Mazda’s Miata @ 25: The long–and always winding–road

Mazda Miata at 25

This is now…Miata @ 25. (Miata Club edition shown)

As Mazda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Miata’s inaugural reveal (at the Chicago Auto Show in February, 1989) I’m reminded that – for me – the celebration for the then-new Miata went back much further. My affection was fostered in the mid-sixties by one Tom McCahill, testing for Mechanix Illustrated the then-new Lotus Elan. McCahill, at that point in time billed as the ‘dean’ of American car testers, must have been pushing 300 pounds, while the Elan – with Tom – would have weighed less than a ton. It was a mismatch made in Heaven, but Lotus’ Elan, with its tidy footprint, twin-cam engine, incredible grip and organic curves, was Heaven.

Tom McCahill Lotus Elan

Tom McCahill’s test of Lotus Elan

It was a quick trip from the Mechanix Illustrated subscription – and a swimsuit-clad MIMI presenting MI’s ‘Golden Hammer’ awards – to regularly devouring both Motor Trend and Road & Track. And while MT was decidedly Detroit-centric, Road & Track was just the opposite, with a strong, stated preference for German, British and Italian. Although Lotus – as a relative newbie – may not have been at the top of the British food chain, the tidiness of the Elan (and Lotus’ well-established motorsport DNA) went far in building a reputation well in excess of its physical footprint or annual sales.

The next connection was while a freshman in college, where Gilbert Cuellar, a friend of a friend, owned an Elan coupe – while in high school. Gilbert lived in Highland Park, a ‘burb-within-the-city which played host to Dallas’ movers and shakers. Regardless of the societal stratification evident in Highland Park, the democracy of the Lotus – with an exotic level of performance and rarity for (almost) chump change – was remarkable. It made the friend’s then-new Camaro (the redesigned, Euro-inspired ’71) seem like so much Buick when compared back-to-back with the diminutive Lotus. And the beauty of the ’90 Miata, some twenty years later, made everything from Detroit still seem like so much Buick…

Mazda histories have referenced the virtual dissection of Lotus’ Elan as the MX-5 Miata was being developed. Datsun had used the MGB as its role model some twenty years earlier, leading to the debut of its 1600/2000 roadster at the tail end of the Sixties. By the time Mazda began planning the MX-5 the British car industry – at least as enthusiasts knew it – was effectively dead. The good news: Product planners at Mazda tore apart an Elan (or two) rather than Triumph’s TR7!

Mazda SUPER20

Mazda celebrated 20 years with this SEMA special…

At its showroom debut in the spring of ’89, Mazda’s droptop was the perfect antidote – for some – to another four years of Republican administration. With nothing else on the market quite like it, and an affordable price point in the low-to-middle ‘teens, it was perfectly positioned for the dreaded Additional Dealer Markup (ADM). That initiative, taken by Mazda dealers across the country, created almost as much animus as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. And the subsequent wait for an incoming Miata took longer than Bush’s hammering of Hussein!

A comparison of the specs suggested that while, in profile and overall shape, the Miata was definitely inspired by the tiny Elan, the Miata’s footprint and heft were decidedly of the ‘90s and not (regrettably) of the ‘60s. Whereas the Elan sat on an 84-inch wheelbase, was 145-inches – just over 12 feet! – in length and weighed roughly 1500 pounds, the Miata sat on a wheelbase five inches longer, stretched 10 inches further and weighed exactly 600 pounds more – think two Tom McCahills. In short, it wasn’t as abbreviated as the Lotus, but did share the Elan’s 1.6 liter displacement, dual overhead cams and oh-so-slick manual transmission. And before the end of its 8-year production run over 200,000 had been sold in the U.S, a figure Lotus’ Colin Chapman could not have pictured while on LSD, or whatever else swingin’ London might have supplied at the time.

With the second generation introduced in the 1999 model year, there was an uptick in size, displacement and horsepower, followed by a downturn in sales. This is a better Miata, but changes to the front end styling and the addition of softer, more organic sheetmetal may have moved the Miata – already a questionable automotive pick among guys – onto firmer footing as a ‘chick’ car rather than chick magnet. Regardless of its orientation, the 2nd-gen was reliably quick, getting to 60 in under eight seconds. And a turbocharged Mazdaspeed iteration was even faster – a Turbo cab for roughly 1/3rd the price of a (Porsche) Turbo cab!