When Mazda’s MX-5 set motoring back 30 years

Across the Pond Miata-Ad-30-Years-set back campaign

Ah, see what they did there?

Ordinarily, you might consider it a bad thing to set something back 30 years, though you’d not know it judging by the actions of some prominent political figures, but in this March 1990 advert for the fresh new Mazda MX-5, it was tapping deep into nostalgia for a period of motoring that seemed long abandoned by the early ’90s.

The MX-5’s backstory has been repeated nearly as often as the Mini’s, so we’ll keep it brief here, but the genesis goes all the way back to the late-1970s when an American car journalist, Bob Hall, met with Mazda’s R&D chief Kenichi Yamamoto and impressed upon him the need for a traditional European open-topped sports car, just without traditional European open-topped sports-car quirks.

Mazda miata prototype team chatting

Yamamoto agreed, and in the mid-1980s development cautiously began, at the hands of just a dozen designers and engineers, at Mazda’s then-new California studio in Irvine. Well-executed development mules—and a positive reaction from Californians wherever the prototypes went—convinced Mazda to put the car into production. It debuted in February 1989 at the Chicago auto show and arrived on UK shores in early 1990, which is when our clever ad appeared. And there you go, the history of the MX-5 condensed into only two paragraphs.

The car undoubtedly met Hall’s expectations, too. The MX-5 is oft-compared to the Lotus Elan, but in truth those involved in the project used numerous small sports cars for inspiration, and the end product—unfailingly reliable, better built, easier to drive, and relatively watertight—was as full of genuinely original thinking as it was a throwback to any 1960s roadster.

Mazda miata prototype clay model

All this would have been for naught if the car didn’t also drive well, but despite a few dissenting voices here and there, the little Mazda was among the best-driving cars at any price point. It was responsive and adjustable, it steered, gripped, and handled beautifully, and it was as happy being driven hard as it was pottering along looking pretty. In-period, before age made their bodies rustier and more flexible than when they were new, only the modest performance and a relative lack of comfort for some drivers could be counted as reasonable criticism.

Many of the MX-5’s highlights shine just as brightly today, and arguably more so in a market where the only modern equivalent is… well, the current MX-5. After a flurry of imitators arrived in the 1990s to capitalize on the Mazda’s success, the market has since dwindled to just the Mazda itself, and a few cars that have since moved significantly upmarket in search of profit.

1995 Mazda Miata interior driving action
Cameron Neveu

And while prices for early MX-5s have been going up for a few years now, they’re still a bargain for what you get. The Hagerty Price Guide puts a driver-quality example under $10K, even though the cleanest first-gen (NA) examples quickly approach or clear $20K.

Mazda’s 1990s ad also reminds us just how good an early MX-5 still looks. Funny how more than 30 years later, Mazda’s 30-year throwback still seems as appealing as ever.




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Via Hagerty UK

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    I need a friend to get an early MX-5 so I can get some real seat time in one. Not convinced that taller me would be comfortable for the duration, but I like the concept.

    6′ 1″ and over 3 bills, use a ’92 MX-5 (my go-cart) as a daily driver. Seats are all the way back, and I removed a bit of foam when I reskinned them. Also the inner door panels were replaced with flat aluminum, and the steering wheel is now a little smaller than stock… but after all that, it’s a comfortable ride.

    I have owned 3 Corvette convertibles and am trying to decide on what color I want my RF to be. I drove a friend’s 2013 retractable hard top and was smitten with the handling his car had. I have been yearning to find a manual trans roadster but did not want another rag top. Gas mileage is excellent, as is the handling This car ticks all the boxes.

    And this is why I can’t let go of my ‘94, which I bought new. It’s a true statement that the only new car like it is a new Miata and a base model is $30k. My secret suggestion is not to modify the car. It’s best in stock form and I’ve put mine back to normal after trying different things. The chassis can’t support ride height reduction or stiff springs – ruins the ride and doesn’t really help the handling. And the engine is fine the way it is – just maintain it. It’s not meant to be a dragster. And it’s pretty much unbreakable.

    You’re absolutely correct, I bought a first year Miata for my daughter so she could have a reliable, economical and fun car and between my ex and her she told me to get her something else because it wasn’t big enough, good enough and powerful enough. I regret not keeping it for myself. I sold it to a friend and he still has it 8 years later. Yes, it had a hard top too! On the positive side I do get to drive it once or twice every few years but it just makes it even harder. Like a FIAT X1/9, not much power but the power isn’t the only thing, it’s a true sports car unless you don’t think roll down windows qualify…

    I drove the First Miata I ever saw. A friend tossed me the keys. It was fun but over the years it has been a good car but just never had the power options it needed. To me I have driven go carts with more acceleration.

    Also a co worker was hit in one not long ago and nearly killed. it did not hold up well even hit by a small sedan.

    My present Corvette to be feels like a large Miata and in some ways I think the new C models may have benefitted from the Miata.

    Maybe this article should say 50 years back instead of 30. My reasoning is that most adults 50 years would fit in it. I have ridden in one several times and have trouble folding my 6’1″ frame enough to fall into it.

