The Rearview Mirror: The Mazda Miata Debut

In 1989, the world is taken by surprise at the Chicago Auto Show when Mazda unveils the Miata, a two-seat roadster powered by a 116-horsepower 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission.

The 1990 Mazda Miata supplied a British sports car experience underpinned by Japanese reliability. Photo: RM Sothebys

It captures the essence of classic British sports cars with one exception — it’s reliable. More than three decades later, it remains in production long after such competitors as the Alfa Romeo Spider and Mercury Capri have been consigned to history.

And its creation is almost legendary. Here’s how the car came to be.

Like all great cars, the Miata starts with a sketch.

It all starts with Bob Hall, a MotorTrend journalist who spoke fluent Japanese, having spent his teenage years in Japan. In 1979, during a visit to Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters, Hall spoke with Kenichi Yamamoto, head of Mazda’s Research and Development, about his dream car.

This dream car is a roadster that blends Japanese technology and reliability, in a form derived from British sports cars. Hall produced a sketch, and pitched using the Familia’s front-engine, rear-wheel drive platform, known in other markets as the GLC or 323.

It didn’t seem to have much of an impact, until Hall had Yamamoto try driving a Triumph Spitfire. He was smitten. The project was a go.

Under development

The 1990 Mazda Miata inspired competitors, none of whom survived.

Mazda’s two regional R&D centers were put to work creating the new lightweight sportscar. The front-wheel drive and mid-engine coupe concepts were tackled by Mazda’s Tokyo studio, while the rear-wheel drive convertible concept was handled by the R&D team in the United States. The full-scale models went through two rounds of judging in 1984 and ultimately led to the U.S design concept being selected.

But there was a problem. Mazda, being a small automaker, was tied up with so many projects, there wasn’t staff to develop a running prototype of the proposal. So the company turned to International Automotive Design (IAD), an engineering company based in England, to do so. 

Featuring a red body and black soft top, the prototype was finished in September 1985 and Toshihiko Hirai is appointed the Project Program Manager in February 1986. His mantra was never compromise, insisting the car be lightweight with a balanced weight distribution over the front and rear axles, have a low center of gravity, an engine placed as far back as possible, a double-wishbone suspension, and an easy-to-use soft top. These are all key elements of the car, and haven’t changed since its inception.

By 1987, the car is going through clinics to gauge reaction and set prices. A design freeze was issued in September 1987, and the car moved towards final production. It would debut at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989, changing the sports car market forever.

How they’ve managed to keep it going

2016 MX-5 Miata, had subtle styling changes, but continued to offer what buyers wanted.

While other automakers have had two-seat coupes come and go, Mazda has maintained the car’s profitability.

“If you develop a sports car knowing it won’t make much of a profit, it’s fine as long as times are good,” said Takao Kijima, the chief engineer behind the second and third generation MX-5 Miata.

“Economies get better and they get worse. And when it dips, the cars that are unprofitable are the first ones to get dropped. And that is the biggest betrayal to your sports car users. It’s the biggest betrayal that you can make. So once you start a sports car, you must never stop building it — even if it’s on a small volume. You have to protect the sports car users who bought your car. That’s the way we have done it for 20 years.”

Thank goodness the MX-5 Miata isn’t going away soon.

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