Want a cheap Miata? Put your money where your mouth is

To misquote the great Yankee philosopher, the past ain’t what it used to be. Our individual memories are spectacularly unreliable when it comes to anything that happened before breakfast this morning, but our collective memory as a society is even worse. It doesn’t help that our schools are now treating history classes as opportunities to practice cultural warfare on children rather than as an opportunity to arm them with the authentic knowledge they’ll need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I have a particular animosity for the revisionist so-called historians who trample all over contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous accounts like those of Suetonius or John Toland in their attempts to remake yesterday in today’s image. It’s frankly Orwellian and it is frankly disgusting.

The pricing of sports cars in the past might not be as important as the reasons for the Civil War or the thinking behind Constantine’s decision to recognize Christianity as a state religion, but judging from what I’ve been reading lately it’s no less obscure a topic to our young auto writers than the origins of the Tudor rose or either story of Phaedrus (Plato or Pirsig, since you asked). The nice people at Jalopnik have recently decided that the Mazda Miata should cost $20,000. They admit that the inflation-adjusted price of the original Miata would be about 30 grand, and that the current base model is both cheaper and better equipped than the 1990 variant, but they really think it should be cheaper. Because a base Corolla is 20 grand, and the Miata doesn’t weigh any more than a Corolla, and cars are basically priced by the pound, right?

There are a number of compelling reasons why a Miata should cost more than a basic economy sedan, most of which you would learn very quickly if you, like your humble author, happen to own and campaign both a SCCA-prepped Neon and a MX-5 Cup car. The suspension of a Miata is relatively exotic, made from lightweight materials to close tolerances and without much regard to cost savings. The engine spins faster, makes more power, is more highly stressed. The transmission is pretty much a bespoke part, since we no longer have RWD economy cars from which you could borrow such a thing.

The costs of emissions and safety testing are no lower than those attached to a Corolla, but they are divided over far fewer vehicles. The same is true for the engineering and supplier development costs. It’s no cheaper to design a steering wheel for a Miata than it is to design one for a Corolla—in fact, it’s more expensive, because you have more difficult goals for weight and performance. A Corolla shares many parts with other mid-market Toyotas, but a Miata is chock-full of unique low-volume pieces. 

Let’s assume for a moment, however, that the Miata doesn’t need to have all that great stuff. What if we could build a Miata almost entirely out of lowest-possible-bidder crap that would otherwise be used in the cheapest possible poverty-boxes? What if we tossed Mazda’s rigorous program of three completely new designs and one major refresh in 30 years and decided instead to sell the same car over two entire decades? And what if our low-budget Miata didn’t need to be fast or sharp-handling, but instead could be considerably slower than the average American family car? Last but not least, what if it was built by a low-cost nationalized labor force with free healthcare? What would this junky-Miata cost?

I happen to be in possession of the answer: $28,949. That’s the $9450 price of a 1980 MGB, adjusted via the CPI index. The 1980 MGB was a hugely cynical and significantly flawed effort, and I say that not as some random Internet critic but as someone whose own father fell prey to the siren song of British Leyland in 1979 and subsequently found himself stranded a half-dozen times in the first 5000 miles. The MGB was a 20-year-old take on a car that was behind the times when it was introduced. The difference between a 1980 MGB and a 1990 Miata is like the difference between a Sopwith Camel and an SR-71. Yet it wasn’t cheap. Not even kind of cheap.

“But Jack, I don’t trust CPI-adjusted numbers. They don’t reflect reality.” Fair enough. Let’s compare that MGB to what else you could find in 1980’s showrooms. How about a Chevette for $4100, or a Crown Vic for under nine grand. Heck, you could get a Trans Am for less money than you’d pay for an MGB. And the most critical comparison—a Chevrolet Citation was about $5500. The Citation was about halfway between a Corolla and a Camry, market-wise. So if you look at today’s entry-level family sedans, which sell for about $24K, and apply a similar correction factor, you come up with the idea that the MGB would really be about a $35,000 car today—or more.

For $35K you can get the very nice 30th Anniversary Edition Miata. My wife just bought one of them, so I know. If the 1990 Miata is the SR-71 of little sports cars, this is the oft-rumored hypersonic SR-72 of little sports cars. It’s really, really nice—better-built and with a higher-quality interior than my 2004 Porsche Boxster S. The idea that you used to get an MGB for that kind of cash is just plain depressing.

