This is a story the late, gifted designer Larry Shinoda wanted told.
It's a tale of alleged deceit, insult, intrigue and outright fraud. The object of his attack is the decade-dead American Motors Corp. (AMC), acquired by Chrysler Corp. in 1987.
Auto shows, especially the nation's top offerings such as Detroit's North American International Auto Show, are normally a time for celebration and enjoyment. For Mr. Shinoda, the 1992 Cobo Hall extravaganza was a total shock. For the first time, he spotted the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and saw it was a duplicate of his own design of 1985.
Mr. Shinoda was one of three designers under contract with AMC to create and build a clay model of the vehicle then known as XJC. The others were Adam Clenet of Santa Barbara, CA, and Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign in Turin, Italy. The winner would get the big payoff.
In an interview before he died last Nov. 14, Mr. Shinoda recalled that all three candidates were asked to design four versions: a 4-door, 2-door and two pickup trucks. He said he rented a studio and provided AMC with an access key. Two high-ranking AMC product-development executives "went into my studio in my absence," Mr. Shinoda declared. "I was asked to depart because they did not want any complications.
"I was called on a Friday night and told my design was 'terrible, brutal,'" Mr. Shinoda said. "I was ordered to stop all work and return AMC's wheels and tires, and dispose of the clay model."
Mr. Shinoda said he entered the studio the next day, Saturday, and found an AMC crew on the premises. "The walls were stripped of all my drawings, and they had all the wood templates used to build the clays, which were being digitized so they could make a copy," he complained.
"Two people AMC hired and who worked with me called and told me that the company was doing my model," Mr. Shinoda said. "I didn't want to make a fuss because under the terms of my contract, I couldn't say anything for five years, or until 1990.
"I still did not comment until 1992 when I saw the Grand Cherokee at the Auto Show. My contract called for $354,000 but all I got was $135,000. They still owed me $177,000."
Mr. Shinoda hired an attorney and sought more than that, asking for a share of the profits from the sale of more than a million of the hot Grand Cherokees.
In a "Dear Tom" 1992 letter to Thomas C. Gale, Chrysler's executive vice president for product design, Mr. Shinoda pointed out that AMC did not show his design properly on studio display boards because the primary 4-door model, the only one actually ever built, was not shown. He charged in the letter that a concept by AMC designers was just too close to his concept. He added: "I feel I was the victim of a very unscrupulous AMC Design and Product Planning Group."
This was the response by Chrysler attorneys to the letter to Mr. Gale:
"Chrysler has a strong desire to maintain cordial relationships with all of its suppliers, particularly with a styling consultant of your reputation. We, therefore, hope you will bear with us in our need to refuse you additional compensation in this case."
The negotiations continued for five years. Just before he died of heart failure last November, a settlement was reached for an undisclosed amount, presumably for more than $200,000. His claim went to his estate. A Chrysler executive not involved in the litigation said that he thought Chrysler only settled the case to avoid a nasty public confrontation.
Mr. Shinoda, a brilliant designer credited with a key role in the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the Ford Boss Mustang, had a star-crossed career from his pre-teen days until his death at age 67. When World War II broke out, a panicked America opened "internment" camps in California and 12-year-old Larry Shinoda, a second-generation Japanese-American, was locked up there for nearly two years.
In his design career, he was never totally content in any number of jobs. He was employed by the Ford Motor Co. in 1955 briefly after attending the Art Center College in Pasadena CA, wound up at General Motors in 1956 and stayed 12 years. Mr. Shinoda complained he was underpaid by GM.
Henry Ford II hired executive Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen as his president in 1968 in one of the biggest automotive stories of all time. Mr. Knudsen brought Mr. Shinoda to Ford. Mr. Knudsen was fired 19 months later and Mr. Shinoda was ousted the following day. He later mentioned that Toyota Motor Corp. wanted him for its California design studios about the same time that he opted to join his mentor at Ford.
Mr. Knudsen, in 1971, became chairman of Cleveland's White Motor Co. and Mr. Shinoda was his design vice president until the company's fortunes turned sour. Mr. Shinoda as recently as early 1997 claimed that White, taken over by Sweden's Volvo, owed him salary money.
Illness befell the designer 18 months ago when he went on kidney dialysis requiring treatment from a portable unit four times a day.
Was Larry Shinoda correct in his claims against AMC and hence Chrysler? Judge for yourself by the illustrations shown on the opposite page of the original production-version of the 1993 Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee, displayed in 1992, and the late designer's concept of 1985.