23 February 2015

The Mazda Miata: Turning heads in the U.S. for 25 years

“From the moment you see it, to the moment you use it, to the moment you drive it, it will stir your emotions.” Mazda told us that’s what we could expect from the Miata MX-5, and even now it rings true for fans of the affordable, fun and inspiring little roadster.

In May 1989, the MX-5 became available to U.S. and Canadian buyers as a 1990 model, and Mazda sold 35,944 Miatas that first year. Automobile Magazine was obviously impressed, naming it “Automobile of the Year.” Twenty-five years later, Miata designer Tom Matano is more than happy to celebrate the car’s birthday and discuss its origins.

“It was a labor of love, that’s for sure,” said Matano, now retired as Mazda’s Chief of Design. “It still is.”

Matano’s passion for cars and design resonates with his every word, and it’s clear that he is a true Miata nut. His accomplishments at Mazda include the MX-5, RX-7 and Miata “M-Coupe” concept car, along with many other projects created by the design teams that he managed.

[Video: Generation Gap – Matt and Davin compare a 1991 Mazda Miata and a 1964 Ford Thunderbird]

Before Miata was even a twinkle in his eye, Matano owned a two-seat convertible sports car, a Fiat M50 Spider, and he and his design team longed to build a two-door sports car for Mazda. But affordability was a concern. The team believed in the purity of 1950s and ’60s sports roadsters like the Triumph Spitfire, Datsun 2000, Alfa Romeo Spider, MG MGB, Fiat 124 Sport Spider and the Lotus Elan, and with that in mind they created a concept for a modern, affordable and lightweight sports car – the Miata MX-5.

“Miata’s design doesn’t oversell its power; the internal mechanical engineering delivers exactly what it looks like on the outside,” Matano said. “It’s well-proportioned and balanced — simplicity is key. It’s a car you can jump into and take for a drive. It’s worry-free and fun, especially with the top down. There’s nothing quite like taking winding roads in a Miata, with fresh air filling your nostrils and sunshine radiating against your skin, bringing you closer to the great outdoors.”

The car’s large engine bay allows for easy maintenance. For Mazda, it was important to offer a car that owners could work on themselves – one that would inspire people of all ages to get involved in the car hobby. Mazda didn’t want the Miata to be a car that had to be taken to the dealer for repairs or maintenance; instead designers aimed to re-educate the public in the spirit of the 1950s and ’60s, back when many people did the work themselves.

Madza made the Miata easily customizable to better match individual personalities, and there are plenty of aftermarket items to do exactly that. Matano is a perfect example. He has a love for air horns – “They sound so romantic,” he said – and also wanted leather seats. His Starlight Blue 1996 M-Edition Miata might just take the cake in personalization; the top and interior were changed to light gray to match the color of his hair.

Since Miata was Madza’s modern tribute to the classic British sports car, it’s no wonder that it has also made its mark in motorsports. Mazda wanted to maintain the Sports Car Club of America’s belief that cars should be used as daily drivers Monday through Friday and raced on weekends. Minor modifications like a new muffler and air intake were expected. Mazda even created a Miata club racer in the spirit of those track weekends, and SCCA classes are now full of Miatas.

Early models, Matano believes, are the most collectable. He said second-year Miatas painted British Racing Green are in high demand; those painted black with red interior are the most difficult to find; and yellow models seem to be getting rarer.

Through the years, owner feedback was used to improve trunk space and interior storage, and change the car’s rear window to glass. Mazda’s engineering group improved the Miata’s body rigidity, transmission and handling, and the team used the first-generation MX-5 as the benchmark.

Matano wasn’t involved in the 2015 Miata design, but Mazda did ask for his input. He reminded the designers of the first three generations, emphasizing that the fourth should closely follow the lineage of the first three. Matano is firm in his belief that each generation must be connected in order to maintain the model’s legacy. And that includes keeping the Miata affordable. Matano said the 2015 Mazda hit the mark as a modern, contemporary, small and lightweight sports car. “There’s no mistaking that it’s a Miata, even from 100 yards away,” he said.

It may seem odd to hear that a former chief of design enjoys hanging out at club events (big and small), but Matano is an exception. The stories he hears about the Miata line up perfectly with what he imagined during the original design process.

“Bringing the car home for the first time, showing it off to family and friends, then driving home and tucking it in for the night … Hearing that in colder climates, many owners take the first available opportunity to get their Miata out on a sunny, winter day in February …,” he said.  “The feeling of creating a concept that I believed in so much and then sharing the same passion with Miata owners – that’s been an indescribable life experience.”

