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MX-5 Origins: Why Mazda Created the World’s Best-Selling Sports Car.  

18 October 2023

Small, lightweight and affordable two-seater sports cars have traditionally hailed from Europe, especially Italy and the UK. MG, Triumph, Alfa Romeo, Fiat and others sold huge numbers of fun roadsters into a booming US market during the 1950s and 1960s, but these established players failed to invest in new models because of fears that safety legislation would outlaw the small roadster in its most profitable market. In a twist that no one foresaw, it was left to Mazda, one of the then-growing Japanese motor industry’s smaller companies, to pick up the baton and launch the MX-5 in 1989. Now in its fourth generation, it’s been a cornerstone of Mazda’s range ever since and well over a million have been sold, making it the world’s best-selling roadster by a healthy margin. 

Although the MX-5 was known as the Miata in the USA and Eunos in the Asia-Pacific market, the most common name was MX-5 which stems from a series of show cars built during the 80s that had got to MX-4. So, MX-5 was the logical choice and it also showed that it was below the RX-7 in Mazda’s hierarchy. The MX stands for Mazda Experimental, which, just like the layout and styling, is inspired by another British tradition; XJ initially stood for Experimental Jaguar.

Although the MX-5 was known as the Miata in the USA and Eunos in the Asia-Pacific market, the most common name was MX-5 which stems from a series of show cars built during the 80s that had got to MX-4. So, MX-5 was the logical choice and it also showed that it was below the RX-7 in Mazda’s hierarchy. The MX stands for Mazda Experimental, which, just like the layout and styling, is inspired by another British tradition; XJ initially stood for Experimental Jaguar.

The MX-5 reinvented the market for small affordable sports cars globally. If the MX-5 hadn’t been such a runaway success, it’s quite likely there would have been no MGF, no Fiat Barchetta, no BMW Z3, no Mercedes SLK, and perhaps even no Porsche Boxster. Car enthusiasts thus owe Mazda a debt for continuing a tradition that goes back to the 1920s and, in doing so, showing other car makers that there was still money to be made in this market sector. 

Before the MX-5, most manufacturers believed impending safety legislation would soon kill off open-top cars and the birth of the hot hatch seemed to confirm that assertion. Why buy a cramped, leaky, insecure 2-seater sports car when something like a VW Golf GTI (or, if you were hardcore, a Fiat Strada Abarth) was faster point-to-point yet could also carry shopping or that enormous hat box that, for reasons no one understands, is essential for a weekend away at a wedding. Hot hatches were the shiny new thing and convertible MGs or Triumphs were no longer cool or aspirational or indeed – being made at all!

The affordable sports car was, it seemed, a moribund area of car-making, something that, in the future, would be left to small-volume specialist companies such as Morgan or Caterham. 

The Toyota S2000 was more junior supercar than a budget sportscar, with a high-revving engine designed by Yamaha and a starring role in a Bond film, but it showed that the Japanese industry was starting to think about aspirational fun cars as well as basic transport.

 

An evocative period brochure image of the Nissan Fairlady SP311. Despite the car’s elegance and Hollywood icon Paul Newman starting his racing career in a modified example, the Fairlady (which was named after the film) failed to topple MG’s market dominance.

As the Japanese motor industry matured in the 1960s, Nissan’s SP310/SP311 Fairlady, Honda’s S800 and the incredible jewel-like Toyota S2000 showed that sports cars were on their radar, but from an industrial perspective, affordable sports cars can only exist if the manufacturer can re-package components used in more profitable higher-volume saloons. For instance, the MGB shared many of its components with other BMC cars just as the earlier MGs had been, effectively, lightweight, tuned Morris saloon cars. This means that sports cars are often produced by companies that have matured into making a competitive and profitable full range of saloon cars and who then turn their mind towards using those components to make an image-boosting sports car. BMW’s Z3 is a good example of this phenomenon, it was launched in 1995, well over 30 years after the Quandt family had rescued BMW and set them on their road to profitability by launching the New Class in 1962. Yet today it seems impossible that BMW, the self-proclaimed ‘ultimate driving machine’, didn’t make a high-volume sports car until then, despite their heritage with the pre-war 328 and the small volume Z1. 

The Datsun 240Z owed more to the Jaguar E-type and Healey 3000 than it did the MGB.