Ah, but maybe the MGB was an outlier, a black swan event from British Leyland’s unpleasant nationalization and/or the vagaries of currency exchange. Let’s look at an MG TC, which is widely acknowledged as perhaps the instigator of America’s love affair with sports cars. It cost half again as much as the average family car in Britain when it was new in 1947. (Are you starting to see a pattern there?) To make matters worse, it cost half as much as the average new home. Can you imagine if that still held true today? A Miata would be a quarter-million-dollar proposition. 

Let’s not even waste our time discussing the fact that the Miata wasn’t patterned after the poor-boy MGB—in truth, it was a close analogue to the expensive, and rare, Lotus Elan. Rather, let’s take a look at the general trend in sports-car pricing throughout the years, which tells us that a new sports car generally costs at least 1.5-times as much as a basic family car. This was true even back in the days when you didn’t need to spend $50 million crash-testing a car. More importantly, it was true back in the days when a sports car could be a volume-sales proposition. 

Viewed in this context, the base-model Miata is just this side of a miracle on Earth. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it handles like a dream, and it will probably last a quarter-million miles before you turn it into a spec race car and get another 20 years out of it. If you don’t buy one, I don’t know how you will live with yourself in the year 2040, I really don’t. 

It is, however, worth asking ourselves if it couldn’t be a little bit cheaper somehow. We have all this technology and all this underemployed brainpower at our societal disposal. Can’t we crack the code of the $20K Miata? Shouldn’t that be easier than achieving cold fusion or non-soggy cereal?

I think I have the answer, and it’s straight out of the Internet culture. Over the years, I’ve participated in quite a few “group buys,” where a bunch of like-minded individuals get together and pre-pay for a certain consumer good, which is then produced at a lower cost or with special features that can’t be had in the regular run. Mazda could easily do this.

By pairing with an established firm like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, Mazda could come up with a way to “crowdfund” a $20,000 Miata. This would be a single production of nearly identical cars. Vinyl seats, no fancy stereo. Maybe no A/C. Steel wheels. Single-layer top. This sort of thing doesn’t save money in a modern production environment, but when you order all the supplier pieces at once, it can cut the cost a bit. Maybe three colors, or maybe just one. 

To crowdfund this car, you’d put down a 50-percent deposit. Once, say, 25,000 people have put in their deposits, Mazda would run its Hiroshima factory at high speed for a month or two, making all these identical no-frills Miatas. When the car arrives at your dealer, you pay the other half. If you change your mind, you forfeit the 10 grand and the dealer puts the car up for sale at $10,000, which should lead to a very quick sale indeed. 

This will never happen, because in the real world it turns out that Miata customers are quite happy to pay $27,000 or even $35,000 for their cars. The number of people who are turned away from Miata ownership because of a six- or seven-grand price gap—$120/month on a five-year loan, the equivalent of one Starbucks coffee Monday–Friday—is basically nil. If price were really an issue for these people, you’d see them driving $12,000 used NC Miatas, which you’re not seeing. And most of the people who would only be interested in a new Miata at $19,999 or whatever don’t have the credit score or the down payment to make the deal anyway. Mazda is right not to worry about these imaginary buyers.

Yet the astute student of automotive history will remember that this “crowdfund” model has worked in the past. Can you remember when? That’s right—it was Max Hoffman, who basically “crowdfunded” the 356 Speedster when he was American distributor for Porsche. He guaranteed some sales volume, Porsche cut the fat out of the car, and the market responded with cash-in-hand alacrity. 

As fate would have it, the enthusiasm for this bare-bones crowdfunded Porsche has been so long-lasting that the firm has just reintroduced a Speedster model. It’s $274,500. I don’t need an inflation calculator to tell me that the new Speedster is a bit more expensive than the old one. In fact, as a long-time Porsche owner I could easily see myself getting morally indignant about the idea of using the Speedster name on something which is so obviously a toy for rich people—but wasn’t the original Speedster just a toy for rich people? Does anybody remember for sure? Does it even matter? After all, the past ain’t what it used to be.

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