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Mazda MX5

Published: 7th May 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Mazda asked a motoring journalist what it should make and he suggested a cheeky affordable sports car. The result was the MX-5...

They say that along, with MPs and estate agents, journalists are the least trusted professionals around. Well thank goodness Mazda didn’t know about it because the Mazda MX-5 may never have been made!

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, when in February 1989 the car débuted at the Chicago Motor Show, the man behind it all was American Bob Hall, a known motor noter with a love for classics. Hall was well respected by Mazda and when the carmaker asked him, in 1979, what should it do next, they didn’t dismiss Hall’s idea of an affordable retro sports car albeit tailored for the modern world.

Via Mazda’s forward thinking Offline 55 project the MX-5 took shape in the early 1980s and by 1986 Mazda started to get serious about production. Labelled P729, the Mazda experimental (MX) car was the fifth in a series of ‘M’ concept cars, which gave the name MX-5, although in the States it was known as the Miata and in Japan, the Eunos Roadster.

By the time the MX-5 was launched in the UK, in 1990, the affordable sports car was just starting to enjoy a rebirth worldwide. With MG and Triumph long gone, Reliant producing the unbelievably ugly Scimitar two-seater and Fiat throwing in the towel with its brilliant mid-engined X1/9, it was down to the Japanese to show the way but not before doing what they were renowned for – copying!

COPY CATS

As we had seen several times decades earlier, the Japanese were fantastic at studying markets, soaking up knowledge and, in the end, making a better product than anybody else. It happened to electronics, cameras, British motorcycles and then our cars.

Granted, that nation’s original efforts were largely noteworthy rather than anything special, but by the 1980s the Japanese car industry had not only caught up but surpassed its more established rivals. The MX-5 was one more nail in the coffin of the UK car industry.

The Mazda sports car was no innovator and relied upon nothing more exotic than the running fear from its 323 saloon. And yet the MX-5 quickly gained the reputation of being the reborn Lotus Elan – at a time when Lotus was launching an all-new Elan; guess which was better received?

Whether or not Mazda really did buy an original Elan to craft the MX-5 on is still a point of argument – although it did have similar minimalist, clean looks boasting pop-up headlamps, while opening the bonnet revealed an engine which didn’t look unlike that of the famous Lotus-Ford Twin Cam… But best of all the new MX-5 was REAR WHEEL DRIVE.

CHARACTER CHANGING

Toyota beat Mazda to the showrooms with its mid-engined MR2, the modern successor to the Fiat in many ways, while the MX-5 kept the design as orthodox as possible. While they weren’t direct rivals, they appealed to the new generation of sports car fans who were a world away from their fathers in what they wanted from a fun sports car.

No longer, in the post Yuppie era, did they want to get their hands dirty fixing yet another breakdown. No more would they put up with a hood that was harder than a tent to erect and equally leaky. And they had no time for such drivel that rattles, squeaks and groans was all part of sports car life.

And that’s where the MX-5 got it so right. On the one hand it looked like a 1960’s classic and had the aura of a typical British sports car – albeit like the Elan rather than an MG. On the other, it offered something neither of those two car makers could ever provide with regularity – reliability. At a stroke, Mazda had made the 24/7 sports car.

The plaudits came thick and fast. The Mazda looked like an Elan, went pretty much like the Lotus yet could be used with nonchalance of a Volkswagen Golf.

Rightly so Mazda was congratulated on its efforts although some took a more cynical almost sour grapes angle. The Japs had done it again, this time taking all that British car fans hold dear and made a modern copy but better. One journalist we knew observed that if Mazda really wanted to make an authentic British retro sports car, then it should have fitted a button that, when pressed, dumped a pool of Castrol GTX on the drive. And Mazda should have ensured that the doors didn’t quite fit and the roof leaked. Now that’s authenticity!

GENDER BENDER

Everbody took to the cute, cultured and civilised MX-5 – even non car enthusiasts, which really went against the grain. They instead loved the Mazda as something sporty to be seen in rather than seeing it as a sports car; soon, almost half the buyers were women for those very reasons.

Perhaps this was the reason why Mazda’s marketing department went off their ’eads with special eds. There was something like 30 made, ranging from the 1995 ‘GlenEagles’ and ‘Merlot’ to the bonkers ‘Jasper Conran’!

Almost all were cosmetic, save for the BBR 150bhp turbocharged edition made by Brodie Brittain Racing; a Le Mans turbo spin off saw only 16 made.

GOING GREY

If the plethora of specials didn’t make an owner feel, well, special then there were the colourful ‘greys’. In simple terms a ‘grey import’ describes the model in its home market and Japanese MX-5s (called Eunos) came much better equipped which included leather trim, power steering and automatic transmission options.

The availability of cheap Japanese grey imports, all right-hand drive, brought thousands of Eunos Roadsters to the UK and for a time commanded higher price tags. Scare stories, hardly dismissed by Mazda, included thinner metal and glass used, their legality in the UK and difficulty of spare parts and servicing. Of course, this was mostly tosh and by and large, Grey MX-5s are just as well liked and desired as the UK versions and now costs are about on the same level.

LOTUS EATER?

Comparisons with the Emma Peel’s steed was inevitable if not entirely valid as soon as journalists saw this lazy neat angle to take. For sure, the Mazda looks similar and has the same handling traits (including a tail that likes to wag in the wet) but the MX-5 doesn’t match the Lotus for character and sense of heritage and occasion when you’re out on a special drive. Of course, you can argue that at least with an MX-5 you’ll make it home without drama or unwanted expense… Only the 1.8 models have the performance to compare with your average out of sorts Elan; the 1.6s feel merely brisk like an MGB – especially the 88bhp ‘entry version’ launched late in the life of the original ‘NA’ model.

The ‘NB’ which came along is regarded as the better car all round and faster too with 143bhp from the delightful 1.8 Sport.

But without the pop-up Elan-like headlamps some feel the car lost a degree of character in exchange for more creature comforts.

The NC arrived in 2005 and came with a much meaner look – ironically to make it more appealing to a dwindling male buying base! Now based on the RX-8 sports car platform, with 2-litre power, original models were criticised for lacking that certain something to drive which made the earlier MX-5s so right but corrected on later revamps, to be fair. Which brings us right up to date because, 25 years on, the MX-5 is still alive and well and – crucially – still rear-wheel drive.

The sports car that was aligned to the Elan is now being hailed as the ‘new MGB’, not least by major specialists such as David Manners who is making the aftermarket back-up to be on par with that MG.

A good many Midget and MGB owners have switched ‘sides’ because they like the Mazda’s old word charm together with its modern conveniences and safety kit. And yes, its turn key dependability.

MG was right to have gone down the mid-engined road with the MGF and Lotus deserved much better success with its front wheel-drive Elan SE M100 than it got…

But Mazda proved that when it comes to making a classic sports car that’s as appealing now as when it was launched 25 years ago then you’ve got to take the advice of a motoring journalist.

Well, some of the time…

When The Car Was The Star

There was a time when no popular US film or TV programme was complete without at least one cameo from an MX-5, from the silver coloured example in The Beverley Hillbillies movie, to the red models that keep popping up in Murder She Wrote, a show that will clearly be screened on afternoon television until the end of time. Personally we would prefer to recall the black example driven by Peter Serafinowicz (and owned in real life by none other than Simon Pegg) in the cult Channel 4 sit-com Spaced.



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