February 19 marked the 80th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which forced an estimated 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to be detained in camps in 10 states, mostly in the western United States. They were considered a threat to national securities.
President Ford eventually repealed the order in 1976, but the damage had been done.
I mention this because this year it also celebrates the 30th anniversary of one of the most iconic SUVs ever, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which looks remarkably like the design written by another icon, Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda, who never received full credit for his efforts . Larry, as friends called him, was one of America’s greatest car designers.
But let the pictures tell the story.
I met Shinoda several times in Tokyo in the early 1990s. He even wanted me to help him write his autobiography. Job title: “Perfect timing.”
Three things struck me from our meetings.
First, Shinoda was pretty blunt. He was not one to tailor the words, and it’s generally not a good trait if you want to take the corporate ladder, as Shinoda did during his distinguished career with all American automakers.
Second, he had some real complaints with the Detroit car dealership, mostly about how he was treated as an American of Japanese descent. There is no need to discuss them in detail, but they had the ring of truth for someone like me who grew up in the ’50s and’ 60s when memories of World War II, including Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the bloody battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were still fresh in some people’s memories.
What caught my attention the most is that he had spent two years, from shortly after his 12th birthday in May 1942 to the spring of 1944, at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
Let’s not tailor the words: Manzanar was a concentration camp designed to confine mostly American citizens, including children, behind barbed wire fences with bayonet guards.
There were a total of 10 camps. Although not the largest, Manzanar, located in California, is without a doubt the most famous.
Shinoda, his sister and mother (his father had passed away when he was three) had a week to prepare for their move and were told to take only what they needed. Shinoda stuffed everything he felt he could need into a duffel bag including, not surprisingly, notebooks and pencils to draw. They slept on army beds in a small wooden shed.
They were released in 1944 and spent the war in Grand Junction, CO, before returning to Los Angeles, where they had lived before being imprisoned. Shinoda completed her high school education and then went on to the Art Center College of Design, which at the time was located in Los Angeles. He never graduated.
According to one of the stories of his life, he got his start in the automotive industry by building hot rods and drag races through the streets of LA. He then went to Ford, worked briefly at Packard and then General Motors – all in the mid-1950s. He later returned to Ford and eventually established his own design company, Shinoda Design Associates.
It was against this background that when Shinoda showed me a scrapbook of artist renderings and photos of a clay model of a 4-door SUV that looks remarkably like the first generation Grand Cherokee, I became interested in his story.
That was 30 years ago. Shinoda died while waiting for a kidney transplant in 1997 at a relatively young age of 67.
But to complete the timeline, Shinoda participated in a design competition for the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the summer of 1985, which also included such well-known designers as Alain Client and Giorgetto Giugiaro. In November 1985, American Motors did not decide on any of the above. It was at this point, according to Shinoda, that the automaker’s in-house design team began “borrowing” from his creation.
The project, codenamed XJC, involved three different models: a 2-door and 4-door SUV and pickup.
Shinoda claimed that his 4-door design “ended up being the internal design of American Motors.” Chrysler acquired American Motors in 1987.
Again, let your eyes be the judge.
Before Shinoda died in 1997, Chrysler made a settlement of more than $ 200,000. At the time, he claimed that the carmaker owed him more than $ 170,000 for his work on the vehicle concept.
The Grand Cherokee went on sale in April 1992 as a ’93 model. It was a huge success at the North American International Auto Show in 1992 and won Motor Trends’ 1993 truck award. Since then, Jeep has sold more than 7 million copies.
Although Chrysler paid him before he died, Shinoda never really got the credit he deserved for the design of the Grand Cherokee or his role in ushering in the modern era of the SUV. It belongs on his CV, along with the ’63 Corvette Stingray and the ’69 Boss 302 Mustang.