Mazda MX-5 NA Miata 1994 

Lately, we have often been reminiscing about the golden era of British car garage building. Back then, the grass was definitely greener, the air was cleaner, there were no reasons for Brexit yet and big businesses hadn’t killed off small private individuals. But what does Japan have to do with this?
Today, the hero of our article is the modest Miata, or as we know it better, the MX-5. Why? Because it was able to do what the Brits couldn’t – make a sports car affordable and reliable.

The English, of course, didn’t invent the sports car – they only attempted to create it “on the go” in every shed. In doing so, they developed the perfect concept: a fast car = a lightweight car, even if it had a less powerful engine. The Italians embraced the same concept when designing small convertibles. In other words, the focus should be on the car’s weight, not its impressive engine, as they loved (and still love) to do on the other side of the ocean. And it must be admitted, the Brits achieved great success in this, which will forever remain in the pages of history. Excellent coupes, convertibles and roadsters that didn’t have a back row of seats, but instead had a spirit of victory and a touch of Sir Stirling Moss. But one thing they couldn’t do: make a reliable and mass-produced car. Perhaps this was somehow related.

However, by the 1970s, the story was over: some burned out, some were bought out, others simply lost interest. Of the 2-seat convertibles with sporting inclinations, only Lotus and Alfa Romeo Spider remained, but the former was not cheap, and the latter, as they say, wasn’t particularly reliable. In 1976, an American journalist from Motor Trend named Bob Hall had an audience with Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai, the heads of research and development at Mazda. The Japanese asked the expert for his opinion on what Mazda should focus on in the future. The journalist lamented, saying that the market no longer had hardcore convertibles, so why not turn your attention there? “Indeed,” thought Yamamoto and he asked the same question to the same Bob five years later, when the former journalist became an employee of Mazda’s planning department.

In 1982, a decision was made to work on the initiative to create a roadster. Two teams were formed: one in America and one in Japan. The Americans believed that the car should be of the classic FR layout: front engine, rear-wheel drive. The Japanese insisted on either FF – front engine, front-wheel drive, or MR – mid-engine, rear-wheel drive. The American concept prevailed and preparations for the new model’s market entry began. The designers were inspired not by something random, but by the Lotus Elan – somewhat of a benchmark for handling. In order to form the concept of the future car, a design creed called Jinba Ittai was created. In summary, it contained the following postulates: the car should be as lightweight and compact as possible, while still providing a sufficient level of safety; the cabin should comfortably accommodate two people, with the driver’s seating position being more sport-oriented; despite the front-mounted engine, it should be pushed as far back within the car’s wheelbase as possible; all wheels should be mounted on either double wishbone suspension or, at the rear, a multi-link setup.

In 1989, at the Chicago Auto Show, the car was presented to a wide audience and immediately attracted heightened interest. A significant role in this was played by the price – $14,000, which was not a high amount for a niche car with almost no competitors. However, in order to reduce costs and weight, there was no place for a stereo system, air conditioner, alloy wheels (they used stamped steel for cost reasons), or even power steering and power windows. In fairness, the Ferrari F40 had a similar anti-options package. Later, the possibility of adding desired elements as options would be introduced.
The base engine was a 1.6L DOHC producing 115 horsepower, which efficiently accelerated the car to 100 km/h in 8.3 seconds, considering the car’s weight of 980 kg. Of course, it wasn’t at sports car level, but emotions mattered most, right? And the mechanical gearbox from the 929\Luce model, which underwent extensive work to ensure precise gear shifting and lever movement, enhanced the driving experience. The exhaust system also added to the driving pleasure, making the MX-5 an excellent driver-oriented car!

The obvious weak point of the novelty was the potential lack of torsional rigidity in the body. Convertibles, almost universally, suffer from this and Mazda fell into the same trap on the first attempt. In 1994, the body was additionally reinforced to meet new side impact requirements and additional braces were added between the front and rear of the car to better connect the front and rear subframes. Similar types of bracing later became popular as tuning parts on the aftermarket under the general term “PowerPlant Frame.” However, the main innovation was the introduction of the BP-ZE engine, a 1.8L inline-four with 129 horsepower on board. The car gained 10 kilograms with this engine, but its overall power and performance only improved.

The exterior of the car turned out to be truly adorable and the “pop-up” headlight design gave us wonderful jokes about “Sanya.” The mechanism, however, turned out to be not as reliable as an AK-47, so if you quickly press the headlight raise-lower button, you can see the Miata’s headlights go out of sync and start winking. I can’t say that this is off-putting and few would argue with me on that. There is no aggression in its appearance, but it doesn’t need it. Instead, it offers compactness and a decent aerodynamic coefficient of 0.38. And let’s not forget about the door handles, copied from Lotus.

Inside the car, you have everything you could want from a cheap sports car: a manual gearbox (although it could also have been an automatic if you wished) with a shifter close to the steering wheel, the steering wheel itself, instruments that show the car’s condition and a seat. That’s it. Do you need anything else to enjoy it? Not in this little one.
In 1997, it was time for a generational change and to tally the results: in 8 years of production, 400,000 cars were sold. This is truly a worthy achievement, it is global recognition of the car. And we are very happy for it.

So why did a Japanese sports car, made following British traditions, become so popular, while the British themselves capitulated? The most obvious answer is the skillful work of marketers and… it didn’t break. Mazda’s manufacturing capabilities took the best from semi-cottage production and elevated it to perfection. And most importantly, the MX-5 is alive and well to this day, but that’s a completely different story.

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