Perhaps Miata’s greatest achievement, even more than its immediately recognizable design, is its longevity – 25 years of Miata history. Normally the basic concept for a car changes over a quarter century, sometimes dramatically. But the Miata has remained much the same – and that’s cause for celebration.

25 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Alan Reed Fort Wayne, IN February 25, 2015 at 17:22
    I had a 90 Miata for about 6 years. Had a lot of fun with it. Now my son has it and continues to enjoy the peppy little convertible.
  • 2
    Pam Texas February 25, 2015 at 17:28
    We acquired a Crystal Blue Metallic 2001 Mazda Miata about 8 months ago. It is in great shape and had <85,000 miles. Tan top and interior complete the package. My favorite car of all time. Fun, fun, fun.
  • 3
    Nathan Greensburg PA February 25, 2015 at 18:15
    Bought my 1995 M Edition new, nearly 20 years ago. I will never part with this car I love. It just goes and goes and goes and never a problem---ever. Now this is a car to treasure and grow old with!
  • 4
    Eric Lund United States February 25, 2015 at 18:20
    My 1990 Miata (one of the first 1500 sent to the U.S.) turned 25 on January 1st and therefore qualified for "classic/antique" registration status here in Virginia, and likely many other states as well. I'm curious as to why Hagerty is not yet writing classic insurance coverage on this car- at least they wouldn't do it for me when I inquired a few weeks ago... and I have more than 10 antique cars currently insured through Hagerty.
  • 5
    Lew Moon Illinois February 25, 2015 at 18:51
    As a long time MGB driver, we have now moved to the Miata. So far we have been very happy with new technology and pleased to know that we don't have a water pump, fuel pump, fan belt, distributor and many other parts in the trunk. We are resting on the testimony of great reliability.
  • 6
    John Fenrich Owasso, OK February 25, 2015 at 19:26
    I have owned a 1999 10th Anniversary Edition Miata for 4 years and am thankful every day that I had the opportunity to acquire what I consider to be today's classic sports car. I traded a prestine 1960 Bug-Eye Sprite for the Miata. I previously have owned 2 other Bug-Eyes, a MGB, an original Morris Mini Minor and a Fiat 124 Spyder and while I have enjoyed each of them for their unique characteristics, I believe my Miata (with all of its bells and whistles) is the most enjoyable to drive, the easiest to own and the safest sporty car to take my grandkids in. I have not had the Miata on the track yet, but since I am close to Hallett Raceway outside of Tulsa, OK I hope to do that some day soon. I want to thank Mr. Matano for his vision and ability to see it through to the creation of one of the world's most fun automobiles.
  • 7
    Chris Kurowski Highland Michigan February 25, 2015 at 19:28
    I have a blue 1990 with 52,000 miles. Original top. Great vehicle. I can't say enough.
  • 8
    Jeff Charlotte, NC February 25, 2015 at 19:53
    I still own the 1990 "B Package" Miata I purchased in 1992. It's no longer a daily driver, but I still look forward to good weather days to take it out. I can't wait to take it to its first AACA show in April! THANKS to Tom and the rest of the Mazda team for conceiving and producing such a great and enduring car.
  • 9
    Jon Illinois February 25, 2015 at 19:59
    Wonderful article. I own a 1990 that a dealer friend threw the keys to me in 1996 and said "take it for a spin, but drive it hard". After some protest, I took the car on a Saturday at noon and had a blast. Returned to my friend Monday morning in another vehicle and informed him that he was not going to be getting the car back. Have spent the next 22 years enjoying every minute I have spent in the car. It always brings a smile to my face. It has had some Jackson Racing modifications that I think are tastefully done. Still draws looks whenever I take it out. My son told me I ought to sell it cuz it isn't worth much and I don't drive it that much. I threw him the keys and when he returned, he said don't ever sell that car....it's a blast to drive. I never will.
  • 10
    Michael Landry Laguna Woods, Ca. February 25, 2015 at 20:29
    1991 red, added hardtop. 170,000 miles. Strong engine and still as much fun as when it was new. Thank you, Mr. Matano for a fantastic love affair with the cutest little car ever.
  • 11
    Ken P RE/TC February 25, 2015 at 20:44
    With all due respects to Tom Matano, I always understood the Mark Jordan led the design team for the original Miata MX 5.
  • 12
    Dave Pike Creek, DE February 25, 2015 at 22:22
    My wife and I are the proud owners (and the third owners) of a '90 MX-5 Miata. In its 25 years of life it has amassed only 90k miles. It's Classic Red, still rides on it's original 14" steel wheels, features manual everything and has two options: a/c and deckled luggage rack. It is a kick to drive and I think we'll be holding on to it for as long as we're able. For sure, it is a true classic sports car.
