Let’s not even try to argue it: the Mazda MX-5 Miata is the very heart of the cheap sports car market and it single-handedly resurrected the roadster from near-irrelevance. Its place in the hearts of the motoring community is well known and we’d be doing a disservice to convertibles if we didn’t feature it and its origin story in Convertible Week.
It has become almost a running joke in the auto community: “The answer is always Miata”. The ‘little roadster that could’ has been going on since 1989. And even now, nearly thirty years after its release, it hasn’t lost sight of its original purpose: simple, pure, open-top driving pleasure. The strange bit of all of this is that it’s surprising it even got built at all.
1980’s Japan was a Japan at its prime, everything they did was technologically advanced, successful, desirable and amazing. The Walkman was strapped to most every teenager that could afford one. The Nintendo entertainment system provided kids with entertainment in their homes. Everyone was sure that Japan was taking over the world and that nothing short of a complete economic collapse would stop it. This was also the case in the automotive world, where Japan was perfecting the most technologically advanced vehicles on the planet like the Honda Prelude with four-wheel steering, twin-turbocharged Nissan sports cars, not to mention the Toyota rally monsters and the Honda engines that seemed to be almost a requirement to win a Formula 1 championship. In the midst of all this it’s remarkable that such a simple idea was the one that stuck around the longest. Maybe it’s because it’s such a romantic concept. It would explain why the unreliable 2-seater roadster stuck around so long and it took the Golf GTI to kill it off.
Naturally, the process of actually conceiving the thing was as long and complex as the end result was supposed to be simple. In the image you see above, you can see a proposal for a mid-engine vehicle. Toyota was releasing something very similar to that in those days so that would’ve been a response instead of a new product.
The benchmarking must’ve also been quite something… Do the taillights of the car in the background look Triumph-y to you?
And what’s this? I think we’ve met before.
So, what did we get in 1989 when it was released? Perfection. Comparing it to the 1970s MGB, it had a shorter wheelbase and, because it wasn’t fitted with large rubber bumpers, it was shorter as well. It was wider and lower too and about 200 pounds lighter, which meant that its 115 HP was capable of getting it to 60 in under 10 seconds. That is more than can be said that for any MGB that isn’t fitted with a V8. The base model was really and truly basic, although with steel wheels, crank windows and no power steering it could be called the “Enthusiast’s Pack” Why would you even need air conditioning when you can just put the top down and have all the headroom and fresh air you want? You can drive faster if you want more wind anyway!
The public adored it, the reviewers did nothing but sing praises for it, and the consumers responded with their hearts and, more importantly, their wallets to the point that supply and markups became a problem in those early months. Not one to rest on its laurels, Mazda kept a steady stream of special editions and improvements, including a limited-slip differential and a more powerful 1.8-liter engine. It remained in production until 1997, with more than 215,000 sales on the U.S alone. It was not a volume seller but, for a small roadster, those were some fantastic sales numbers.
And of course, the other great thing that happens when the public loves your product is that you have a large amount of aftermarket support for it. Decide that being lovely to drive is very nice but what you really want is to go extremely fast on a straight line? There’s more than a few blog posts to do that, although you can do smaller things to make your Miata truly yours, like the extremely lovely gauges you see above, custom HVAC panels, custom everything. Your imagination and budget are truly the limit. Want to go racing? No problem, Miata Spec is right there too.
Another fantastic thing that it has created is an unbelievable following; you only need to look at the gathering that happened in Laguna Seca to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the MX-5, more than a thousand cars showed up to celebrate it. I can’t see through dimensions but I’d guess that it wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it had been mid-engined.
Through three generations they haven’t gone away from the fact that the Miata is as successful as it is because of how much of a winning formula it was when it was sketched in a blackboard a couple of decades ago. A reasonable amount of equipment, a small naturally-aspirated engine with a manual gearbox (because really, an automatic Miata? Not unless it has paddles), rear-wheel drive. Nothing more nothing less.
And now there’s a new one coming around, which promises to be the best version yet, but that’s a story for another day.