The Holy Grail, Mazda MX-5 Style
A trip down memory lane that started with a visit to the MX-5 restoration department at Mazda HQ in Hiroshima, Japan
Hiroshima, Japan – I had a tough time sitting down to write this story.
It wasn’t a writer’s block thing, wasn’t a laziness thing, wasn’t a health issue. Nothing like that. You see, when you sit down to recount a story you’ve been working on, and finally put pen to paper, well, that’s kind of where the real-time adventure ends.
And this was not a story I wanted to end and if you are a car person like me, you wouldn’t want it to end, either.
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Mazda MX-5 Miata, that tiny little roadster that took all the best bits from the British roadsters of yesteryear – styling, size, seating position, controls alignment, performance – and paired them with a platform that, well, you know, worked.
So successful this car has been, that the little manufacturer from Hiroshima has been able to build over a million of them and continues to do so, even in a world of regulations that tends to make it very tough for manufacturers to keep building stuff like this. CAFE requirements and so on mean naturally-aspirated roadsters that put driving pleasure above all else would be the first to get the chop in favour of hybrid SUVs and compact crossovers that do more without using more fuel. Those are the vehicles people need, the vehicles that sell well. And when you need to lower your line-up’s overall CO2 footprint, what do you think gets kept? The buzzy little roadster for two, or the CUV for five that can drive 100 km and only use 6.9L of fuel?
Well, I’d say the answer is obvious, but then I talked to the man who has worked on the Miata from the get-go back in the ‘80s—Nobuhiro Yamamoto. He was one of the fathers of the original MX-5, and program manager for the 3rd (NC) and 4th (ND) generations of the model.
“There’s was never any doubt that we would produce the ND model,” said Yamamoto-San through a translator. “This vehicle is too important for Mazda.”
He should know; in addition to developing the MX-5 Miata, he was also one of the engineers for the Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B racecar, where he worked on that car’s 4-rotor system. A version of which, by the way, is on its way back to Mazda in a range-extending hybrid version of the recently-revealed MX-30 crossover. That should help provide the CAFE breathing room so they can continue to develop the next MX-5, and the next one, and the next one. So, while Mazda’s plans for the rotary may not be include a sports car application (not for now, anyway), in an indirect way, it is helping ensure there continues to be room to develop a sports car of a type.
A trip down memory lane that started with a visit to the MX-5 restoration department at Mazda HQ in Hiroshima, Japan, meanwhile, shows why this is so vital for Mazda.
Located in a small corner of one of the manufacturing lines at Mazda, the restoration program is an ultra-limited service that’s run by a handful of workers. Some of the team have been around since the MX-5 first debuted, and some of them even worked as crew members on that same Le Mans-winning effort we talked about earlier.
Over the two-plus years the program’s been running, they’ve delivered five projects; some were stripped down to the body-in-white and meticulously re-built: engines, body panels and all (for about 60 thousand Canadian dollars). While some have received heavy tweaking in the form of new chassis components that are still true to the original. That’s all the builders are willing to do. It’s not a huge number, to be sure, but when you consider that according to Mazda, of the over 1 million MX-5s that have been built over the years, 430,000 are still driven regularly on the road you can see why the program has been somewhat limited until now.
The almost-completed car seen here is the fifth customer car to be delivered, and since the company wants to stay as true to the owners wishes as possible, the red wheels it has are actually carryovers from the pre-repo model – curb scuffs and all — because, according to Yamamoto-San “the owner would have it no other way.” There’s a sense of purity to the whole operation that is the perfect microcosm of the MX-5 as a whole.
To put that notion further into perspective – that purity — we were given the chance to drive a pair of these re-built beauties alongside a pair of their fresh-off-the-line descendants on a small test course just behind the facility.
As soon as you lay eyes one on of these parked trackside as opposed to sitting on a lift, you can see where it all just went so right for the MX-5, from the get-go. The proportions are small but right on, the 14” “Daisy” rims (with “Eunos” logos on their hubs, because the MX-5 originally flew under the short-lived Mazda sub-brand) are some of the best stock wheels ever fit to a car of any time and while the pop-up headlight housings look a little large when sat behind the wheel, taken from outside, they are a characteristic that will define the original MX-5 until the end of time.
Inside, the theme continues; while the green car’s cream interior punctuated by the woodgrain Nardi wheel and shift lever may be a little gaudier than the red car’s black interior, the basic ideals are the same: a dash pleasingly low on controls, basic gauge cluster with a rev counter, a speedo, a gas gauge, a temp gauge, an oil pressure gauge and spindly stalks for your headlights and wipers – switched from where us North Americans would typically find them because these are right-hand drive cars, as every product of the restoration program has been thus far.
It’s the kind of spartan interior that, once sat in, gives the impression that it wants to stay out of your way as much as possible so you can focus on the drive.
For tall folks like myself getting in is a bit of a clamber (doesn’t help that I was getting into a driver’s seat through the right-side door; it’s a little weird on the muscle memory front), but once there, the seats are thin so your thighs don’t bump against the base of the wheel. Which is good, because it can’t be adjusted. Simple as possible, remember? At that point, it’s just a perfect, low seating position with all the most important controls little more that a forearm twitch away. Lovely.
The engine – it’s a 1.6L, as it was throughout the entire gestation period of the NA car – is a little rough on idle but it’s keen to rev all the way to the 7,200 rpm redline. Since there’s very little weight to haul around and we’re dealing with a close-ratio five-speed gearbox and natural aspiration, the MX-5 springs off the line with little hesitation and because it revs so quickly, you find yourself reaching for that great Nardi shift knob seemingly three seconds after you set off. It’s a feeling that continues all the way until fourth at which point the acceleration slows a little. Each shift, meanwhile, is accompanied by a great “whirr-Bang!” every time – it’s as if there’s so little material separating you from the car that you can hear every little microscopic action taken by the powertrain or chassis. Yes, that includes a few less-enamouring squeaks over bumps, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that no MX-5 owner will mind, likely chalking it up to yet another detail that adds to the car’s charm.
As is expected, turns are dispatched with gumption, the perfectly weighted, hydraulic-assist steering rack responding to every twitch of your wrists. Instant response from the nose and the rest of the car following gamely behind are the orders of the day through turns, and it’s astonishing to think of the meticulous attention to detail displayed by Yamamoto-San and his team on how to extract the best driving experience possible from a small, inexpensive package.
It must be said, meanwhile, that for all the extra heft added by the likes of electronic driver aids, infotainment requirements, thicker seats and folding hardtop in the case of the RF model, the current MX-5 still manages to tick the boxes laid out by the original. While the 1.5L version doesn’t feel much faster than does the NA, the 2.0L version really is in another class when it comes to speed. Driving one just after one of the others shows just how little it takes to make a little car go faster, even with the added weight of the hardtop.
Of course, when you consider that cars today have all gotten more portly than their equivalents from as short a time ago as the early ‘90s, it makes sense that the MX-5 ND should still tickle your enthusiast driver bone, as all things being relative, it’s still one of the best bangs for your buck in the affordable performance category.
What of the NA, though, and how it stands stacked up against more modern versions? This being the car’s 30th anniversary, Mazda has released a special edition of the ND car as a celebration. It’s one my colleague Stephanie Wallcraft recently drove, and it wooed her to the point she considered absconding with it to Mexico. Does it have the same effect on me? Or, has it strayed too far from the original? Cost notwithstanding, which would I have? Well, if I really felt like I needed more in a straight line, then the answer is obvious: A 2019, equipped with the 2.0L four. If I wanted a car that I’d be proudest of owning, that has me feeling like I’m driving a high-water mark in automotive history, then it has to be the NA. It has to be, and I think it would be. Call me silly and nostalgic, but all I know is that if you’re going to be going with a “fun” car like this, it better make you feel the right, in all the right places.