In today’s era of consumer research and focus groups, it’s hard to imagine a time when a deep sea fishing trip would be the basis for an unforgettable concept car. Yet that’s exactly what happened when GM’s mercurial styling head Bill Mitchell returned from vacation in 1961 with a stuffed shark head after “catching a big one.”
The designers in Mitchell’s advanced studio, led by Larry Shinoda, were already hard at work on the revolutionary 1963 Corvette Stingray, but they wanted to make a concept car that would capture the public imagination and prepare people for their radical new design. Mitchell was captivated by his stuffed shark head—at its remarkable gradated coloration and aggressive gills and snout, so he instructed his designers to make a shark-inspired design and demanded that they paint the new car to match his prized shark. The resulting car, the XP-755 Mako Shark clearly resembles the production Corvette that was to come out the following year, but with gill-inspired external exhaust headers and vertical slit turn indicators on either side of a mouth-like front grill. The slippery double-bubble transparent top gives a submersible, futuristic feel to the whole design. And then there is the paint scheme, which gradates from a white underside to metallic silver-blue above the beltline: After many failed attempts to replicate the exact look of the animal’s iridescent skin, the exasperated project team allegedly conspired to steal the shark head from the boss’s office at night and re-paint it to match the car. Mitchell was apparently satisfied, though we will never know if he was wise to the trick.
Striking just the right tone to capitalize on the surfing and hot rod obsession that pervaded youth popular culture in the early 1960s, the Mako Shark concept car was a huge hit with the public, and successfully paved the way for the all new Corvette Stingray production car that followed closely behind it. Ultimately, the Mako Shark name would make a second appearance in 1965, with the Mako Shark II concept that again showed the direction for the complete redesign of the production ‘Vette in 1968. That car was to be Larry Shinoda’s final masterpiece at GM, before leaving for Ford where he designed the BOSS 302 Mustang and other classics.
Although there were many stages in the gestation of the immortal Corvette Stingray, starting as far back as 1957, the Mako Shark XP-755 was the most public of the concept cars leading to the final vehicle. Most of the rest never left the building at GM. And although it appears on the surface that the Mako Shark was the inspiration for the Stingray, the Stingray was in fact already mostly done by the time the Mako Shark made its splash.
Bradley Price is a New York-based designer, car nut, racing history buff. He founded the Autodromo brand in 2011, and divides his spare time between his stable of vintage Italian cars and running the car blog Automobiliac.