A sports car, with nothing complicated, is enough for the huge majority of sports car drivers and owners – we want a car that is above all, enjoyable to drive. Enjoyable is not the same as “quick” or “faster” – enjoyment comes as much from balanced and responsive handling, good roadholding and enough power to enjoy it as from 0-60 and standing quarter times. And a folding hood of course!
As a basic concept, “nothing complicated” would sum up most popular sports cars of the last 70 years, from the MG TC through the MGB, TR7, Fiat Spider to the latest MX-5. If they did go complicated – examples such as the Lancia Beta Monte Carlo and MG F come to mind – record suggests it went wrong too, even if the going wrong part of the story was not directly attributable to the mid engined configurations. But it can come right.
The MG TC was certainly nothing complicated – the T series succeeded the Midget PB in 1936 and dropped an OHC engine for an OHV and the T series (culminating in the TF) used semi-elliptic springs, running boards and exposed headlamps until 1955. So, nothing complicated there. The TC is used a marker as this was the first version exported to North America, after the WWII, in right hand drive. The usual story is that the GIs stationed in Britain drove them; what is not recorded is how they got the petrol allowance to do so…
From 1955, the T series (CC here) was superseded by the significantly more contemporary MGA (CC here), though still with a body on frame construction. The styling was modern, low and attractive and the suspension a step forward too – independent with coil springs and wishbones at the front though still a live rear axle with semi-elliptic springs. Steering was by rack and pinion. So far, so good then. But then MG added a twin cam version, in 1958, which came with a range of reliability issues centred on the engine and sales of just 2000 in 2 years, compared with over 30,000 single cam cars. So, great looking, but complicated and unreliable, or uncomplicated and not very exciting really, given it had the engine from a Morris Oxford saloon and a suspension to match: your choice in 1958-62.
MG followed this with the MGB in 1962 – I guess I don’t need to say much about this car in this forum except to say that the differences between a 1962 car and a 1970s car or even a 1980 car were minimal, and centred mainly on the large black bumpers fitted in 1974, at which time the ride height was also raised to enable the headlamp position to meet regulations. Linked with the deletion of the anti-roll bars (sway bars), the handling was distinctly worse than before, also. Production stopped in 1980, with no replacement. Nothing complicated in 1962, inarguably not complicated enough by 1974, and no longer done properly.
The Triumph TR7 – need I say anything more – an inherently simple concept but challenging styling, no convertible initially, appalling build quality, inadequate performance…
By 1982, the mass production British sports car was dead – a victim of international economics and its own conservatism and inadequacy. Fiat was still producing, with Bertone, the mid-engined X1/9 but sales were now very slow and the market appeal fading.
But, just as the British cars were dying, the Japanese were starting, initially with the Toyota MR2 of 1984, although this was not offered as convertible until 1986. Even then, it was a T-bar roof with removable panels – not the full wind in the hair British roadster event MG and Triumph had made their own. In effect, it was an update of the Fiat X1/9 concept, not of the MGB. This is a clear distinction in many eyes – not least as it seems complicated – but also because the MR2 was bigger, heavier and slower than the MX-5.
Meanwhile, partly stimulated by ex-Motor Trend editor Bob Hall, who joined the company in 1982, Mazda also looked at the space vacated by the British and evolved ideas to create a compact sports car, much more directly in the MG roadster mould. This was the origin of the MX-5 (also known as the Miata or Eunos Roadster, depending on the market) – it was conceptually very close to the MGB and TR7 convertible and picked up some styling cues from the 1960s Lotus Elan. Key technical features included all round independent suspension, twin cam four cylinder engine, 5 speed gearbox and a rigid structural connection, known as the power plant frame, between the engine and gearbox at the front and the differential at the rear, sharpening the throttle response and adding structural rigidity also.
When you take a look at what Bob Hall and Mazda ended up with, on the market in 1989 in Japan and the US and 1990 in Europe, and measure it up against an MGB, the similarities are so strong they cannot be ignored – the first MX-5 (the NA series of 1989) is just 2 inch shorter in wheelbase, 6 inches wider in track and width, giving more cockpit space, 2 inches longer, 1 inch lower, just 100lb (less than 5%) heavier, even with the extra width, the 1990’s body construction and interior, a 5 speed gearbox, a waterproof hood and fairly weighty pop up light mechanism.
May be it’s those pop-up lights; may be it’s the fact that here’s a sports car that is not threatening or aggressive in style and nature; may be it’s the tight and compact nature of the whole car; whichever it is, driving an MX-5 NA will often result in a friendly welcome and driver-to-driver camaraderie.
But, there’s more than just the camaraderie to driving the MX-5 – there’s the driving itself. The car has independent rear suspension, using wishbones, 4 wheel disc brakes, almost perfectly balanced weight distribution (the engine is mounted well back in the bay under an aluminium bonnet and the battery is in the boot) and cockpit that puts the driver in just the right place. Whilst I have no qualifications in roadtesting, words like response, balance, agility, sensation, immediacy and contact all make perfect sense, and will be heard from almost anyone who has driven or ridden in an MX-5. It has a very simple but effective and well thought out interior and dashboard, providing all you need with no unnecessary distractions. You can add addictive charm and sheer outright, straight forward entertainment as well. And reliable, which also distances it from the MGB or TR7, and the Fiat X1/9.
Arguably, there was little that was innovative about the MX-5 as a concept in 1989, or much that was complicated – twin cam engines, fuel injection, 5 speed gearbox and multi link suspension were all common solutions at the time. But, compared with many preceding sports cars, it was done properly – the car has a great, smooth, eager to rev engine (at 4500 rpm, it just wants to keep going faster) that starts on the button, not something from a plodding saloon with an extra carburettor, it grips well and handles superbly, it will cruise when you’ve finished and want to go home, the seats require no compromise between reaching the controls and backache, the small switch-like gear lever can be moved with literally just a flick of wrist, the hood can be raised or lowered by one person at the lights (try that in a TR7!), it is reliable, the enthusiastic amateur can do much of any maintenance, and it gets the looks you want. It isn’t the fastest car ever – the early models had a 1.6 litre engine with 115bhp and 100 lbft, but weighed only 2100lb – and the handling more than compensates – and even now it is more than able to keep its place in traffic, and then some. Like I said:, nothing complicated but executed properly.
There are few cars of this generation that have the character and ability to not only endure, but also to offer the classic car buzz that brought you to this site; the fact that is still seen as a daily driver year round is testament to that. It also has a strong appeal to the track day enthusiasts, given its front engine and rear drive configuration and the ease with which the many available modifications can be added.
But, really there are still fewer better ways to check out England’s country lanes on a summer’s evening, and if you’ll excuse me, that’s just what I’m going to do!