  • 13
    Logan Chrysler Lacey, WA usa February 25, 2015 at 23:09
    I've always had a space in my heart for the Miata, it's the BEST thing to come from Mazda since the Cosmo and RX-3SP. and it a good complement to the RX-7... Tom Matano, you've done good!
  • 14
    Mike Rion Southern California February 26, 2015 at 03:32
    I'm now on my third Miata, a 2002 LS Limited order edition vivid yellow 6 speed, with full ground effects. My first was a 1991 base model, which I upgraded over the years with two tone leather upholster, glass rear window and low rise headlight option and custom 16" wheels.f It was incredibly reliable. I'm fond of saying that it was what an MGB or TR6 should have been. I know what I'm talking about as I have owned examples of both those cars. I purchase a 2002 SE new(Blazing Yellow). I sold the car after 6 years of ownership and came to regret the sale, so I recently purchased the latest one to make up for it. I like the first two generation styles a lot, but could never develop a similar affinity for the series 3. However, the new 2015 style looks terrific and I look forward driving one.
  • 15
    William Craddock Salisbury, N.C. 28147 February 26, 2015 at 05:33
    How about doing an article about the ones of us that have Military Jeeps and or Trucks.
  • 16
    William Lowell Smithfield, VA 23430 February 26, 2015 at 07:01
    I bought a first issue Miata in spring 1990 and put 310,000 miles on it. I sold it in 1999 and bought another putting 275000 miles on it before selling. The car reminded me of, and somewhat sounded like, the MGB of the mid 60s which I had owned, driven and restored several of. I am now retired and seriously considering hunting down another early Miata (with pop up lights) and the removable hardtop.
  • 17
    Bob Snyder Columbus, Ohio February 26, 2015 at 09:05
    I have two (one has rarely seen rain and never seen snow) 1990 Miatas, both red. I also leased a blue '95 for three years. I have never had a car that handled better, including my '79 RX-7. A true roadster, the car always takes me away from the interstate and on to the back roads where road signs that look like snakes simply mean "down shift". I maintain that with only 87 horsepower, my Miatas with the top down are the most fun you can have while doing the speed limit. Plus near 30 mpg around town doesn't hurt at all.
  • 18
    Jerry Hulsey United States February 26, 2015 at 09:18
    I have owned lots of sports cars Corvette, Pantera to name a few ,but the Miata is the most fun, worry free, low cost to maintain just a great car to enjoy driving in the North Georgia Mts!!!
  • 19
    Chuck Minn. February 26, 2015 at 00:07
    I really love my 1990 red Miata but don't care for the lack of power and high R.P.M.s at 60 M.P.H. My 1970 MG midget gets 5 M.P.G. better gas mileage and is far simpler to diagnose. No lousy belt driven overhead cam either. The look of the car, handling, shifting and ease of steering is great though.
  • 20
    Ed Maxwell Dallas,Tx February 26, 2015 at 00:25
    I was a used car dealer sold a 96 to a lady with 60k on it, she traded it back to me 5 years later with 180k. I have been driving the car almost daily now for 7 years and have 250,000 trouble free miles.It is my favorite car and I have had well over 500.
  • 21
    Edgar A. Ontario, Canada February 27, 2015 at 10:06
    Fabulous design that completely captured the pure automotive essence of a light-weight, superb-handling car with an ideal power to weight ratio which made the car quick and nimble. On another note, it is also called the 'Roadster' in the Japanese domestic market.
  • 22
    Dave Connolly New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada February 28, 2015 at 12:13
    I've owned my white 1990 Miata , 250K, for 7 years now. I've put a bit of money into it to do some cosmetic refinements and some new tires also. My wife and I love cruising (summers only) on the country roads out here where we live. I'll continue to drive it unit it dies or I do (turning 67 this year). Odometer is up to 280K and with continuous TLC is still running.
  • 23
    DanT Columbia City, Indiana March 4, 2015 at 12:43
    Just purchased my red 1990 Miata last spring. It has 130K miles, original paint and wheels. I am now using it as my summer daily driver. This is my first sports car and my first convertible.
  • 24
    Cathy NJ March 5, 2015 at 09:50
    I have a 1993 Miata with 32,000 miles....love driving it and can't wait for the warm weather to take her out of hibernation.
  • 25
    Cal Michigan/Arizona March 5, 2015 at 10:31
    Out of nearly 100 cars I have owned, my 1990 Miata is my favorite, hand down! Best value (look at the price of the cars it is compared to), and Balance. No one attribute (acceleration, braking, road adhesion)overrides the other. Mine is NOT for sale.

Join the Discussion