Like the shopworn yarns of returning World War II servicemen and their MG TCs, or the ones about Ol' Shel and his fire-breathing Cobras, the great sports-car creation tale told about Mazda's Miata will be trotted out long after most of us are gone. Picture the automotive wasteland of 1989. Cars were heavier than ever, and the cheap, two-seat convertible sports car had long been pronounced dead. Performance had become the province of hot hatchbacks and lard-ass, luxo-bucks sedans, with only the Chevrolet Corvette, high-priced exotics, and a very tired Alfa Romeo Spider left to fly the sports-car flag. Enter, from out of nowhere, the Miata and its almost mystical revisitation of the classic roadster formula-inexpensive, superb-handling, top-down fun, minus the reliability headaches of its sainted English forebears-at a price most any numskull could afford. Coming from Mazda, Japan's fifth-largest and most idiosyncratic carmaker, the Miata paid obvious tribute to the Lotus Elan of 1963-73. Indeed, it was a tribute worth paying, for the Elan had been the ingenious brainchild of the even more underfunded and idiosyncratic Lotus Cars of England. But, as if with a magic brush, Mazda dusted off the concept of a light, well-balanced roadster and made it both practical and affordable. At 2200 pounds, the first Miata was heavier than the original Elan, but it had vast reserves of passive safety features compared with the vulnerable fiberglass Lotus, and it still ended up as the lightest new car you could buy. The ultimate keys to its success lay not in brute horsepower but in the purity of the Mazda engineers' focus and the use of tried-and-tested mechanical components. A battle-proven DOHC four-cylinder that revved like a banshee led the way. No overheating, no oil leaks, and, thanks to quality Japanese electrics, it started every time. A snug, easy-to-erect soft top, a sonorous exhaust note, and an impossibly sweet, short-throw five-speed gearbox allowed drivers to recall a halcyon past so wonderful it may have never existed. The Miata caught pundits and every other carmaker asleep at the switch, and it went on to become one of the best-selling sports cars of all time. Almost single-handedly, it dragged the sports-roadster genus into the twenty-first century. That's a story worth repeating.
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