The Pop Top of Pure Happiness

02 Jean Jennings

I will never forget the day, more than ten years ago, when I borrowed a Mazda Miata to drive from California's Monterey Peninsula up to San Francisco, where I would catch a flight home to Detroit. It had been a great weekend, shuttling between the vintage races at Laguna Seca, the parties, the auctions, and the concours events scattered around the peninsula (see "A Tale of Two Cities," page 78). I don't remember that much about the weekend itself. I don't know which was the honored marque at Pebble Beach. I don't remember where I stayed. But I think I can tell you about every moment of that afternoon drive in the roadster that has become so famous it threatens to stand alone outside the parent company as its own brand.

The seaside towns of Carmel and Monterey can be fogbound and dank, while just the other side of Highway 101, up Highway 68, the sun is blistering the rolling hills around Laguna Seca into a desertscape. But on the day I headed out in my borrowed Miata, top down and an entire afternoon available to make the ninety-minute drive, the big orb was perfectly behaved. The sky was break-your-heart blue. A breeze riffled in from the coast. It was the kind of day that makes you understand why enough people have moved to California to sink the state into the sea. It was a day made for open-air motoring, and I was in the car that had captured the essence of joyful driving and returned it to our midst.

I, for one, hadn't realized I'd been missing it, steeped as I was in an automotive culture that worshiped big displacement and top speed. Like my colleagues, I used the open road daily as a nonstop test track, practicing heel-and-toe downshifts at every stop sign, late-braking into tight corners, drifting through freeway entrance ramps, and doing top-speed runs in Porsche 911 Turbos on the local Interstate in the dead of night.

The Miata put the brakes on the madness, slowed me down to a dull roar, a rumble, revealing the joy of a relationship that its chief engineer, Toshihiko Hirai, called "oneness between horse and rider." The Miata was light, simple, happy. Driving one caused a state of, in design editor Robert Cumberford's words, "perpetual emotion." I took every road that hugged the Northern California coast, passing orchards and bean fields, savoring the heavy garlic air around Gilroy, letting the wind tear through my hair. I ate a big, fat nectarine while the sun warmed my cheeks. My hair braided itself. You couldn't slap the happy from my face. I wanted to move to California, too.

Twelve years later, the Miata has spawned roadster competition of every sort, but not one exudes Hirai's mystical aura of mindful motoring. I went to Italy in the middle of last summer to drive the latest, greatest Porsche Boxster S, and it was a formidable beast. I loved it to death and had an adventure worth describing in lurid detail at a later date. But there was nothing simple about the Boxster. You stood on the gas, it screamed like a banshee, you held on for dear life. It was a sweaty, gut-wrenching sort of high. More like maniacal motoring.

The joy of my perfect Miata day has not dimmed. Maybe it has even grown in my memory as a balm for the ragged synapses. Not to wax too weenie about it. When a letter came in July from Mazda headquarters in Irvine inviting me to bring the husband and join a few other journalists and Mazda execs in caravanning up the coast to Monterey for the big August weekend, I packed our (little) bags and rushed to the airport.

I will not lie. I had stupidly been expecting a repeat of that perfect day a decade ago—the sun, the blue sky, the sea breeze, the peace of mind, all of that and more. Irvine, being coastal, can be quite chilly and misty on a typical August morning, and it was. And there was a crowd. But the crowd was all smiles because lining the curb were Miatas of every hue—silver, turquoise, red, navy, bright blue, schoolbus yellow—and we had the day (and the most famous driver's road in the United States) ahead of us. They were new Miatas—bigger, faster, slicker, and with electric window switches now. But it was just enough newness to keep the fickle memory from disappointment. The integrity of the original mission remained intact. The riders joined their steeds and became one with the day.

Memory is a beautiful thing. For instance, a shining vision of serpentine Highway 1 twisting high above the crashing surf held fast as we crept through nasty old Los Angeles. It was cold and stinky, hanging out there in the world's biggest morning rush hour. Make that hours, plural. But we were on an adventure, and expectations overcame reality. That old Miata magic finally began to seep into the bones around Ventura, where you can see the ocean again. There was a hint that the sun might shine as we stopped at the Santa Barbara Inn for a hot lunch, but we eventually gave up that hope, wrapped extra coats and sweaters around bare necks, and carried on, soft tops down all the way.

The truth of Highway 1 is that other than that little bit by Ventura, you don't really find the sweet spot until Morro Bay, almost 200 miles north of Los Angeles. And there is the balm for your soul—the forests around Ventana, the crashing surf at Rocky Point, the twists and turns of the two-lane that you can only hope are not hopelessly blocked by Winnebago boy and his Good Sam Club fellow travelers.

Here is the truth: There was traffic other than our conga line of brightly colored Miatas whipping up the road. In a Porsche, you're aching to pass, dying to pass, you must pass those plebes. The joy is found in wringing out a Porsche's engine and reeling in the miles as fast as you can cover them. You're just never going that fast in a Miata. Instead, you're working the little shifter and sliding the tires at a ridiculously low speed. And you're laughing. There it was, the feeling I had carefully preserved in my memory for ten years. The joy of the day, the air (no matter how unseasonable this time around), the road, the somehow perfect Miata.

There are Miata maniacs everywhere; we've written about them turbocharging, supercharging, aerodynamicizing their otherwise happy little mounts. Count Mazda president Charlie Hughes (who has had his personal Miata breathed upon by Mazda engineers). That's not what I need from Mazda. The Miata remains a place where I can go when the massive displacement and the roar invading my life get a little too loud.

2003 Automobile magazine All-Stars Drive

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