Shinoda, Mitchell’s insistence on following the exact hues seen on his stuffed shark were an unending thorn in the side of Shinoda and his build team. Mitchell never felt the guys could get the color just right, and sent finished concepts back time after time.
Finally, Shinoda had the bright idea of stealing his boss’ shark, and repainting it to match the color of the car. The idea paid off as Mitchell glanced at the shark and the car and gave it the thumbs-up, finally satisfied that his mako shark dream had been fully realized.
The car made its public debut at the 6th International Car Show in New York in 1961, where it achieved its desired response with the crowd in attendance. The car even found its way onto television, where it was featured in an episode of the CBS-run show Route 66 (1960-64) that aired in October.
Not to mention, the car was important for giving the world a taste of what was to come: the 1963-67 C2, the first of the Sting Rays and arguably the most beloved of the Corvette lineage. As an evolution of the XP-87, the Mako Shark I and its eye-popping design is one that should never be forgotten.
Creativity At Its Peak: The 1965 Mako Shark II (XP-830)
Mitchell’s obsession with sea creatures and sleek cars didn’t end with the Mako Shark I, however. Four years after the previous shark had crept up onto land and wowed and wooed the attendees in the Big Apple, Mitchell once again wheeled out to the same venue another incredible machine: the Mako Shark II.
Two similar concept vehicles were constructed that year, one a static, non-functioning unit, the other a fully-functioning street car. Other than borrowing the same dark-to-light fading paint scheme, chassis, and certain design cues of its predecessor, the Mako Shark II was an entirely different breed.
As seen at the NYIAS, the car sported a more curvaceous front end, ending in a pointed “V” to give it a fast-while-standing-still appearance. The previously bubble-topped roof was shed in favor of a flat one that transitioned into a boattail the further back it went. Louvers were added to the rear windshield, much to the detriment of visibility, and a squared-off steering wheel got points for being futuristic despite its lack of practicality.
On the flipside, the drivable Mako Shark II that first appeared in the Paris Auto Show in October was far more exciting. Gone were the square-styled exhaust and steering wheel, and added were a 427 ci big-block, Mark IV V8, a test-bed three-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission (with console-mounted controls), flip-forward front clip, one-off aluminum wheels, and much more.
People could get in and out of the Corvette with ease thanks to a button that operated a tilt-back roof, and the telescoping steering column made for easy adjustment depending on his or her height. The pedals and high-beam headlight switch could be moved forwards and backwards as well, while a digital display gave the car a real feeling of futuristic opulence, offering self-diagnosing error codes for burnt-out headlamps that notified the driver.
This is to say nothing of the other gadgets and gizmos the car offered, such as the rear bumper’s ability to extend for parking protection, as well as the adjustable rear spoiler that offered more downforce in high-MPH situations. The vehicle was not without its drawbacks: poor handling at speed, as well as miserable rear (and forward left and right, on account of the high fenders) visibility were factors that had to be addressed.
Nonetheless, reception of the Mako Shark II was overwhelmingly positive, and GM once again owed Mitchell a great deal of thanks for yet another slam dunk. The car was slated to enter production as soon as possible, which it did in becoming the C3 Stingray we know today. Interestingly enough, the design was slated to begin production in 1967 but, for better or worse, was pushed back to 1968 to accommodate for changes made to the front end, rear windshield, and other areas.
Downturn: The 1969 Manta Ray
By the late 1960s, Mitchell and his lust for sea creature-influenced designs was nearing its end. His last stab at the theme was the 1969 Manta Ray, which was more or less the Mako Shark II redone with a few alterations.
These included a front spoiler, a slit of a rear windshield, exposed headlights with three halogen-quartz bulbs, and flaps on the rear that engaged during quick stops, reflecting additional light backwards to warn others. The 427 was kept under the hood, so the Manta Ray still had all the get-up-and-go one would expect from such a car.
The Manta Ray did not cause much of an uproar after it was shown off. By this point, it seemed that folks had seen enough of the aquatic automobiles, and were eager to move on. The car made its mark, however, and to this day can be seen inside the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
1970 marked the end of an era for Mitchell and his radical ideas, as creeping legislation from the government and impending global events would force GM to shift its focus to a more economical lineup, which the man contributed to by helping to craft intermediate and full-sized cars in the late ’70s.
Mitchell turned 65 in 1977, and resigned from his post as chief stylist that same year. He would go on to run a private design consultation group, William L. Mitchell Design, until 1984. He passed away in 1988 from a heart attack, at the age of 76.
Yet his wild creations lived on, as the C2 and C3 carved their way into the hearts of Corvette enthusiasts both then and now. We owe a lot to him, Shinoda, Brock, Pohlmann, and others for the work they did. They were the giants whose shoulders men like the current chief engineer Tadge Juechter stand upon, able to push the envelope to the extreme…and then some.