    I have a NB MX-5 Miata. I bought it when it was nearly 20 years old. It replaced a car that got totaled that was not much fun to drive. I also own several Muscle cars and have most of my life. I was surprised how much fun this little car is to drive. It is a loaded model with the sport suspension and bigger brakes, a removable hard top and leather seats. I have the top off as it is summer here now, I think I’ll head up to the mountains for a fun little drive today. I’ll let my V8s rest for now.

    I tried to like the MX-5. I test drove a nice dark red new one with gold BBS wheels a few years ago with the full intention of buying, but I found that I simply do not fit. One way, the top of the windshield is in my line of sight. Another way, my knees are hitting the dashboard. At 6’1″ and 210, I do not consider myself ‘large’, but I just do not fit. Yes, some work arounds can be made, including lowering the seat, but adding a helmet and the broomstick test eliminate consideration.

    The wrong version of the Lotus Elan is pictured. LoL The 90s front wheel drive version is show, when it should be the little 60s rwd version.

    My current every day driver is a 2004 NB. Clearly the best car I’ve ever had! I have a small collection of various makes and models from 1940 to 1966 including a ’64 Corvette and have had many others in my 70yrs of driving.

    The Miata was arguably the savior of the affordable rear wheel drive coupe/convertible. It spurred others to up their game.

    Not thirty years, but twenty.
    Which 1960 models inspired later ones? Not 60’s, but 1960.

    1970 was one of the last years, maybe THE last, where design and performance could be had with little outside “influ-ference”, (I may copyright that.)
    And RWD convertibles were everywhere.

    Mazda did bat .400, though.

    My girlfriend’s pristine, just turned 100,000-mile 2001 Miata runs like a champ, as honest, simple a car, and genuine sport car, as you’ll find today. At 5′ 15″ with size 13 shoes, i don’t hop in and out in two seconds flat, but once inside with seat back, plenty comfortable. BTW, over the years, i’ve seen a pair of fellows, each 6′ 5,” also slim like us, driving Miatas who loved them, not a word about discomfort. We’re thinking some of this “too small for me” jazz is residual testosterone girly car yap.

    If the steering wheel’s too close to your beer gut, go vegan. Hasn’t slowed us or the world’s leading Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton.

    Agreed!! I’ve had my 01 for about 10 years, and I’m 6’4″ and above 250 in weight. I think part of it too is, us tall guys are USED to looking at the top of the windshield no matter what we drive. If I’m the first car at a stop light, pretty much anything I’m driving, I have to bend over to see the overhead light.

    Right. The world’s not designed for tall blokes; furniture, bathroom and kitchen counters, etc. Hell, i had to lean forward a little in a ’36 Packard One Twenty coupe to see out the middle, not top, of the windshield, tho’ the senior and ’38-on models plenty roomy, and a 6′ 8″ Irish tennis star in the day raved about the comfort in his ’41 Packard Clipper.

    Since the engine is, as 6′ 3″ Steve Allen used to say, “smaller than a bread box,” in an MG-TC, had more legroom than in a big Healey or XK-120/140.

    But for those of us who like c a r s, and shifting for ourselves, we have to laugh at those buying stewpid useless vehicles (SUVs) because they’re too infirmed or lazy to stretch and take an extra few moments to get in and out of a real sport car like my squeeze’s Miata.

    I have owned three MX-5. First one a ’95 that I drove over 150k miles without an issue. Battery actually lasted 11 years. Second one a ’03 SE Edition drove it over 50K and only sold because daughter couldn’t drive stick. Two retro Thunderbirds later I bought my 3rd one. A one owner ’96 M Edition, one owner for 27 years with a record of every cent put into it over that time. I restored it back to original condition including the Nardi Knob. All three bought used. All three worth more in fun and excitement than any money I spent. My third one will be my last one because you will have to pry the keys out of my dead hands. ZOOM, ZOOM.

    My 17 year old son asked me if his, first car, can have a manual transmission. I said sure. He found a 1997 NA for sale. It was 15 minutes from our house. With 3K in his pocket, from working at a local car wash, we took it for a test drive. He loved it. He drove it to school his junior year, as is. We worked on it his senior year. I repaired the rust on the rockers, new paint, replaced the top, seat covers, window seals, wheels and tires and audio system. Not many cars appeal to a teenager and a 60 year old. He drives to work, cruises and we autocross with it. After 7 years its worth 11K. I have driven Vipers, C8 Corvettes and 500HP Cobra replicas. I love this little car.

    A lot of the comfort situation is do you like it enough to put up with it? I’m 6′, 220 pounds, and I think I JUST fit in one. If you’re even an inch taller it’s cramped. Much heavier too. It’s a small car and not made for big people — I can live with that! Us bigger guys need something with a little more room. A Miata or BMW Z3/Z4 just doesn’t really cut it.

    Even Mazda has left the original idea for the MX-5 behind. It’s been moving a bit upscale, but you will still have a hard time finding a new car as fun to drive as a Miata for $30-35K, especially if you want a drop-top two seater.

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