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Mazda Miata @20

Miata1989It was a simpler time. . . .a time of hope and faith in the future. . . blue jeans and white t-shirts were in. . .

A commercial for laundry detergent? A documentary on the 1950s? The last presidential campaign?

No, that was the iconic introductory commercial Mazda made for the Miata. Now well into its 20th year of production, one can reasonably argue that the Miata was something of a game-changer, one of those products that comes along and everybody smacks their head and says "Why didn't I think of that?" A small roadster in the British mold that actually, you know, worked? These days, if one wants a high performance 2-seat convertible there is nearly an embarrassment of riches available, from BMW to Saturn and everything in between. I think in the intervening years people have forgotten just how novel the Miata was and what kind of market it opened up. Unfortunately, the Miata has, in some quarters, gotten something of a bad image, entirely undeserved in my opinion. But its impact on the automotive landscape remains one of the great success stories of the 1980s. Suffice it to say that a time traveler from the early 1980s would be astonished at the plethora of high performance loads-o'-fun droptop roadsters available and how the rebirth of the British roadster owes its existence, arguably, to an at the time largely unknown Japanese manufacturer

The two-seat roadster was not exactly absent from American roadways prior to 1989. True British roadsters could be had, such as the Triumph TR6 (my personal favorite) or Stag, Fiat's X1/9 and Spider, the nearly ubiquitous MGs, the old standby Porsche 911, and that true American roadster, the Corvette. Nonetheless, these generally had three things in common: they were expensive, not terribly practical, and their reliability could only be found in the dictionary. To love these cars was to put up with them. But hey, if you were okay with occasionally being stranded by the side of the road because of electrical OldMGB system gremlins, they were a kick to drive, not to mention putting a bit of the flair of the European romantic into one's demeanor. And, man, there's little to compare with flying down backroads with the top down under a sky so blue it almost hurts to look at it. 

So up until 1989, owning one of these was not for the faint of heart (or wallet) and were mostly restricted to those old enough to afford their upkeep and with enough garage space available for a second car. 

And then ... a roadster? From Mazda? From Japan??? Ah, now here was something new: a practical 2-seat convertible! Adults could fit comfortably in it! The ragtop didn't leak! You turned the key and it was a surprise if it didn't start!

The Miata started life as a concept born in Mazda's California design center by North Americans Bob Hall (formerly of Motor Trend magazine) and Mark Jordan. It was largely a ground-up design with few components shared with other Mazda models. The target design specifications were clear and simple: make it as compact and light as possible with room for two adults to sit comfortably, make it handle as tightly as possible, and have a responsive and reasonably stout powerplant. I guess the whole "reliable and functional" thing was just assumed. Several options were tried out, including a mid-engine design, but a fairly straightforward front-engine rear-drive design won out, and thus the Miata MX-5 was born.

The first models shared its DOHC 1.6-liter fuel-injected engine with the Mazda 323, minus the turbocharger and with a 5-speed gearbox standard (though one could, were one to have a somewhat heretical bent, order it with an automatic transmission). Double-wishbone independent suspension all around and four disc brakes on a 2,100-pound frame made it handle like a honeybee, and the ride was firm enough to know where the road was without being bone-shakingly rigid. Mazda sold more than 45,000 the first year and almost 100,000 the second and sales have stayed pretty much in the 30,000-50,000 ballpark since. And it didn't leak oil!

GayMiata01The styling was simple which some find attractive, others less so. I always thought it looked like a jellybean, though I can appreciate the origin and intent of the sparseness. It is distinctly unthreatening in its demeanor. This, probably more than anything, has given rise to the idea that it is a particularly effeminate car. I've heard that the softer curves of the Miata were specifically  designed that way to appeal to women, but can't verify that.

Does it matter? Not to Miata enthusiasts, who will generally just roll their eyes as they smoke your big bruiser muscle car through the nearest set of S-curves.

Frankly, I never cared for Miatas myself, though I never felt the disdain that some direct toward it. As a matter of fact, I briefly considered considering one when my old Mustang was getting a bit long in the tooth. The styling never appealed to me and I would only have a two-seater as a second car anyway. But I have always appreciated what a bombshell it was when it was first introduced and the rash of just plain fun cars that descended from it.

