Mazda Miata @20
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 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!
The 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's 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 Jalopnik.com
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: