Some cars’ claim to fame are made from its performance figures, or its significance to society as a whole, but can a car like the MX-5 owe it to luck? After all, you can’t achieve one million examples produced down out of chance.
by DANIEL WONG
onsider if you may what it must have been for a car enthusiast at the end of the 1980s to hear the news that a Japanese car company was going to step into the sports car market with a car that is inspired by classic British roadsters. It was a time when hot hatches were just about the most exciting thing to happen in the world of cars since Gilles Villeneuve refused to back down from Rene Arnoux at Dijon. A time when road-going supercars were cracking the 200 miles-per-hour barrier, and the world awash with economic prosperity to fuel the demand for such creations. Nearly everybody is having a swing at the supercar genre, even Honda at that point was cooking up something known as the NSX.
As for the traditional small lightweight sports car, there wasn’t much to shout about back then. Icons such as the Alfa Spider, Lotus Elan, and the MG Triumph were by then, either consigned to history or already on a steady decline. It almost seemed that the world has grown out of the idea of simple sports cars that offered nothing more than drop top driving pleasure. It was the age of the fast, the furious, and the flamboyantly expensive it seemed.
Then again you would only need to look at the world today to get an idea of how it was back in 1989. Today the hot hatch genre is just about the most exciting thing to happen in the world of cars since four drivers from two of the biggest rivalling names in the sport were each within earshot of the 2007 Formula One Title, and neither was backing down. We are living in an age when road-going supercars are easily sporting price tags that stand in the millions of Euros with nobody batting an eyelid as the world is still awash with economic prosperity to fuel the demand for such outlandish creations. Even Honda is back at having another go at the supercar genre with something known as the NSX.
Like it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the traditional sports car market is still a steadily shrinking one. Car makers are rushing to cash in on other more lucrative segments such as SUVs, rather than plough any resources into what many regard as a stagnant segment. It sounds like nothing has changed between the close of the 1980s and today, with the exception that the aforementioned Japanese sports car that was inspired by classic British roadsters is today recognised as the ‘World’s Best-Selling Two-Seater Sports Car’ in the Guinness Book of World Records. A record it had held onto since May 2000 when its production figure stood at 531,890, and subsequently setting new milestones from then onwards. Last month the MX-5 achieve the million production milestone after 27 years and four successive generations. The MX-5 wasn’t just a success, it was a global phenomenon.
...it was a global phenomenon’
Even today the MX-5 represents a stab in the eye of the industry’s tradition of committee-led design and market-survey decision making. It was credited with single-handedly reviving the sports car genre, paving the way for sports cars like the BMW Z3, Lotus Elise, and Porsche Boxster in the mid-1990s, and redefining the meaning of affordable fun without the need for big horsepower figures.
If there was a definition of fun, the MX-5 would be it, right up there with a wet T-shirt contest held in a bouncy castle. Right off the bat, the first-generation MX-5 became the lightweight roadster that reminded everyone that you don’t need to go big on horsepower or displacement to have a proper laugh. Guided by Mazda’s Jinba-Ittai (rider and horse as one) philosophy, the MX-5 was engineered to have 50/50 weight balance, an involving rear-wheel drive chassis, and wonderfully balanced controls, you didn’t need to be Michael Schumacher to get the most out of it, and neither would you need to tweak the engine to have some decent excitement behind its wheel. With a sweet 122PS 1.6-litre inline-4 engine propelling 940kg, you could drive the MX-5 on the ragged edge and derive so much fun without endangering your license or NCB.
What’s more, being built from rather rudimentary ingredients such as steel for its structure, aluminium for selected body panels, and the engine of a 323 family car, the MX-5 was as affordable as it was inexpensive to maintain. Being Japanese however the MX-5 brought a new word to the sports car genre, ‘reliability’. Considering that by the end of the 1980s sports cars were gaining a reputation for being archaic rust buckets that would also blow a fuse or a gasket when you try to drive it hard and fast, the MX-5 would soldier on, its robust engine taking on any amount of abuse you may so throw at it. Little wonder then that the MX-5 racked up so many sales, and even though Mazda would keep up interest in the MX-5 through the production of several special editions, there wasn’t much they did to change it, besides lavishing it with different colour and trim combinations throughout its lifetime – bar the 750 examples of the BBR MX-5 Turbo which was destined for the UK.
Despite coming out right in the height of the popularity of turbocharged engines in Japan, Mazda’s engineers opted to stick with natural-aspiration for its 1.6-litre inline-4 engine, believing that it would be more in tune with the car’s Jinba-Ittai ethos that eschews from the pursuit of high horsepower figures. Furthermore, the addition of a turbocharger would have added more complexity, which would have added weight. Thanks to the MX-5’s program manager’s expertise in vehicle body engineering, the MX-5 was able to have a light and yet rigid body, which meant that any higher horsepower outputs from a turbocharger would have required further chassis strengthening. This would have in turn added more weight and blunted performance and muted the all-important driving sensation.
Another powertrain concept that received the axe was the use of a rotary engine. During the development of the MX-5, Mazda was still developing and producing rotary engines for their RX-7 sports car range. A lightweight, high-revving engine would have been a fine fit for the roadster’s focus on keeping its weight figure low. An idea that was swiftly rejected as the rotary engine was deemed to be too powerful for the chassis and the engine was seen as an engine for Mazda’s ‘prestige’ models. On hindsight, Mazda’s decision to adopt a standard inline-4 ensured the roadster’s long-term survival and appeal. A rotary engine’s short operating lifecycle would have severely limited the broad universal appeal it had earned, and its high fuel consumption would have made it too expensive to run.
Engineers initially favoured adopting a front-wheel drive or mid-engine layout as it would make more economic sense as they would only need to repurpose an existing car with a sports car body for the former layout, or reverse an existing front-wheel drivetrain for the latter. However, Mazda insisted that their new sports car should have agile handling and a linear driving feel, something that could only be achieved with a rear-wheel drive layout, eliminating the front-wheel drive option right off the bat. Though having a mid-engine configuration meant that it was easier to achieve a better balance, engineers knew that having the engine behind the rear bulkhead would mean that the final car wouldn’t be able to meet their NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) requirements. In the end, Mazda reverted back to the Californian front-engine rear-wheel drive concept, despite the added costs, thus cementing the MX-5’s front-engine rear-wheel drive identity, something which made it stand out in a world of widespread front-wheel drive adoption.
The job of designing the MX-5 was split between Mazda’s design teams in Tokyo and California. While the Californian team was busy designing a front-engine rear-wheel drive roadster that harked back to the classic British roadsters, carrying with it design cues that were inspired by the Lotus Elan, the Japanese team had their sights set on adopting a front-engine, front-wheel drive layout or a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. Initial designs from the Japanese team were wedged shaped, which was similar to the silhouette of the first-generation Toyota MR-2.
‘The MX-5 wasn’t just a success...
‘Since the introduction of the first-generation, Mazda had carefully kept developments of subsequent MX-5 generations to its core tenants’
In the end, by February 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda had brought to the world the sports car that the world so desired. Simple, lightweight, and a finely-tuned chassis, the MX-5 was well on its way to becoming the sports car icon that would sell over a million examples 27 years later. Since the introduction of the first-generation, Mazda had carefully kept developments of subsequent MX-5 generations to its core tenants.
The second-generation MX-5 codenamed ‘NB’, was more of an evolution over its predecessor, known as the NA. Though it had to lose those iconic pop-up headlights to new safety regulations, the 1998 NB-generation MX-5 was largely similar in size, with the exception that the rear luggage compartment was now bigger, the rear window was made of glass instead of plastic, and its 1.8-litre engine featured a new cylinder head with a higher compression ratio and variable intake, increasing power up to 142PS. With additional equipment and a bigger body, weight figures also went up marginally past the 1000kg mark, at 1065kg. While the NB also saw a deluge of special edition models in special colour and trim combinations within its lifetime, it still holds the distinction as the only MX-5 generation to feature a special fixed hardtop coupé, and a factory-fitted turbocharged variant, with the 2003 Roadster Coupé and 2004 Mazdaspeed MX-5 respectively. Both these variants, however, are extremely rare, if not highly valued collector’s items.
Major changes to the MX-5 would come with the third-generation (NC) model in 2005, which Mazda had given a complete overhaul. It wasn’t just its more aggressive and chiselled body that was different from its predecessors. Unique engineering aspects such as the placement of the battery in the rear luggage compartment and all-round double wishbone suspension were gone. Even so Mazda’s engineers had managed to retain the roadster’s lauded 50/50 weight balance and intimate driving feel with its third-iteration. The NC MX-5 gained a 2.0-litre inline-4 MZR powerplant which produced 160PS. More crucially, though, the NC was significantly larger and heavier than its NA and NB predecessors, with the scales now tipped at 1100kg. This wasn’t helped by the introduction of a folding hardtop variant a year later, which inflated its weight figure by another 36kg. That being said, thanks to Mazda’s brilliant engineering package, the three-piece folding polycarbonate hardtop didn’t reduce rear luggage space when folded down.