The look or formula hasn't really changed all that much in the ensuing years, a testament to the timelessness of the basic design. Nowadays we take it for granted that we could, if we wanted to, go out and buy a reliable, good-handling, fun-to-drive two-seat convertible that won't be in the shop as much as it'sMiata2008 on the road. And for that we have Mazda to thank for the Miata. It may not have the visual flair of a Stag, but you can tear up twisty mountain roads to your heart's content and not have to worry about being stranded up there, all for a reasonable price in both dollars and headaches. Happy 20th, Miata! 

The first photo is a Japanese version sold there as the Eunos Roadster. The second (MGB) is from

Here is the original commercial for the Miata, referenced above. To me, this ranks up there as one of the classic commercials ever devised, perfectly capturing the essential idea behind the product and placing it squarely within its target American market:

--Anthony Cagle

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First generation was a little like a jelly-bean.

The second iteration was perfection - as long as you kept off the goofy aerodynamic skirts & whatnot.

This current generation is pretty clearly an indication thet this car entering the end times. It is not endearing. It is not attractive. It is nowhere nearly as visually ballanced as the original and secend iteration car. Put simply - it is ugly - sort of a characture of itself.

It looks too much like the Honda roadster. . . the Honda roadster that will cease production soon.


I can't believe that we are not getting this, since we made the Miata the success it is:

BTW, Paul C. Perkins, I agree with you 100%:

My dad has a Miata, which is hilarious for two reasons. One, he's 6'4". Two, he weighs over 300 pounds.

Go on. Let that visual sink in for a bit.

That said, he loves the thing. After he let me drive it around, I can understand why. Miatas are actually really fun to drive! Granted, they're not particularly practical, and it's true that they look about as threatening as a Golden Retriever puppy, but I think there's something to be said for having a car that lets its actions speak louder than its style.

Even so, though, where does the RX-7 fit in this? The original RX-7 was about the same size as the Miata, wasn't it? I mean, granted, that rotary engine was only slightly more reliable than your standard-issue Leyland powerplant, but it's not like Mazda pulled the Miata out of thin air. If anything, the only surprise about the Miata was that it was a performance Mazda that DIDN'T have a rotary in it.

I will own a Miata one day - a first generation one - the others interest me less. Close to perfect roadster - I'd love to find one in British Racing Green with manual steering.

I've owned a couple first generation Rx-7s - wonderful cars. The steering box is a bit a let down - would be nicer with a good rack and pinion set up. The engines are quite reliable if not over revved (they have a buzzer when red line hit) and oil kept topped up and clean. The turbo cars had a lot more issues.

I bought a Miata a year ago. It was so much fun that when I moved to the snow belt and decided I needed a winter car...I bought another one. With a hardtop. And a supercharger.

The Miata is many things, and that's what's so great about it. It's a convertible cruiser and a corner-carver that lends itself to modifications that can turn it into a serious track car. It's an economical commuter and a weekend toy. It's therapy on four wheels after a stressful day at work and a great road-trip car for two. It's impossible to drive one without smiling.

The only thing I can't figure out is the plural of Miata. Is it Miatas? Miati? Miatae?

Not practical? Depends on whether you ever expect to require a back seat. If not, I can't think of anything I'd rather have in city traffic.

The Miata came out my senior year of high school. That year, the guys in my youth group took a trip to Kansas City, where we stayed with an old high-school friend of our youth director. This gentlemen happened to be the general manager of a Mazda dealership in KC and was routinely driving a brand-new Miata home. So we got to try it out. He talked about how much time Mazda spent in design, even to the point of putting a prototype frame on a balance and moved correctly weighted components around to achieve as close to perfect balance as could be found. He claimed that this is why the battery on those models ended up in the trunk; putting it in front threw off the balance of the car too much. I don't know if this is true but I do remember him discussing it with us.

Serious auto enthusiasts know the Miata is not a girls car. I respect the guys that drive them. They obviously care more about having a great car than about what other people think.

I'm getting one some day. No way I'm not.

I understand that the gen-1 Miata was benchmarked to the Lotus Elan. I love the idea of a Lotus that doesn't confer a private annuity on your mechanic.

I have had two Miata's over the last 20 years.

My first was a 1989 that I took from Santa Monica to Baltimore to Toronto to Seattle and then donated to a charity auction. The second, a 1994, I've had since 2004.

I'm 6'3", 200 lbs but have always been more comfortable in the 1st gen than the 2nd gen of the car. I've driven a lot of different two seaters over the years but none ever come close to what I can do in a Miata.

