Larry Shinoda: Designer of the Boss

Larry Shinoda: Designer of the Boss

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

The Boss 302 and Boss 429 are some of the most beloved Mustangs, which is saying something, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as cool without the influence of Larry Shinoda, the automotive designer who worked on them.

A bright yellow Boss 302 Mustang
Boss 302

What Could Have Been

When Shinoda first saw what would be the Boss 302, it was called the SR2, which is nowhere near as catchy. Ford had gone in the wrong direction in terms of appearance, and the SR2 was equipped with fake exhaust outlets, big rocker moldings, and entirely too much chrome. It was a car that Shinoda realized right away wouldn’t appeal to the younger demographic that the Mustang relied on to survive. Worse than that, Ford had totally neglected the Mustang’s performance.

Shinoda already had a vision in mind: A street machine that ran and performed like a race car. Something that would put the Z-28 Chevys in their place.

Shinoda had been previously employed by GM, so he knew exactly what the Mustang was up against, and he knew how to make a machine that would destroy the competition.

Shinoda's Early Life

A sketch on blue paper of the Mako IIShinoda’s Mako Design

Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda was born in Southern California in 1930 and seemed to love cars and art immediately. In 1942, Larry, his mom, his sister, his uncle, two aunts, and grandmother (his father had passed away when he was three) were sent to the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese-American citizens. He would spend the next two years there. Shinoda’s first recorded functional design was during this time when he designed and built furniture for his family using wood he salvaged from orange crates.

The people who were interned were only allowed to bring what they could carry.

“We had one week to get ready,” Shinoda recalled. “We could only take what we could carry. What would you take? We each crammed a duffel bag with necessities. I added a picture of our dog Spotty, a small toolbox I received for Christmas, and because I loved to draw cars and hot-rods, I brought my notebooks and pencils.”

After their release from internment in 1944, most of Shinoda’s family settled in Colorado, but he chose to return to California as quickly as possible, attending Pasadena City College. Then, he served in the military during the Korean war, after which he was admitted to the Art Centre School of Design in Los Angeles, where he was expelled, primarily because he preferred to just hand in assignments and skip classes, an attitude some of his professors were critical of. Though he is listed among the institute’s most prestigious alumni, there’s no record that Shinoda ever returned to graduate, or that he ever needed to.

All of this occurred before Shinoda was even in his mid-twenties, but Shinoda was driven by his love for fast, sleek cars. Shinoda said that his first truly successful car was a 1924 Ford Roadster which he used to win the first NHRA Nationals in 1955.

Drag Racer and Designer

Understanding Shinoda’s approach to his 1924 roadster is crucial to understanding his design and approach for future vehicles. The Roadster Shinoda owned had an engine that used cast iron valve seats threaded into aluminum heads. The problem with this was that the heavier metal seats would unscrew themselves.

Shinoda bought a new set of heads, and a friend made aluminum and bronze valve seats for the engine. By cutting the heads and using an oven to make a press fit, Shinoda was sure the pieces wouldn’t unscrew.

black and white photo of Shinoda leaning over designShinoda Working on the Boss 302

In order to get a Dyno for his engine, Shinoda made a deal with a friend who said that if Shinoda’s engine could put out more power than his Indy car, the dyno would be on the house. The Indy car put out 417hp. Shinoda’s put out 425.

When Shinoda sold the Roadster, he got in a small fight with the purchaser. So, Shinoda dismantled it and left it in pieces. The last he heard, Shinoda claimed it still was in pieces and was somewhere in Detroit.

Even from the start, Shinoda was a brilliant designer, capable of making strong decisions that showed performance benefits instantly. But he also knew his own worth and refused to back down. It was what made him a brilliant designer, and it was also why he worked, and left, so many positions. Shinoda is well-known as a design genius, but it’s his temper and confidence that led to some of the greatest car stories in history.

Return to Ford

Shinoda spent years gravitating from one auto designer to another, including Ford, Packard, and GM. His work was flawless. After only eighteen months, General Motors promoted Shinoda to the rank of Senior Designer. Shinoda got transferred to working on Corvettes after accidentally racing, and winning, against GMs Vice-President of Design.

