The Iconic Mazda Miata Revived the Affordable Roadster
Photography by Rémi Dargegen
A quarter century ago, one might describe the everyman’s automotive landscape as a rather bleak place. While some of the wackiest and most delightfully nonsensical automobiles emerged during this era—poster children like the Testarossa, the LM002, and the Countach—these options were not exactly budget-friendly choices for your average Joe. For the most part, affordable family sedans were heavy, floaty, glorified piles of scrap, American Muscle offerings came standard with a flowing mullet hairstyle, and once-classic British sports car companies were washing ashore dead faster than an endangered species shellacked by a rogue Cigarette boat.
Thankfully, as the 1980s ended and the Berlin Wall crumbled, it seemed that the continent began to emerge from a decade-long, cocaine-fueled haze. Supercars once designed with the ergonomic efficiency of a Dr. Seuss cartoon became useable again, Seinfeld rolled up in his Porsche 911 right as Don Johnson sped off into the sunset on his prancing white stallion, and the sensible Japanese emerged from the shadows and took the auto industry by storm.
Honda took an early lead, capturing Car & Driver 10Best awards repeatedly in the 1980s with their family-focused cars. However, there was still a little something missing, a hole left in buyers’ hearts that they had just sort of forgotten was there. On February 9th, 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda filled that vacant space with a simple and diminutive roadster dubbed the MX-5 Miata.
Surprisingly, the idea for this sprightly little fun-machine emerged in 1976, over a decade before its introduction. Distraught over the withering of the classic British sports car, an American autojournalist by the name of Bob Hall (who definitely lacked Bob Ross’s artistic prowess) picked up a piece of chalk during a meeting with Mazda’s R&D department head and slathered together the rough shape of a rather generic roadster. While it didn’t resemble the Miata that we now know, this simple sketch lit the proverbial bulb in Mazda’s brain. It stewed for years before Mazda hired Bob Hall to their product planning and design team (writer’s note to Mazda: I can draw too!).
Hall was plunked onto projects totally unrelated to the Miata, which basically remained nothing more than a distant pipedream for the executives at the automaker throughout the early 1980s. Despite this, Hall was unfazed and remained stalwart in his belief that this was the car both Mazda and America needed, and moved forward to pioneer the development of the “light-weight sports” idea. In 1983, the nod was given to pursue Hall’s concept further, and a design battle between the mutually exclusive Japanese and American teams commenced.
This internal rivalry led to three concepts that would have taken the Miata in three very different directions. The Tokyo team produced two varying layouts, one with a front-engined front-drive layout, and another with a mid-engined rear-drive layout, like the Honda NSX. Hall’s American team, steadfastly inspired by the classic British sports car, produced a front-engined rear-drive concept, and as we can all likely infer, the rest was history. Final approval for the Miata (known internally as the P729 at the time) was handed down in early 1986.
After the concept made its debut, the production 1990 model year MX-5 Miata was first delivered to the US (followed by Japan and then Europe) to kick off the new decade in style. Providing the lithe 2,150 lb (about 980kg) roadster’s motivation was a 1.6L four-cylinder powerplant designed specifically for this application, mated to a slick-shifting five speed manual transmission.
While the impeccably balanced car would have to be decontented for buyers to pick one up at its very reasonable base price of $13,995, Mazda made sure not to cut corners when it came to the crucial bits that provided the car with its pure, lively performance. Disc brakes remained at the four corners, along with the electronically fuel injected dual-overhead-cam engine and an independent double wishbone suspension all around. While the base price was highly affordable, the insane demand for the MX-5 led to dealer markups on the universally loved roadster nationwide. Annual sales were regularly double that of Mazda’s initial goals.
Throughout its seven-year lifecycle, the first-generation ‘NA’ Miata received numerous tweaks and improvements continue the instantly iconic model’s evolution. Updated safety requirements along with added comfort features forced the weight of the MX-5 slightly upwards, but an additional 18 horsepower from a newly available 1.8L engine more than offset the added heft.
The first-generation MX-5 found itself a home in over 400,000 driveways before being redesigned for 1998. As with any car these days, the Miata has continued to evolve and advance over the years, with the fourth-generation debuting this past season for the 2016 model year. While it has put on a few pounds and lost its classic pop-up headlamps, the Miata has always managed to stay true to its roots, fending off challenger after challenger and maintaining its perennial title of the purest affordable sports car in the world.
Thank you to Philippe, a member of the French MX-5 Passion Club for allowing us to photograph his Mariner Blue MX-5.