It’s no surprise then that Nissan (then marketed as Datsun), who in the 1960s was one of the larger and more rapidly expanding Japanese car makers, was the first Japanese manufacturer to really crack the American market with a volume sports car, launching the hugely successful 240Z in 1969. It was, however, only available as a coupe and its 6-cylinder 2.4-litre engine took it into a price bracket that was more Healey 3000 than MG Midget. The only homegrown American sports car option, the Corvette, had a strong following and, when considered on cubic inches and power alone, represented a lot of bang for your buck. It was, however, a bigger and heavier machine, not the lightweight MGB/Elan-style machine that Mazda envisaged. So how did Mazda, a company with a tradition for making slightly unusual vehicles such as the rotary-powered Cosmo and RX7 but at that time no substantial history in small open-top sports car production, end up producing what is now easily the best-selling sports car in history?  

Mazda Cosmo

 

The answer is simple, someone who had the ear of Mazda loved small British sports cars, and that man was journalist Bob Hall. Known as the father of MX-5, Hall is an American whose USAF pilot father had acquired a taste for English sports cars when based in the UK during the war flying B25s. He’d had MGs, a Lotus and a Healey 3000 at various times, so Bob had grown up loving his dad’s cars. Bob became a journalist, specialising in the Japanese market, and eventually ended up working for Mazda’s design HQ in California in 1981. During a visit in 1979, he championed the idea of a ‘new MG’ as he called it to Mazda’s then-US MD, Kenichi Yamamoto, and even sketched on a blackboard. 

Bob Hall and the blackboard sketch done during a meeting in 1979 which kick-started Project 729, which eventually became the MX5.

 

He argued that it was an opportunity as no one was making an up-to-date car in this sector anymore because regulations that had looked like making them illegal had not come about. This had left the sector filled with out-of-date facelifted cars such as the rubber-bumper MGB, Fiat X1/9, Alfa Spider, Fiat 124 Spider and the unloved Triumph TR7. After some gentle persuasion from Bob, Mazda did an analysis of the market and found much affection for older MGs, Triumphs and other small open cars. By mid-1983 Mazda Hiroshima (the HQ) had given the go-ahead for a study, Project 5-5, against a background of the company having decided to take the forthcoming second-generation RX-7 upmarket, leaving a gap below it which the Mk1 RX-7 had shown was profitable. Project 729 was thus initiated, and a competition developed between three designs which concluded in September 1984. 

Design sketches.

Two concepts originated from Mazda’s Tokyo studio. The first was a mid-engine car using the power pack of the 323 (in much the same way the MGF was later to borrow from the Metro) which was influenced by Toyota’s MR2. The second was a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car that was a little larger and more in the mould of the Toyota Celica. The third design came from Mazda’s US studio in California, which had produced a classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive machine that they argued was what market research had shown that Americans expected a sports car to be. Although the two local entries were more refined and further developed the US entry won out and work began in earnest. In another ironic twist, Mazda then found they did not have the resources to build the initial prototype they needed, so IAD (International Automotive Design) of Worthing, UK, was commissioned to build V-705, the first MX-5 prototype and they used 3 Mazda saloons as parts donors. They completed it in September 1985 and despatched it to the USA. Only 2 months later Masataka Matsui, then new MD of Mazda’s US Technical Research Centre in California, to which V-705 technically belonged, ignored his superiors at the head office and, instead of sending it to Japan for evaluation, ordered it be driven around Santa Barbara California in company with a Triumph Spitfire, to see if the public noticed. They did! 

It was chased by enthusiasts eager to buy this modern-looking but classically proportioned sports car. Matsui’s gamble paid off and once the results were reported, Mazda HQ accepted the concept was good without the prototype having a costly and time-wasting trip to Japan. Having publicly revealed their plans, which was unusual in the motor industry even then, Mazda had to turn this promising dream into a reliable and profitable production reality. The new ‘modern MG’ was going into production, but it would take another 4 years for it to be available to customers. 

V-705 is shown with an early production MX-5.

Don’t forget, that we at Peter James know the Mazda MX-5 very well indeed. We have an insurance package specifically designed for Mazda MX-5 owners, tailored by our partners, the MX-5 Owners Club. So, give us a call and have your membership number at the ready! 

Read our other blog on what happened when the MX-5 went into production here

Or view the history of the MX-5 as a brief timeline here.

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