It seems as if today people throw around superlatives as if they’re vegetables in the great, consumerist game of hot potato. The five most inspiring buildings of 2014. The best movie trailers of the year. The top tablet for type A personalities. We see what they’re doing though. All these “best-of’s” and “worst-of’s” are just holdovers until next year’s milestone. None of the accolades really mean anything, do they? There’s no sense of scale to them, no sense of longevity or worth. Anyway, this is a 1992 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It’s the best sports car of all time.
So, what’s a Mazda Miata then? Well, ask some groups and they’ll call it a girl’s car. Others will try to convince you that the best Miata is one that’s been stripped of all creature comforts, had its suspension lowered to the point at which dead bugs on the road act as speed bumps, and has been covered in chrome Pep-Boys paraphernalia till passersby need protective eyewear to look at it. Some particularly attention-seeking groups will even call it overrated. These people- all of them- are incorrect.
The MX-5 is the product of a little plan formed by a man named Bob Hall, a Japanese-speaking American auto journalist. In 1976, Hall was hired at Mazda after pitching a “simple, bugs-in-the-teeth, wind-in-the-hair, classically-British sports car.” At this point in history, due to emissions regulations, lack of funding, and a whole host of other problems, classic British sports cars like the Triumph TR6 and the Austin Healey 3000 were dying off quickly. I don’t mean to sound morose, but you know me and British sports cars. It was a dark time in the automotive industry. But there was hope: pop-up headlights at the end of the tunnel, if you will. Seven years after Hall pitched the idea, Mazda’s in-house tuning division, hilariously called “Offline Go-Go” (no, I don’t know why), held a competition among its design studios to see who could come up with the best design layout to fit the new car. Hiroshima gave us a front engined, front wheel drive Buick Reatta lookalike (left), Tokyo gave us a mid-engined rear-driver in the vein of the Pontiac Fiero (center), and California put out the design that eventually ended up winning: a front engined, rear-wheel drive, two-seat convertible (right).
During the technical development of the Miata, Mazda bought an MGB and a Lotus Elan (two Elans, actually, as the first one kept breaking down). Mazda liked the driving dynamics of these old school, British sports cars (not to mention the Elan’s ever-cool pop-up headlights), and took to emulating them with their latest project, codenamed the P279. This meant the car ended up being very light, the driver sat low to the ground, and the overall experience was one of joy, of union with the road. As a matter of fact, the design credo for the Miata’s development was a Japanese saying, Jinba ittai, which roughly translates to “rider and horse in one body.”
At the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, the Miata was finally ready to reveal, and boy did the car impress the public and the press alike, arguably upstaging the Acura NSX that also made its debut there. The car was powered by a 115 horsepower, 1.6 liter dual-overhead cam inline-four, which would be replaced by a slightly more powerful 1.8 in a few years. A delightful five speed manual was offered (they did an automatic too, but no one really wanted one), as was a limited slip differential. The limited slip diff was a party piece for the Miata, adding another level of driving dynamism to the little scamp. It was a gem of a car to drive, attacking backroads with the same enthusiasm and ferocity with which puppies attack mailmen. What’s more, it was cheap: starting at only $13,800 in 1989, or about $25,000 in today’s money.
This meant that all of this driving pleasure could be had by the common man. Performance was no longer held captive by the Porsche and Ferrari overlords. Now you too can drive like a Stirling Moss, or Steve McQueen! And it worked- Mazda’s sold nearly a million of these things since it went on sale. This is a first generation, called the NA, which is my personal favorite. But the second and third generations (the NB and NC respectively) are great cars in their own right and have a devoted following.
This is a brilliant car, and I mean properly brilliant. The Miata took what made the sports cars of the 60s and 70s- that invigorating, caution-to-the-wind feeling in an affordable packages- and wrapped it up in a car that had a roof that didn’t leak and wouldn’t break down on the side of the road every other Sunday. In essence, it took the philosophy of the British sports car and built a good car around it, which is something the Brits could never really manage to do. It wasn’t too powerful, and it was light, which meant that it was good to drive. It didn’t have angles or strakes to make it look aggressive. It just looked like, well, a Miata. I love this car. I really do. It might be, and this is a heady claim I know, my favorite car. How’s that for a superlative?
- Because it was initially designed for the American market, Mazda shipped a prototype Miata to the United States before it went on sale and, to put it lightly, people went Patrick Bateman-level insane for the car. There is a story of Mazda engineers loosing the keys to the prototype car amidst a mob of excited onlookers, all anxious to see what kind of car they were showing off.
- The name “Miata” was a bit of a last minute idea, tracing it’s origin back to the old German word for “reward.”
- Apparently an electric version of the Miata floated around for a little while. Here’s a short article for some more information.
- 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the Miata! To celebrate, Mazda created this video and, in September, unveiled the new Miata, the ND, to the public.