While the size, complexity, and weight of the NC did leave many enthusiasts to question if Mazda had strayed from the MX-5’s core appeal, the NC-generation MX-5 was kept in production for a whole decade, during which time seismic events was taking place in the car industry. Although Ford emerged from the 2008 Financial Crisis relative unscathed, they had to sell their remaining stake in Mazda. Being thrust into the unknown as an independent car maker, Mazda placed all of their chips into developing what was to become SKYACTIV, an all-encompassing suite of technologies that promises better fuel efficiency through efficient combustion technologies to lightweight construction. Interestingly enough, one of the main tenants of SKYACTIV was the pursuit of Jinba-Ittai, the same philosophy that defined the MX-5’s character.
When Mazda was done implementing SKYACTIV throughout their core models, they turned their attention towards bringing the MX-5 back to its roots and thoroughly re-engineered it. The fourth-generation model, labelled the ND, was a stunning return to form for the MX-5. Thanks to the use of aluminium and high-tensile steel, the base 131PS 1.5-litre variant now tips the scales at 1050kg, making it the lightest iteration of the MX-5 since the 1989 original. Furthermore, measuring in at 3915mm from nose to tail, it is also the shortest.
Perhaps the ND’s biggest departure from the MX-5 lineage was in its looks. Where the last three-generations kept the MX-5 classic car looks, the ND adopted Mazda’s sensual and avant-garde Kodo design language, creating a brand new shape that was reflective of the brand’s future. Its front fascia has a sharper gaze, the iconic MX-5 pill-shaped rear lights, on the other hand, are replaced with a modern reinterpretation, and the dashboard is designed around the driver. Even so, the ND was a stunning return to form for Mazda. It still had that timeless quality that had defined the breed for nearly three decades, that impeccable chassis balance, intimate driving sensation, and fun character that didn’t depend on any headline grabbing figures to make its name.
The MX-5 proved that the roadster isn’t dead, and for all its brilliance, it was recently awarded the 2016 Overall World Car of the Year, beating the Mercedes-Benz GLC SUV and Audi A4 to the prize. On top of that, the MX-5 also picked up the 2016 World Car Design of the Year award.
While a number of sports cars, buoyed by the success of the MX-5 did come along in the 1990s, none managed to captivate the hearts of enthusiasts quite like the way the MX-5 did. The MX-5 was a sports car that traded on a history that it wasn’t its own, but served as a point of inspiration, and was built by a car company that had no prior history to open-top motoring, who observed, examined, and distilled the very essence in its appeal. An intrinsic appeal that wouldn’t be revealed through any market survey, nor quantified in any detailed analysis.
Had Mazda been spendthrift when decided on the powertrain layouts, or their engineers not seeing eye-to-eye with Bob Hall’s vision of reviving the classic sports cars of the 1960s, the MX-5 would have been nothing more than a ubiquitous footnote in the story of the car. It was only because Mazda dared to do what others thought wasn’t worth the effort, and done by engineers who had a passion for building a car that fired all the senses, without needing to big figures to impress. It is little wonder why Mazda calls the MX-5, the luckiest car on earth.
‘The MX-5 proved that the roadster isn’t dead, and for all its brilliance, it was recently awarded the 2016 Overall World Car of the Year’
Unfortunately for its lack of headline grabbing figures the MX-5 has also earned its fair share of derision from the sort of chap who could only grasp numbers so that they can compare it in a Top Trumps’ pub-discussion, and are more content with watching and commenting on YouTube channels filled with like-minded individuals who cream themselves over videos of a supercar cruising down the street of a tax haven. To the uninitiated the MX-5’s success almost looked like a lucky streak from Mazda, a success that had only been propped by poseurs won’t couldn’t scrimp up the funds for something faster, or had the guts to handle something more powerful. They assume that the MX-5 had more style than the substance to make them the least bit interested. Which is an ironic assumption considering that the MX-5 main draw card isn’t so much of its looks or the power it has on hand, but by the way it drove.
Looking back, the genesis of the MX-5 wasn’t quite straightforward. The famous story that the MX-5 was immediately conceived from a casual conversation between American automotive journalist, Bob Hall, and Kenichi Yamamoto who was the head of Mazda’s research and development, is the stuff of automotive legend today. Truth is that the MX-5 was the result of a long and carefully executed development process.
By 1981, five years after that fateful conversation took place on what Mazda should build next, Hall had by then landed himself a role in Mazda USA’s product planning, while Yamamoto had moved up to assume the position of chairman of Mazda Motors. Thankfully Yamamoto had not forgotten Hall’s suggestion of building a sports car that was in the spirit of the classic British roadsters of the 1960s and instead gave him the go ahead to develop what would become the MX-5.