Supposedly, one night Shinoda was driving home in his 1955 Thunderbird when Mitchell and he lined up at a red light. Mitchell took off as soon as the light changed, and Shinoda didn’t hesitate. Of course, Mitchell didn’t know that under the hood Shinoda’s T-bird was far from stock. He’d already outfitted it with a race-ready stock car engine. Unsurprisingly, Shinoda won the race, and drove off into the night, leaving Mitchell behind to wonder what exactly had happened.

Mitchell tracked the Thunderbird down and inquired about the owner. He asked Shinoda to show him his car, and it quickly became apparent why Mitchell lost. In addition to the engine upgrade, Shinoda also had a roll cage, two four-barrel carburetors, headers, and upgraded shocks. Shinoda was transferred to working on Corvettes after that, since Mitchell saw that Shinoda was a racecar guy through and through, fundamentally interested in making fast cars even faster.

Two Corvettes, both designed by ShinodaShinoda’s Corvette Designs

Many of the cars that we consider to be icons of the era were designed by Shinoda, including the Corvette Stingray, the Mako I and Mako II, Super Spyder, Astro I and II, and several other vehicles before finally returning to Ford in 1969.

It was just in time to prevent the disaster that could have occurred with the design of the Boss. Shinoda was who gave the Boss Mustang its lowered stance, its race-inspired aesthetic, and its improved aerodynamics. He wanted a car that young people would be excited to drive in. He ended up creating one of the most attractive and sought after Mustangs.

The prototype for the Boss 302 was one of Shinoda’s favorite cars, and he spent a lot of time looking for it to buy it back again. Eventually, it was found, in one of the greatest barn finds of all time. Thankfully, the family that owns the prototype restored it, and now show it at Mustang shows along with information on Larry Shinoda.

It was even Shinoda who named the Boss 302. When people asked what project Shinoda was working on, he would reply “the Boss’ car” and the name stuck.

The Boss he was referring to was Bunkie Knudsen, the person who had brought Shinoda from GM to Ford. When Ford and Knudsen had a falling out and Knudsen was fired, Shinoda’s loyalty kicked in and he followed Knudsen to White Motor Corporation.

Shinoda’s Legacy

Shinoda left a thumbprint on Mustang design, and it makes sense that Mustang fans have wanted to honor that.

In 1994, John Coletti, famous for his work on the Terminator Cobra a decade later, lent his hand to a concept car that involved powering a ’94 with a Boss 429 engine. Coletti asked Shinoda to design a stripe package for his concept car. It was so popular that for a while there was talk of this becoming an officially offered SVO package, but unfortunately, they couldn’t quite get enough traction for the idea and Ford never made a production Boss Shinoda Mustang.

A young Shinoda stands in front of Boss MustangsShinoda and the Boss

Shinoda Design Associates, Larry Shinoda’s automotive design company, offered Boss Shinoda Mustang packages. The Shinoda Boss Mustangs had several different levels, many of which included performance equipment upgrades in addition to the eye-catching stripes and Boss logo.

These equipment upgrades could include a supercharger, performance clutch, ported engine heads, a forged engine assembly, or a cold-air intake.

Shinoda left his fingerprints on nearly every major player in the automotive industry. He’s even credited with designing the Grand Cherokee (though he was forced to take Jeep to court to get them to admit it). Shinoda was inducted into the Mustang hall of fame in 1995, two years before he passed away due to heart complications related to kidney failure. In 1998, Shinoda was inducted into the Corvette hall of fame as well.

Since then, Shinoda’s daughter and her husband have been operating Team Shinoda, keeping Larry Shinoda’s performance auto shop alive and continuing to honor his contributions to automotive history.

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Source: Manzanar, U.S. National Park Service | Mustangs, Cougars Are The Boss for Reunion at Pittsburgh Track, Ford Performance | The Designer's Story: Larry Shinoda, Corvette Action Center | Japanese-American Hot-Rodders and Executive Order 9066, Autoweek | Image Credit: Hotrod, Super Chevy, Ford, Muscle Car

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.