On This Day: The OG Miata kicks off ’90s roadster craze
This was day one for the Mazda MX-5. Not for Mazda itself, nor the engineers who had spent most of the past decade tirelessly working on Mazda’s new roadster project, nor for journalist Bob Hall, whose meeting with Kenichi Yamamoto, head of Mazda’s R&D department at the time, had taken place all the way back in 1978.
But the Chicago auto show on February 9, 1989, marked day one for a model line that has sold more than a million units in 33 years, making it the world’s most popular roadster. It was day one for the roadster boom of the 1990s, that brought us everything from the MGF to Boxsters, Z3Ms, and the Lotus Elise. And it was day one for a craze that saw waiting lists and people on the street offering to buy the press cars from journalists testing them in the early days.
The MX-5, dubbed Miata in the U.S., could so easily have been overshadowed in Chicago that year. Across the hall was a rather more voluptuous sports car from Chrysler, the Dodge Viper Concept, which finally went into production in 1991. Closer to home, at least for Mazda, was the Honda NS-X, also previewed in prototype form (and prior to ditching the hyphen in its name), which would launch the following year.
But Bob Hall’s assertion in 1978 that there would be a market for a bugs-in-the-teeth, affordable sports car had been spot-on, and the engineers that had insisted upon a traditional front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout—chosen over front-wheel drive and mid-engined proposals—similarly accurate.
The credit for both the styling and the MX-5’s layout goes largely to Mazda’s North American studio. The team had carefully seeded the mothership in Japan with old Elans and Spitfires to convince the suits that a back-to-basics sports car would be worth the effort, particularly as the RX-7 already satiated demand for something more advanced and expensive. It was only right that car would be launched in the United States, particularly as this was likely to be its largest market too.
Mazda presented three production models at the show, appropriately colored red, white, and blue. The latter, named Mariner Blue, has perhaps the most interesting story: Bob Hall wanted the option of a French racing blue, and designer Tom Matano mixed one that replicated exactly California’s rear license plate color at the time.
A shame, really, that U.K. examples would be lumbered with an ugly yellow rear plate—at least until the appropriately-named California special edition arrived, in Sunburst Yellow, in 1995.
Mazda did actually have a yellow MX-5 Miata on its Chicago stand, too, the wide-arched Club Racer concept. Based on a preproduction model, it had a handful of subtle differences to the production cars sitting nearby (aside from the obvious), but previewed a taste for modification that MX-5 enthusiasts have never lost.
Mazda still owns the car in its US. .collection, alongside those three motor show stars—the white example of which, incidentally, later became the world’s first race-prepared MX-5.