Mazda Miata MX-5 designer Tom Matano a.k.a Mr.Miata and me
The Mazda Miata, or MX-5 as it is officially known, came together through inspiration, astute planning and just plain luck.
MONTEREY, CA: If it wasn’t for Tom Matano, the design of the iconic Mazda Miata might never have happened.
More than two decades ago I met Matano, who penned the Miata’s lines, and we’ve been meeting and greeting ever since.
At the recent unveiling of the fourth-generation MX-5, he and I went for a ride through the Monterey Peninsula in California, where Mazda celebrated the 25th anniversary of the car at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca prior to the worldwide launch of the fourth generation 2016 model.
The MX-5 (I will always call it the Miata) is probably my all-time favourite car. It fits me perfectly. I’ve driven one every year since it was introduced in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show.
I first met Matano in the fall of 1992 at a Canadian Miata event near Parry Sound. With me were my wife and six-month old son, J.J., who Tom never forgot. In 1998, when Matano designed the 1999 second-generation Miata, he inscribed a poster to J.J. which my son still displays proudly on the wall of his room.
Born 62 years ago in Japan, Matano quit engineering school (after an altercation with a professor) with no inkling of where he was going or what he was going to do.
Possessed with great faith in himself, he hopped a ride on a cargo ship landing in Everett, Washington, a place he had never heard of before.
As fate would have it, he took beginner art classes after he arrived in the US in September 1970. On a chance suggestion from a teacher, he drew a few sketches of cars.
“I drew flowers and fruit but the teacher wasn’t satisfied, Matano said. “He asked what else could I do and I said I’d drawn some pictures of cars.”
It turned out he was good at it, so much so that he would end up at the GM Design School under the legendary Chuck Jordan in the mid 1980s.
At the same time a former journalist and then Mazda PR man named Bob Hall had captured the interest of chairman Yamamoto with the idea of a small, fun and affordable two-seat roadster.
The problem was the design offices in California, Hiroshima and Tokyo each had a different approach: front engine and rear drive, mid-engine and front-engine and front-driver respectively.
Both Hall and Matano were present during the reveal of the new, 2016 MX-5 along with Mark Jordan, son of Chuck, who was also with Mazda North America at the time.
During our drive, Matano talked about the days when what the car would be were still very much up in the air.
Based on the original rough 1979 sketch by Hall, Matano, by then vice-president, Design, Mazda North America, was tasked with designing a shape that would be unmistakable, yet retain the care-free spirit of the roadsters of the 1960s.
“To be successful, it has to be something that makes you want to find out what it is when it went by,” Matano said.
“When you walk closer the interior has to be inviting and when you turn the key, it has to sound like you thought it would.
“When you come home, you might turn around and take a last look and even say good night to it or even sit in it one last time before going inside.
“That’s what a car should be.”
During our drive, Matano talked about how everything came together on the project and agreed with what Hall, as team leader, also said to me – it was a team effort.
Both Matano and Hall are quite humble and shy away from being dubbed the fathers of the Miata.
What Matano said was that the participants passionately believed in the car to the point the Mazda directors in Japan described as a kind of religion.
I asked Matano if he ever thought the little car he penned more than 25 years ago would become a landmark in automotive history.
“When the second generation came around, I sort of knew it had a future,” he said.
“Ten years later that philosophy became the basis for the Zoom-Zoom campaign.”
Believe it or not, Matano says the highest praise of all was when pedal car versions of the Miata starting being made.
“In Japan, that’s a really big thing. They even have pedal car races,” he said.
Later in the day, we and a crowd of about 1,000 people were at the worldwide reveal of the 2016, fourth-generation MX-5 in Monterey which was held simultaneously with unveilings in Tokyo and Barcelona.
“They nailed it,” he said remarking on the new shape. “They kept the philosophy that made this such a successful car.”
Today, Matano is the executive director of the School of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
He is also one of the honoured judges on the World Car of the Year in addition to countless awards and accolades.
As we parted, I thought how I was going to sum him up in this story. Then I was reminded of something he wrote on my son’s poster back in 1998.
“Always Inspired” — that’s Tom Matano.