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.

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