The SHARKS and Bill Mitchell

The first sketches by Larry Shinoda of the new car, the XP-755, showed only minor alterations with the addition of the double-bubble canopy from the XP-700. This was dangerously close to the actual form of the XP-720. A radical new "cover" theme was needed, and this was supplied when Bill Mitchell hooked and landed a shark during a deep-sea fishing holiday off Bimini. The aggressive look and graded coloration of the mounted shark's head set the styling motif for the car that became the Corvette Shark.

From inspiration to realization took no more than a few months, the aim being to debut the Shark during a race weekend at Elkhart Lake in the summer of 1961. Painted in an iridescent blue that blended into a white underbody, like its namesake, the Shark caused a sensation when it toured the course at its Elkhart Lake debut and when it was displayed officially by Chevrolet for the first time at the New York Show in April, 1962.

Broad hints by Bill Mitchell and GM public relations men left no doubt in the minds of most magazine editors that the Shark foreshadowed in some way the shape of the 1963 Corvette, though the writers could not know that the Shark had been built after the shape had been finalized and was not a true predecessor of the coming Corvette.

Among the Corvette-related dream cars and experimental cars, the Mako Shark II was as significant in the history of the production model as the original racing Stingray. When it was designed and built it was no more than an idea, a concept, a product of the creative imagination embodied in plastic, plating and paint. It was one of a handful of different ideas for Corvettes of the future, ideas promoted by different and competitive factions within Chevrolet and Styling Staff. This one had a little something extra going for it: It was the personal project of William L. Mitchell.

Sensing the shifts in the shapes of sports cars, Bill Mitchell decided to extend exploratory probes in new directions. He did so literally the moment the 1963 Sting Ray was in production, for in that instant the earlier dreams, the Stingray racer and the varicolored Shark, became commonplace reality. It was time to forge a new dream of the Corvette of the future and, if possible, to create simultaneously a new and stimulating personal car for GM's top stylist.

There was also a plan to see it as a star attraction on the Chevrolet stand at the New York International Auto Show in April, 1965 - not too far in the future. The last traces of a late snow were still on the ground in March when the Mako Shark II was rolled out to the Styling viewing yard to be photographed by Chevrolet's Myron Scott before its New York appearance. Though it was founded on an actual Corvette chassis, it was at this stage a full-size exterior/interior mockup rather than a running car. It had originally been simply dubbed the Mako Shark, but at the last minute the decision was made to rename the original Shark the Mako Shark I and make the new design the second in the second in the series. It was not the last time the new car's name would be changed.

Painted with the gradations from dark to light used on the first experimental Shark, and rolling on Firestones 8.80 up front and 10.30 in the rear, the Mako II was indeed a powerful attraction on the Chevy stand in New York. When it returned to Michigan again it was changed in only one way: The paint was removed from the external "exhaust systems" and the aluminum surface was buffed all over. While this was being done, work was already well along on the completion of the running Mako Shark II - on which the external exhausts were not used.

Fully functional in every detail, the operational Mako Shark II was an utterly fantastic machine in the quality and extent of its advanced equipment. It was launched to newsmen in Michigan on October 5, 1965, before flying it off to Paris, where it would adorn the GM stand at the world-famous Automobile Salon, opening on October 7. Thereafter it became a temporary captive of GM's Overseas Operations Division, which displayed it throughout Europe. It returned in time for the New York Show April, 1966.

By the fall of 1967, the shape of the Mako Shark II began to be mirrored on the road by the new 1968 Corvette, and the Mako II no longer enjoyed its unique avant garde status. It was time, thought Mitchell, for some changes. In 1969 this aquatic creature had switched its species, making a return to the undersea family that had been so successful a decade earlier. Now it became the Manta Ray, through a transformation made mainly from the cockpit to the rear of this elaborate car. Only the tapered "boat tail" motif remained with the addition of a new and considerably longer rear end in place of the abrupt duck tail.

During the winter of 1969-70, the Manta Ray underwent subtle additional changes. These were the last changes to a dream car that had since become reality. Mako Shark/Manta Ray was built at a time, not so many years ago, when an exercise in pure automotive form could be undertaken at its own pace, for its own sake. It had been built in the tradition of the great GM dream cars, the Le Sabre, the Firebirds, the Motorama Corvette, as an automobile whose many advanced features were fully operational. It had not been cheap to do it this way. It had cost some two and a half million dollars to create the running Mako II, and probably close to three million as the car stands today.

Does this mean that the Mako Shark II is the last of the bigtime dream cars from GM? In a world as ephemeral as that of styling there are no absolutes: such a prediction would be rash indeed. But the controversial Mako II sets a standard that's hard to surpass. For the men and women who shape the Chevrolet sports cars that should be challenge enough.