Mazda MX-5 Mk1
It’s ironic that it took a Japanese built car, designed in California, developed in the UK and based on (amongst others) the Lotus Elan to bring the classic British sportscar back from the dead.
In the Seventies, a motoring journalist called Bob Hall met Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai who were head of R&D at Mazda and happened to mention that nobody made a car in the style of the classic British sportscar anymore. Fast forward a few years to when Bob Hall was working at Mazda US and again met Yamamoto who was now the chairman of Mazda Motors. Yamamoto had remembered their conversation from all those years ago and gave Hall the go ahead to do some more research into the idea.
Eventually after the idea had developed into a concept, Hall and his team were competing with the Mazda design team in Tokyo. The Japanese team favoured either a front wheel drive or mid engined car, while Halls design was to be the classic front engine-rear wheel drive layout so succesfully used in the classic British cars of the past. The “Duo 101″, so called because it could either be a soft or hard top car, eventually won the competition. The first prototypes were developed by British consultancy International Automotive Design. They were brought in to help develop the first running protypes and assist with task of emulating some of the essential “Britishness” of sportscars such as the Lotus Elan.
The Newly titled MX-5 in the UK the MX5 which stood for Mazda Experimental project 5, was introduced at the Chicago Motor Show and the rest is history. In the US the car was named Miata and in Japan, wasn’t even badged as Mazda but was known as the Eunos Roadster
The first generation (NA) MX5 featured a 1.6 litre dohc twin cam inline 4 cylinder engine that produced 115bhp. The chassis, a steel monocoque construction featured an aluminium bonnet to keep weight low. In total the car weighed in at just over a tonne. Sales took off.
In 1994, to try and get around high insurance costs, Mazda introduced two engine variants, the 1.6 was effectively de-tuned to produce about 90bhp (cutting insurance premiums) While a new 1.8 Litre (131 bhp) car added a bit more torque and power (and a rear bar across the seatbelt towers to stiffen the rear). Some enthusiasts (me included) prefer the revvier pre 94 1.6 engined car, though thats just a matter of taste.
Critics raved about the handling, here was a little a Japanese sportscar that took the basic ingredients of the British sportscar and elevated them to a whole new level.
22 years later, the Mk1 MX5 still sets the bar for how a car should handle. Steering is sharp, the balance (50/50 weight distribution) is neutral and easily controllable at the limit (which is easily reached), the engine is responsive, and while the standard car is not exactly going to set your hair on fire, the sheer joy of hustling it around opens your eyes to not only how good the car is, but also how some modern sportscars can feel so heavy and numb. After all this time, the MX5 still remains about the only true, affordable sportscar available.
Ever since it’s release, a whole industry of accesories and tuning firms have popped with upgraded parts for the little Mazda. With supercharger and Turbocharger kits readily available (including a Mazda approved BBR version which was a dealer installation) the MX5 can be bought relatively cheap and fairly easily and reliably upgraded to around the 170 – 190 bhp mark (the engine is based on the one used in the Turbo 323 so designed with forced induction in mind). An MX5 with mildly upgraded suspension and a turbocharger installed transforms the little roadster from an underpowered hoot to a fairly serious sportscar able to keep up with most of it’s more expensive modern counterparts. (I know, I’ve got one!)