First Time's the AOY Charm: 1990 Mazda Miata

mazda miata

Among our twenty-five Automobiles of the Year, none has been more important to this magazine than our inaugural winner, the 1990 Mazda Miata. You'd be forgiven for thinking that I have a personal bias, based on the fact that I own one. It ain't just me, babe.

But it was me. I brought the Gospel of Miata home from Japan. I'd been summoned by my friend in baseball-pennant fever, Mazda chairman Kenichi Yamamoto. His Hiroshima Toyo Carp won the Japan Series in 1984 (I was there), the same year my beloved Detroit Tigers last won our so-called World Series. Mr. Yamamoto wanted me to have an early drive in a two-seat roadster that Mazda was planning to unveil at the 1989 Chicago auto show. I remember flying around the Miyoshi Proving Ground, lap after lap, flicking its tiny little gearshift lever, never wanting to get out. I also remember being grilled in a stuffy little trackside portable classroom by every important systems engineer and designer until my brain turned to cottage cheese.

Then I came home, spread the word, and insisted we order one for a Four Seasons test. Editor-in-chief David E. Davis, Jr., unilaterally named it our first Automobile of the Year. No votes were counted, which is sad because it probably would have been unanimous. When that Miata hit the U.S., it was an instant classic. It was a Lotus Elan that never broke, that never left oil spills in the driveway. It slowed down speed demons without bumming them out, because it was so much fun to tool around in. You could open the Miata's soft top with a flip of the two roof latches and a one-handed backward flop of the lid. We ordered ours in mariner blue with a body-color hard top, which made it a true four-seasons car, but the top was rarely seen outside of storage in someone's garage.

We racked up 30,677 miles that first year and spent relatively little on repairs. As a grand finale, we drove it across the country to give it back to Mazda. The Miata has remained a favorite of Automobile Magazine staffers and contributors since that auspicious first year. It was voted an All-Star for the next seven years in a row, and the second-generation Miata made the list again from 1999 to 2002. (We also secured a second Four Seasons Miata, which a former executive editor bought after our 30,254-mile year. When an auto writer buys a car, it's big news. When he buys one after it has been flailed for a year by colleagues? Stop the presses!) In an amazing feat, the Miata has garnered one or more All-Star votes every single year of its amazing twenty-five-year run. That's how much we all love it.

Actually, this is how much Automobile staffers love the Miata: Todd Lassa is on his second, both bought brand-spanking-new, the first in 1994 and the second in 2008. His wife, Donna, bought her 1991 Miata from Jamie Kitman when it was already fifteen years old, drove it for two years, then sold it after she married Todd.

In 1998, Chris Nelson went with his dad to buy a 1991 Miata, which his dad then gave him in 2011 when he graduated from college. David Zenlea bought his '93 in the summer of 2012, and Jake Holmes bought his '97 in 2013 and loves it for SCCA Solo autocross events.

Michael Jordan bought his son, Nicholas, a mariner blue '92 off the street in San Pedro, California, in 2005, when Nicholas was in high school. It was a steal at $3000. That Miata came with 90,000 miles. The odometer has just passed 160K. "It's old enough to drink," cracks Nico, who adds that he's never selling it.

Who am I missing? Oh, right. Preston Lerner has been racing his 1990 Spec Miata since 2006.

And me. My turbocharged 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata, a birthday gift from my husband, turns ten soon. More than one departing staffer tried to buy it on the way out the door, but it, too, is not for sale. It's signed by the chief engineer, and it comes with a special Monroney sticker detailing its "Jean Jennings Interior," a cool perk of my overperky job. That would be rich brown leather with a matching Nardi steering wheel.

It's not just us. The Miata became the world's most popular roadster ever -- certified by Guinness World Records -- in May 2000 when production hit 531,890. Some 960,000 have now been sold, and the magical million-Miata milestone isn't far away.

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