Roofless for the people

RetroSeries

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL

90 MAZDA MX-5

1989

Mazda’s iconic roadster brought driving joy to the masses yearning to breathe free

Everyone is supposed to own a sports car at least once in their lifetime.

For several million people around the world – more than a million of them as new-car buyers – that was made possible by Mazda’s brilliant MX-5.

The world into which the NA-series MX-5 arrived in 1989 had been largely starved of convertibles since the early-to-mid 1970s, when Britain’s MGB ceased production, while other manufacturers shied away from production in the face of proposed – but never enacted – new roof-crush safety standards in the US.

The MX-5’s simple and honest styling recalled a more romantic era of motoring; its modern mechanicals implied reliability. It was a roadster without oil leaks, soaked upholstery or roadside strandings; an economical, everyday sports car that was a hoot to drive.

US automotive journalist Bob Hall, who later became a long-time Wheels staffer, is often credited as the father of the MX-5. In 1979, Hall proposed and sketched a low-cost rear-drive roadster for Mazda president Kenichi Yamamoto; that led to his hiring by the brand’s California styling studio in 1981.

Initially working on pick-up trucks, Hall was soon personally tapped by Yamamoto to start work on the sports car concept.

Engineer Toshihiko Hirai was appointed program manager; his concept of jinba ittai – ‘rider and horse as one’ – became the MX-5’s mantra.

The final car wasn’t as simple as it looked. While the MX-5 invited comparison with the likes of the MGB and Lotus Elan, its handling and comfort stemmed from a rigid, unitary chassis designed with a supercomputer.

Similarly, while originally conceived with a sohc engine and a live rear axle, cost savings along the development path made way for more advanced components.

Computers also produced a cocktail of strangely familiar sports car emotions. The 1.6-litre dohc engine was ‘styled’ to suggest classic Alfa Romeo or Fiat twin-cam fours. Engineers analysed cassette tapes of several European and Japanese sports car exhausts in the tuning of the MX-5’s soundtrack.

None of this overshadowed the purity of the MX-5’s 50/50 weight distribution and a communicative chassis that was all the more enjoyable for not being overwhelmed with power.

Between April 1989 and October 1997, Mazda built a total of 431,544 NA-series MX-5s, selling 231,800 in North America (as the Miata), 118,300 in Japan (Eunos Roadster), 67,800 in Europe and around 6100 in Australia.

Fast & factual05

1

Raise a Guinness

In May 2000, with 531,890 NA and NB cars built, the MX-5 nabbed the MGB’s Guinness record as the world’s bestselling two-seater.

2

One in a million

The one-millionth MX-5, a fourthgeneration ND, was built in April 2016; its world tour took in Australia.

3

Who’s counting?

Prized limited-edition NA variants included the 1990 Neo Green (300 made), 1991 Malibu Gold (60) and 1993 Classic Red (100).

4

Car-tune character

MX-5’s big movie billing was in 2012’s future-shocker Looper, although there’s a strong family resemblance to Lightning McQueen, below, from 2006’s Cars.

5

The forgotten one

Two new Mazda-based convertibles were launched in Australia in 1989, but Ford’s front-drive 2+2 Capri proved rather less enduring.

In detail

Nothing ‘B’ about it

The MX-5’s all-alloy 1598cc four-cylinder was based on the 323’s transverse B-series donk, but with a modified block for rear-drive, a new dohc 16v cylinder head and a lightened crank and flywheel. Outputs of crank and flywheel. Outputs of 85kW at 6500rpm and 130Nm at 5500rpm went through a snickety-quick five-speed manual to push the roadster from 0-100km/h in 8.8 seconds.

Balance for beams

Designed from scratch as a convertible, the MX-5’monocoque was reinforced with an aluminium bridge running down its centre.

Double-wishbone suspension each corner was similarly brakes were discs all and, with its 980kg balanced 50:50 front to rear, the introduced sublime handling the masses. h ’s steel forced ridge tre. pension at larly exotic, around alanced e MX-5 andling to

Inside job

Black plastic and vinyl lined the MX-5’s cosy and cheerful interior, though at just under $30K the roadster was about $5K more than a fully specced 323 hatch. But beautiful details like Alfa Spider-inspired door handles, a gearshift that clinked against metal stops as in a Ferrari, and a manual roof that a stronger driver could operate s one-handed while seated, made this a joyful place.

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