Mazda’s MX-5 Miata @ 25: That was then…and it is now

1995 Mazda Miata

Mazda’s 1st-gen MX-5 Miata was a Miata in its purest form…1995 shown.

As this is written, I’m beginning my third month of a scheduled 90-day ‘test’ in a new, zero-miles Miata. Although not the package commemorating the Miata’s 25th anniversary, the PRHT variant incorporates as many bells-and-whistles as a Miata can reasonably offer, while still remaining a Miata and not – thankfully – the Lexus SC 430. And while a loan of this type might skew objectivity, know that in my off-and-on, 25-year association with Mazda’s quintessential (quintessence: the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form) sports car, rarely have I been objective. The car obviously has its shortcomings, which are more pronounced as well-equipped editions head north of $30K, but its many positives completely overwhelm any and all perceived negatives. And objectivity is so overrated…

To obtain a proper perspective on Mazda’s Miata in 1989, you need to go back to, say, 1964. Despite the many associations made between the Miata’s debut and Brit roadsters of a generation earlier, the Miata had far less in common with the MGB and (Triumph) TR-4 than it did with Lotus’ nascent Elan, which was slowly – albeit ‘quickly’ – seeping into the sportscar consciousness. Unbelievably light and oh-so-contemporary, the Elan was for enthusiasts of Jag’s E-Type unable to cope with the  excessiveness of Jag’s E-Type. With its backbone frame (think F1 monocoque, but upside down), fully independent  suspension and oh-so-sweet twin-cam four, the Elan was everything a young Boomer might want; assuming, of course, the 18-20-year old was equipped with a generous allowance – or his own trust fund. Lotus’ Jim Clark drove one and Tom McCahill tested one; that was enough for me.

1959 MGA Twin Cam

MGA Twin Cam shares an underhood spec.

A generation later, as a smallish cadre of Mazda execs contemplated a revival of the classic 2-place roadster, the Elan was fully on their radar. With emissions, safety and volume concerns (Mazda, of course, was needing to sell more than a few hundred a year, and none would be sold – like the Elan – in kit form), the Miata would be longer and heavier than the tiny Lotus. Its shape, however, would bear a strong resemblance to the iconic roadster, the engine would be a classically sculpted twin-cam four (of almost identical capacity), and the sheetmetal would emulate as closely as possible the Elan’s organically-sculpted fiberglass.

By the end of the ’80s, having suffered eight years of Reagan’s trickle-down economics, the country was as ready for an automotive diversion, and Mazda’s Miata would supply it. Launched as a 1990 model, it was Katy-bar-the-door in Mazda showrooms, as public interest resulted in a seller’s market for the two-seater.

A friend, Winston Gordon, was managing Freeman Mazda in Dallas as the Miata was introduced. Winston wasn’t old enough to have been present at the birth of import sales, but in his sales role at Dallas’ Precision Motors he certainly had the chance to familiarize himself with virtually all of the contemporary offerings. As Winston relates, the Miatas “were an instant success. For a good while we were selling them at MSRP, plus charging $295 for ‘dealer prep and service’.” That $300 surcharge would be closer to $750 in today’s dollars, and while dealers still engage in outrageous markups for added services (check the typical pricing for filling your tires with nitrogen), they typically don’t do it on Mazda showrooms.

Lotus Elan S4 Coupe

Lotus Elan provided inspiration, spec.

Winston also noted the very real void within the convertible marketplace in late ’89 and early 1990. Triumph and MG had been out of the U.S. for some time, while Alfa – which continued to soldier on with its dated (if not outdated) Spider – had a dubious rep for both reliability and retail network. In short, there was a yawning chasm that Mazda execs and retailers were only too happy to drive through.

Writer Preston Lerner’s earliest recollection of the Miata has – as he puts it – “less to do with the car itself than the reaction to it. The car had just debuted, to strong sales and universal hosannas, and I was assigned to write a story about the buzz. I remember talking to a prominent automobile analyst (who) told me, with the unshakable conviction of the thoroughly misinformed, that the Miata was the beneficiary of pent-up demand for two-seat sports cars. But as soon as this demand dissipated, the big seller was going to be the Mercury Capri, which, he insisted, had everything the Miata offered – plus two more seats.

The Capri is long forgotten, of course, while the Miata is celebrating its 25th anniversary. What the analyst failed to realize is that the Miata wasn’t just a means of transportation. It was a state of mind. Driving it put a smile on your face. A handful of critics complained that it didn’t boast the heritage of the British sports cars it rendered instantly obsolete. And a few naysayers would later complain that it was a chick car. Bullshit. The Miata was a near-perfect amalgam of spunky good looks and satisfying performance. Top up or down, in traffic or on the open road, the car was fun, fun, fun.”

Today Preston races a Spec Miata, essentially a stock Miata with suspension tweaks and safety gear. Boasting 113 horsepower, Preston notes its steering is “magically direct, the gearbox is seamless and the brakes are superb. And even when the car isn’t going fast, you still FEEL like you’re moving quickly, which is just the opposite of modern cars.”