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September 2014

The Missing Corvette XP-700: Was it really swallowed up by the Shark?

By Wallace Wyss

Most car writers, writing about something from a half century ago, have to go on what historians said previously. So when Karl Ludvigsen, arguably one of the best auto historians, said in his new revised history Corvette: America's Star Spangled Sports Car that the GM show car, the Shark, was designed on a 1961 Corvette chassis, I went along with it.

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But then I remembered back when visiting GM sometime between 1962 and ’66, Bill Mitchell himself took me for a ride in the Shark and mentioned that they built it atop a former show car so they could re-use the handmade bubble top and windshield. "It would be a shame to waste that handbuilt brass frame" he had said.

I say that former show car the Shark was built on was the XP-700.

Now the XP-700 has an interesting history. When it was built for Bill Mitchell, it was Mitchell’s own custom toy, and Mitchell was not yet VP in charge of Styling. He was still working for the legendary Harley Earl. So that first car was purposefully built to separate him from the rest of the designers. And you have to admit in its first form, it was built only to please him and had a few “rough edges” you could say.

For one thing it was fire engine red, too loud a color for Earl. And it didn’t have enough chrome on it. As everybody knows, Earl was the Champion of Chrome, the King of Bling.

Now Earl evidently didn't mind that Mitchell used the car to give the public an advance peek at the upswept “duck’s tail” of the upcoming 1961 Corvette. But there was nothing Corvette-ish about the elliptical grille cavity, which was more or less stolen from that of a one-off Pininfarina-designed Ferrari.

The headlights were European probably from Lucas, the popular “flame throwers."

The wheels were wire wheels, real wire wheels but probably bolt-on with lug nuts with the knock offs only simulated. Daytona wire wheels was GM Styling’s favorite supplier.

When the XP-700 was “accepted” or “brought in house” by Earl, it was slicked up, refined, and a little more chrome added in front/ It was also reupholstered, a much fancier interior color matched to the exterior installed and generally brought up to GM show car level. Anybody who had seen the 1957 SS race car knew that Earl had very high standards of show car quality.

One thing added once it was an official GM show car was an under tray air scoop, which in a race car would have been used for the oil cooler. Earl was an airplane nut and scoops, air extractor vents. Even the tailfins of the Cadillac were said to have been brought to GM by his love affair with the P-38 fighter plane. When Mitchell had the show car as his own, there was no double bubble top. That was added once Earl approved of it as a show car. So that went on in October of 1959. It had an aluminized metallic coating inside to cut the strength of the sun and in the center was a tank periscope adapted to civilian use so to speak.

The color of the XP-700 chosen by Earl was a metallic gold that almost looks like gold and silver combined. The tail was also lengthened a bit under the Earl redesign. The car made its debut in April, 1960, at the 4th International Automobile Show in New York.

The design for the aerodynamic 1963 Sting Ray was already hardened when GM decided to do a show car to give the public an advance look. So in ’62 they unveiled the XP-755 Shark. Larry Shinoda’s name is all over the drawings. Basically it was a preview of the ’63 Corvette convertible shape with the XP-700 roof added.

The designing of the Shark went on in 1961. Mitchell really wanted that bubble top even though it was a pain to drive in the hot muggy Michigan summers.

The Shark existed for several years as the Shark, then got a redesign somewhere along the way. In the original version, it had louvers in the hood, theromostatically-controlled to flip open when it got too hot, like some prewar cars had. But later it got a big hump on the hood for a supercharger so the little doors were eliminated. When it was redesigned the double bubble roof disappeared.

It also got a completely different interior when it was decided to make it an open car only. The black crackle no-nonsense dash was gone and in its place was the present dashboard which has a cluster of gauges in the center, similar to those in the Facel II luxury car form France (and emulated more recently by one model of Bentley Continental). A dubious choice in the redesign is the choice of faux wood slathered over the dash, reminiscent of cheap fake wood linoleum found at Home Depot.

And when I had a ride in the bubble-topped Shark out at the GM Tech Center in Warren, MI, Mitchell proudly showed me the wood rimmed polished aluminum spoke Ferrari steering wheel (probably a Nardi wheel), given to him by Enzo Ferrari. Somehow management got that prancing horse artifact out of the Corvette show car later on. Mitchell was a gadget geak extraordinaire. He proudly showed me the pop-up brake flaps on the rear deck, the insides of which were mirrored panels which reflected brake lights facing straight up. You could say these were CHMSL brake lamps decades before they were mandated.

There was also some re-writing of history when the Shark was redesigned to open car only. Because the Mako Shark II had been introduced, some reporters asked “Well, is the Shark the Mako Shark I?” so it was so re-dubbed the Mako Shark I, to make history seem chronologically correct.

I maintain that the XP-700 was “swallowed up” by the Shark and became the Shark and that’s why you never see the two pictured side by side. I thought I saw a publicity picture of Mitchell on a banked surface of a racetrack standing between the two cars but I have never found that same picture again, so now am convinced I imagined it and that only one car was built, the Shark atop the XP-700 which Ludvigsen doesn’t mention in his discussion of the Shark’s genesis. You would have to show me a Special Order memo ordering the XP-700 to be destroyed in order to convince me they were two separate cars on two different chassis.

I kind of miss the fact the XP-700 wasn’t kept around, if only as a monument to ambition--how one designer spiffed up his image with his very own custom so that, when it came time to choose a successor, Earl had no one to choose from that exemplified his showmanship better than his own protégé, William L. Mitchell...


THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of Incredible Barn Finds, available from Enthusiast Books (Hudson, WI Phone : 715 381-9755)


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