The Japanese offensive in the automotive industry had started already during the seventies and reached hurricane strength during the eighties. Everyone was afraid of the Japanese in a similar way that we are scared of the Chinese today, and with horror in their eyes western citizens started talking about supernatural robot quality. Survival strategy was set in and rumours started to circulate that Japanese cars were programmed to last for 60.000 miles and not an inch more. Of course, this was complete rubbish.
By the end of the eighties the infiltration had reached a step further. The Japanese manufacturers were no longer satisfied with conquering the compact car segments and instead started eying the luxury and sports car segments. And they did it with ferocity.
Two of the wonders came from Honda (with the razor-sharp supercar NSX) and Toyota with its magical Lexus LS400. The third came from Mazda that came to reinvent the classic sports car, a genre that the British first created about a century ago. We’re talking about the simple, open-top two-seater sports tool that ordinary folks could afford, and names like Triumph TR2, MG Midget, MGB and Alfa Spider spontaneously pop up in one’s head. In February of 1989 at the motor show in Chicago, the new Japanese wonder child was shown to the world.
Mazda’s sports car project began in 1976 as American automotive journalist Bob Hall met with a top Mazda Executive and presented the idea of a new sports car in the same league as the classic British sports cars, a segment that at the time had almost vanished. Mazda finally embraced the idea and quickly produced several concept designs, where a tiny, rear-wheel drive roadster was the winning bet. It had two seats, a modest front-mounted, four-cylinder engine and a design that was shamelessly inspired by the Lotus Elan of the 1960s.
The response in Chicago was enormous. The Miata had actually nothing that in itself was technically revolutionary, but the cute little car was somehow larger than the sum of its parts. A Miata wave with epicentre in the US started rolling all over the world and suddenly everyone wanted one. At launch, the retail price in the US was within the reach for everyone with a pay check, but despite the simple specifications and the tiny price tag there was definitely something special about the Miata, a notion that was proven by the fact that many of the picky automotive journalists around the world got their own Miata.
The Miata culture grew with clubs and accessory lists long as wedding dresses, and Miata drivers started waving to each-other when they met on the road. The feeling behind the wheel was fantastic and that is obvious as soon as you take a seat in one. You sit low, far back and overview a wonderfully simple and straightforward sports car interior with classical instruments and no luxury as far as you could see.
The most dazzling thing however, was that wrist-sized gear change that was perfectly placed for the driver’s hand to naturally land on, a tiny but vastly conscious detail that added heaps to the Miata character and that still lacks parallel among cars. According to the chief engineer of the project, the objective had been to get the gear lever to feel like a mixture of the springiness of an old BMW 733i and the metallic sense of a Jaguar E-Type 1967! And the gear change really does run with a metallic “click” that is as unique as it is pure medicine for your soul. It just can’t get better.
The mechanics were otherwise simple and straightforward but also outmost refined. A band new, light and stiff monocoque chassis with double wishbones all around was developed solely for the Miata. Thereby, the car didn’t have to share the underpinnings with a simple, front-wheel drive standard car like too many other sports car efforts in the past.
The front-mounted engine came from the shelf, however; a 1.6 litre four with double overhead camshafts that produced a rather mild output of 116 ps. As the car weighed in at around the ton it was fast enough, but the speed wasn’t really the thing with the Miata. It was the experience of speed, the balance and the deliciously direct feel of the driver controls.
The engine was a perfect fit for the car; it revved easily and was refined in the typical Japanese way. Above all it gave an irresistible snarl from the specially tuned exhaust pipe. I once read about Miata owners in the US that preferred to go into tunnels just to enhance that great soundtrack!
The chassis balance, finally, was as delicate as the rest of the car, with perfect weight distribution that resulted in a tremendous flow through the bends also on a race track. It was remarkably easy to steer with the throttle and the Miata consequently became very popular in amateur racing. Despite this, however, the car offered a quite comfortable ride suitable for everyday use.
One thinks that Miata as a mania should have died out but it was actually the other way around. It paved way to a roadster wave that still lives on, and what would BMW, Mercedes or Porsche be today without their open two-seater offerings, the Z4, SLK and Boxter? They actually exist thanks to Bob Hall’s 1976 visit to Mazda and the Miata is therefore perhaps the clearest shining star of the nineties.
Above: To the left the Miata in its second generation (1998-05). To the right the third and current generation (2006-) that has kept the soul of the Miata to the full, or has it?
In 1997, after eight remarkably successful years in production, the second generation took over. It was based on the old car but more grown up in terms of refinement. Make no mistake, the Miata values were still intact, the new car still being a tremendously fun, “direct” and affordable drive. In 2006 the third and current generation was revealed and it has kept the typical design philosophy and has thus continued to be the simple, light and affordable sports car like a Miata always must be.
It is now rumoured that Mazda has even higher ambitions for the next generation, that the next Miata will be even lighter than the current car and also more “back to basics” in its design. Moreover, the new car is presently being co-developed with Alfa Romeo that finally is about to reinvent its classical Spider. This fact is boding well for the future considering the greatness of the hyper-light 4C that has started to roll off the assembly line in Italy. Finer sports car times are thus awaiting!