Feature: Mazdas little Miata finds its place in history  mazda car history and auto shows
1999 Mazda Miata. Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

A recent television program looked at “the ten best sports cars in history” and to the surprise of many viewers, the relatively humble Mazda Miata garnered second place – just behind the venerable Porsche 911 and edging out such luminaries as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, Ferrari Enzo and Mclaren F1.

The people who rated the vehicles showed an excellent appreciation of the fact that sports cars are all about fun and not necessarily related to pure performance or price. I have often said that on a deserted winding road on a nice sunny day, you can have just as much fun in a sub-$30,000 sports car as you can in a $250,000 Ferrari – and not even break the speed limit.

Mazda dealerships recently welcomed a third generation MX-5 Miata sports roadster and the occasion offers an opportunity to take a look at the history of this car. The Miata may be a small, minimally-powered, inexpensive sportster, but it nonetheless has its place in automotive history.

When first introduced back in 1989, the Miata drew rave reviews from automotive journalists and was often described as “a 60s British sports car that works properly and doesn’t leak.” That wasn’t a bad description of the newcomer and I often used it myself. The car looked the part, without being overstyled or dramatic, and offered a maximum amount of driving enjoyment for a surprisingly affordable price-tag.

Feature: Mazdas little Miata finds its place in history  mazda car history and auto shows
1990 Mazda Miata. Photo: Miata.net. Click image to enlarge

It went well enough, but was no barn-burner by any stretch of the imagination with its modest 4-cylinder powerplant. The fact was, that you could take the top off a Miata (manually, then as now), find a twisty road and get much the same driving experience you’d enjoy in something that cost four times as much.

It was a bold move by Mazda to come up with a car like this in the first place. The Hiroshima automaker – like many of its rivals in Japan – had no particular history of producing sports cars built, more or less, with a British heritage in mind. The car was often compared to the much-loved 1963 Lotus Elan, though even the most dedicated fans of the legendary British car would agree that Mazda brought us a benefit that no UK maker had really mastered at that time – reliability.

History records that the Miata was first conceived after a chat between Mazda managing director Kenichi Yamamoto and automotive journalist Bob Hall in the spring of 1979. American Hall was always a fan of the traditional British sports car – a love possibly prompted by the fact that his father lived in Britain during WW2 after volunteering for the Royal Air Force before the US joined the conflict. In fact, Hall Senior was one of very few American fighter pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain – in a Spitfire, no less. Hall was keen that the roadster should be a traditional rear-wheel drive, front-engined car with a simple convertible top – and his colleagues in Hiroshima agreed.

Feature: Mazdas little Miata finds its place in history  mazda car history and auto shows
1990 Mazda Miata. Photo: Miata.net. Click image to enlarge

Bob Hall left the media world to join Mazda’s product planning department and work on the Miata project. Many designs were penned until a working sketch was presented to head office and a functional prototype of the car completed in 1985. Interestingly, this prototype was built by a British company – International Automotive Designs.

As with all automotive concepts involving radical thinking, there were many fascinating sidelights to the development of the Miata. According to Mazda, one senior program manager played tapes of his favourite sports car exhaust notes over and over again until he found the one that would best suit the Miata – and then set about engineering it into the car.

The name “Miata” comes from an old German word meaning “reward.” The name is primarily a North American label. In some markets, the car is simply Mazda MX-5 and in Japan, it’s always been called the Eunos Roadster.

The car was shown to some members of the automotive press (who were sworn to secrecy) in 1988 and in 1989, the car was officially launched. It was a worldwide success right from the word go and the awards it’s garnered over the years would fill a book.

Feature: Mazdas little Miata finds its place in history  mazda car history and auto shows
1995 Mazda Miata. Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

Thankfully, Mazda never departed too drastically from the original concept – to its credit. Pleas from some elements of the automotive press for V6 power were politely ignored and those of us who basically said “don’t change a thing” were taken seriously.

Part of the car’s charm is its simplicity and the fact that it embodies the very best features of yesteryear’s roadsters but adds all the technological and safety benefits the auto industry has at its disposal these days. Of course, the price is twice what it was originally, but it remains a bargain. It has been consistently rated among the top-selling sports cars in North America more or less since the day it was launched.

Feature: Mazdas little Miata finds its place in history  mazda car history and auto shows
2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

Few products have come along to truly rival the Miata, but the new Pontiac Solstice embodies many of the same qualities.

Many members of the key team that developed the Miata went on to even greater glories with Mazda and other automakers. Bob Hall later left the company and returned to the automotive media – this time, in Australia. Right now, he’s back in the auto industry with Malaysian manufacturer Proton. Could we one day see a straightforward Miata-type “no frills” sports car emerging from Proton? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.