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