Sharks with wheels

Apparently this is Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. (No, I’m not watching.)

Andy Bolig writes about different kinds of sharks:

It’s easy to look at something and say whether or not you like it and why, but to create something from nothing that will have lasting, world-wide appeal is a gift given to a rare few. When speaking about Corvettes, there are several names that constantly rise to the surface as undoubtedly having that gift.

In the late-50s and early 60s, designing a car was laid squarely on the shoulders of those who wielded a pen and paper. Their thoughts and souls flowed upon the canvas, and without any assistance from computers or electronics, they fostered designs that inspired generations. Gentlemen such as Bill Mitchell and Larry Shinoda came together to bear prototypes that would lead Corvette for generations and capture the hearts and minds of enthusiasts to this day.

Bill Mitchell took over the styling department when Harley Earl retired. At the time, styling made the rules, which put Bill high atop the food chain at GM.

Two cars that exemplify this are the “Mako Sharks”, a duo of forward-looking vehicles that used technologies of the day to inspire and captivate enthusiasts with their futuristic design and styling. The basis for these cars, of which they both were dutifully named, has its roots in Bill Mitchell’s love for deep sea fishing, and the shark that he reportedly caught while on one such endeavor.

Bill enjoyed deep-sea fishing and cars he designed had a definite connection to the sport.

In The Beginning

Larry Shinoda reported in an interview on more than one occasion how Mr. Mitchell caught a shark and was so enthralled in the color and shape of the animal that he used it as the design basis for the cars. He wanted to create a car that had the same appearance of speed and agility, as well as the ability. Of course, no other platform provided such a solid starting point as Corvette.

Larry Shinoda worked under Bill Mitchell and was responsible for many of the designs that rolled out of the styling department at GM. He recalls that when the paint team couldn’t match the colors of the shark that Mr. Mitchell had above his desk, they simply “borrowed” the shark and re-painted it to match the car!

In an interview with Wayne Ellwood, Corvette Designer Larry Shinoda once explained how the Mako Shark came about. The design work for the new-for-1963 Corvette was completed by 1962, and Chevrolet wanted something to help promote the new car. Larry was ordered to do some sketches that would build excitement for the new offering using cues from the new car, as well as taking some styling license with the design. After several designs, the final result was XP-755, the Mako Shark as we know it.

The first Mako Shark was as much a styling car as it was a driver. Reportedly, Bill Mitchell had as many as 50 cars specially built for his use during his tenure as design chief.

Even if anyone had seen the new 1963 Sting Ray Corvettes, they hadn’t seen anything like the Mako Shark! It’s pointy nose, flowing lines and a paint scheme that flowed from shark-skin blue to silver underneath were undeniable cues to the feared predator that shared its name.

Mako Shark II

Just three years later, Chevrolet churned out the next chapter in their Mako-based Corvettes. There is some confusion surrounding this car, partly due to its transformation as it would adjust to responses that it garnered while travelling the show circuit. In fact, there are three iterations of this stylized icon; the first being a non-powered styling exercise, then a drivable version carrying the same name. Lastly, the car was updated with a revised roof line that featured a mail-slot opening as a rear window and the movable rear louvers were removed. The car was also upgraded with the new ZL-1, all-aluminum 427 engine and was now known as the Manta Ray.

In its original configuration, the Mako Shark II was a “pusher”, wearing stylized side pipes and unable to move under its own power. It DID make for a great photo though!

The Mako Shark II was first introduced to the public in 1965, at the New York International Auto Show of that year. As such, it was unmistakably all Bill Mitchell. The “coke-bottle” shape was the brain-child of Mr. Mitchell and reportedly, vexed Corvette’s Chief Engineer, Zora Duntov greatly. That is, until Zora was testing the pre-production 1968 Stingray on GM’s high-speed test track and had a tire failure. Resting the car against the wall at speed until it stopped, the concrete barrier ground the wider wheel housings down until they were even with the narrow waistline of the rest of the car’s body. Reportedly, Zora exited the car and said, “Ah, bulges SAVE Zora!”

More than simply a styling car, the Mako Shark II encompassed features that wouldn’t be seen on production cars for decades, and some that have yet to be realized. The hidden wipers made it into production quickly on the ’68 Corvette, but items like the adjustable pedals are just making it onto production lines. Other items like the motorized rear louvers never really took hold, and the pop up taillights (in Manta Ray trim), and rear spoiler may have missed their moment, or we just haven’t realized how much we need them – yet. Time will tell.

In it’s first iteration, the Mako Shark II was not intended to be driven as much as it was a styling exercise to gauge public opinion on various ideas. In this form, the car can be seen with side-pipes akin to those used on several earlier styling cars, such as the World’s Fair ’64 Corvette. As Chevrolet designers gained insight into what the public wanted to see, the car changed to a rear-exiting exhaust, albeit in stylized form.

Other changes to the car throughout the year included a more standardized round steering wheel that replace the squared-off version it originally had, and the car, originally equipped with a Mark IV (396ci) engine later received the all-aluminum ZL-1. By the time the Mako Shark II made its appearance at the Paris Auto Show in October of ’65, it was a runner.

Even with the various changes, the Mako Shark cars have proven the lasting, timeless virtue of good design. We would have to look long and hard to find another example of styling cars of that era that have made such an impact or have withstood the test of time.

Most Corvette fans acknowledge that the C2, inspired by the Mako Shark, was a better car than the C1. Corvette fans have been split on the C3, inspired by Mako Shark II, given that it was bigger outside but smaller inside than the C2 it replaced, and had rather useless storage space. (Not that the C2’s was better, since it was not a hatchback either.)

I’ve never mentioned this before now, but I once owned a Mako Shark.

It went as fast as I could push it.

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