The 1960s British Sports Car From Japan - The Mazda MX-5
Words: Scott Blackburn
Composed to: Dio - Holy Diver
The 1960s was something of a heyday for British cars. Manufacturers such as Lotus and Sunbeam started to build the perfect machines to take advantage of our tiny, winding country roads. They were small, basic and mid-engined, which was the perfect tool for the job ... when they weren't broken.
Britain's efforts during World War Two had consumed most of the country's quality metals and just anything electrical at that point seemed to be this country's Achilles' heel, given how often Lotuses broke down it's a wonder we were trusted to build anything. When drivers could get the things running however, those '60s roadsters were the perfect cars for zipping about twisting roads, where cornering and comfort are more important that flat speed.
Cut to the '70s and economic crisis and the fall of the British automotive industry saw the end of this slightly broken but often romanticised era of roadsters. This is where we introduce an American, by the name of Bob Hall. Bob was a contributor to Motor Trend and specialised in Japanese cars.
In 1976, Hall was invited into a meeting with the heads of the R&D department at Mazda, at which Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai asked Bob what kind of cars he'd like to see Mazda building in the future. His response was to flood them with romanticised visions of the heyday of British sports cars, which coincidentally had done very well for themselves in the U.S., particularly California.
Jumping ahead again (you'll realise that time travel is something we specialise in here at Ferrous if you check out our 88mph section) to 1981, and Hall found himself appointed to oversee project planning at Mazda U.S.A. By this point Yamamoto had moved up in the world too, and was now in the position to grant approval to new projects.
This was the perfect opportunity to pick up their conversation from the '70s about lightweight British sports cars. With Yamamoto's approval, Hall began the development of a Mazda roadster. In order to make his vision a reality, Bob brought on board General Motors heavyweight, Mark Jordan.
Within less than a year, Mazda bigwigs had approved the project for further development and the Offline 55 project was born. Offline 55 wasn't the name of the prototype however, it was the name of the new design strategy that Mazda wanted to implement. They pitted their American team, i.e Bob and co., against a team from Japan in some kind of nerdy showdown.
Heavily influenced by the Lotus Elan, both teams put together designs. Bob's team created what they called the Duo 101, available in both a hard and soft top. The Japanese team went the extra mile and designed two cars, one front-wheel-drive, front-engined model and one rear-wheel-drive, mid-engined model, as a pose to Bob's front-engined, rear-wheel-drive.
In 1984 the two teams arrived in Tokyo to pitch their designs. Still unsure which design to opt for, the tippy tops at Mazda asked both teams to produce clay models. Bob's team's craft skills were obviously more advanced and his team came out on top. With the design approved, work to produce it finally began, following a key guiding principle which still governs MX-5 design to this day: "Jinba ittai."
Roughly translated this phrase means "rider and horse as one body," and is derived from the ancient Japanese martial art of horseback archery. Translated into car terms this principal means that the car should be kept as compact, lightweight and comfortable as possible and should be mid-engined with a 50:50 weight distribution.
Having stuck to this mantra like Mötley Crüe to cocaine, the MX-5 was unveiled at the 1989 Chicago autoshow. With an affordable price point and simplistic maintenance, the little Japanse/British/American roadster was an instant hit. It handled like a dream and gave people just the nostalgia hit they needed.
Shortly afterwards, in 1991, a new performance division of Mazda was founded, M2, or Mazda 2. M2 created specialised performance versions of Mazda's mass-production models, including the MX-5. The performance wing engineered three variants of the MX-5 ... for the Japanese market. The rest of the world wouldn't be so lucky yet.
After almost 10 years of success the MX-5 was due an update. This came in 1997, when the NB (the first gen. being the NA) was previewed at the Tokyo motor show. This 2nd gen. got a more powerful motor and a redesigned body, making it more aerodynamic. Sadly, the pop-up headlamps were lost in the process, thanks to concerns for pedestrians. What this model did get though was VVTI, or Variable Valve Timing, what Honda calls 'V-TEC'.
By this time M2 had become Mazda Speed and in 2004 they sent forth a turbo'd MX-5 which churned out nearly 180 hp and came with a front-mounted intercooler. Thankfully for those with smaller wallets, because the MX-5 was so easy to work on you could also simply build your own Mazda Speed MX-5.
Come the turn of the millennium, other manufacturers were lining up their competition to the MX-5. The likes of the BMW Z3, the Nissan 350Z, the Audi TT and Toyota MR2 Spyder all hit the same design brief. In response, Mazda launched the 3rd gen. MX-5, the NC. This model came with slightly more exaggerated design features, more tech and was a little beefier.
The third gen. saw its fair share of facelifts and special editions but by this point people had almost begun to forget about the MX-5, it was so reliably good that people were no longer surprised. Mazda decided this had to change and dug out the design plans from the NA.
What they created in the 4th gen. MX-5 is almost an NA with better looks and more on-board tech. Released in 2016, the current model is 4 inches shorter and 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor, this is still heavier than the NA but then again it has modern infotainment systems and the like.
The ND comes with both 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual options and a new adorably angry face, like a terrier that'll have your finger if you get too close. True to its original design brief, the MX-5 is still some of the best fun you can have for your money, with old models kept to a low price by the unfortunate but slightly understandable hairdresser association.