My dad, who used to race MG's in Malasia, took one look at my first one and said, "It runs. Must not have anything from Lucas Electrics in it." I always took that as the greatest compliment he could offer a roadster.

For fun have a look at and watch the clip of the Miata with the LS7 in it. *shudders*

Back when they were first introduced, Esquire magazine noted that this was the only car that you wanted to pat on the butt. Still true today.

Here are a few pictures of a V8 miata conversion we did last year.

The body is very strong and stiff and is great with the V8 Power plant. Aside from rear-wheel traction on take-off the 300hp 5.0 Mustang V8 power plant really doesn't upset the balance of the car very much at all. Took it over to the Dragon in NC last summer and it handled like it was on rails.

These are amazing little cars.

I always loved the old British roadsters and was excited when I read about the upcoming Miata in High School. I was a little disappointed with the styling, though. If it had a Triumph Spitfire body style then I would have owned one a long time ago. I bought and rebuilt a Spitfire about 9 years ago. Sure enough, Lucas left me beside the interstate with a dead car. I finally sold it to someone who knew what he was doing when it came to cars.

I was working in Pittsburgh at the time, living in Mt Lebanon. Every day on the way to and from work, I'd take a bus past the car dealerships along West Liberty Ave.

When the Miata came out, the demand was so high that the Mazda dealership was charging something like a 100% markup, *and people were paying it!* The dealership couldn't keep them on the lot.

I had a dream of buying one, but refused to pay the premium. Now I'm too old to care. Pity, that.

I've owned a Triumph TR-4 IRS, Triumph Stag, MGB, '67 Corvette 427 coupe, 2005 Corvette C6, and each of the three generation Miatas. All were fun. Of all, only the Miatas were virtually maintenance free. My best friend has purchased the '05 'vett, and I get to use it whenever I ask. (He gets the maintenance, and I get the acceleration when I have the need for speed.)

For the rest of the time, I have my reliable, fun Miata. Go ahead and laugh, but it'll take GM a ton of years (if they last) to even approach the reliability of the Mazda.

JimmyNashville: That V-8 swap looks like a glorious bit of mad science. I'd imagine it accelerates like a greased supercollider.

"If it had a Triumph Spitfire body style then I would have owned one a long time ago."

I wonder how it would affect the car if you had a bolt-on (more or less) Spitfire/TR6/Stag/etc. body to slap on a Miata.

The very idea is almost getting me aroused. . . . . .

I bought a red 90 Miata in April 1990, drove it for 15 years and 235,000 miles. I loved it and I miss it. Now I have a Solstice. The Miata was a more practical if less luxurious vehicle. I like my Solstice, but my heart belongs to my Miata.

You betcha' Cookie... 0-60 in < 5 secs. and high 12's in the quarter. ;)

zoom zoom zoom...

I have a friend with a Miata that he insists on taking when we go to gun shows rather than my Tribute. We both collect Mosin Nagant M91s which are 53" long. Those won't fit in the trunk.

Other than that it is a fun car to ride in.

My '93 Miata has ove 260K miles on it. Replaced the timing belt last at 200K, put a new clutch in it at 220K. One soft-top replacement some 5 or 6 years back and I took the time to put shock tower braces in about that time. Other than that, oil, tires, and brake pads. The little 1.6 still sings and she flies through the windy bits as she should. I'll let you know how she handles the next 240K miles.


My 1990 Miata (acquired in 2007) has 158,000 miles on it and still going strong. Probably the best $4000 I ever spent:

Added the racing stripes, and had the rocker panel "Miata" stripes made custom.

I remember talking to a car dealership owner about these in 1990 right when they came out. He said people were spending $2000+ above sticker (which IIRC was about $12k at the time) to get their hands on one of these, and he'd never seen anything like it.

Always wanted one, to go with my Dad's original 1973 Triumph spitfire, and now, 18 years later, I got it.

Ron. . .tell your friend to get a Mosin M44!

I drive a cardinal red 1990 Miata. Man that thing is as fun to drive as everybody says.

The car is a hoot to drive, and great if you do much driving in the city and one way streets. Fast and manueverable to zip through that city traffic. Zoom-zoom is right.

Right now the car is 19 years old and I have kept her in excellent condition. Everything works, and the paint looks good. I always keep a coat of wax on her and get all the maintenance done. She has 112,000 miles and still drives like new.

In six more years the car will be 25 years old and I am betting these cars will be regarded as a good collectable.

Miata forever!

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