It seems that when you do something long enough, new things become old and old things tend to feel new again. Some explanation: Twenty years ago, I was the car culture editor for a large format “lifestyle” magazine – before “lifestyle” dripped with irony – called L.A. Style. It was in that role that a brand-new Mazda MX-5 Miata was thrust upon me at the end of June 1989. It was mine to drive through the Fourth of July weekend, even though “civilians” weren’t able to take delivery of the much-heralded new roadster until after the holiday. Thus, my Miata experience back then was a very singular and exclusive one. Now that time has passed, I’m writing about the car as a collectible classic. As I cast my mind back to the first Bush era, I can make the argument that the Miata fit that definition even at its inception.
Bystanders alternately laughed and screamed when they saw the car over that long weekend. A friend’s tearful young daughter implored me to give her a ride. She’s now a mom and a businesswoman. The Miata has been part of the vehicular landscape for a lifetime. I recall grousing about impaired visibility when the headlights were popped up at night; I was just grasping for something, anything, negative to impart. I liked the car with the top up but truly loved it with the top down.
By the 1980s, the postwar sports car boom was a shadow of its former self. The pickings, in terms of light, tossable roadsters, were, to say the least, slim in the wake of the departure of MG, Triumph, and Fiat from the American market. Mazda, emboldened by the success of its rotary-powered RX-7, leapt into the breach with the Miata. It was conceived at the company’s American design studio in Irvine, California, at the urging of Mazda product planner and former automotive journalist Bob Hall. Production started in Hiroshima in mid-1989 for the 1990 model year.
When I first laid eyes on my loaner Miata (has anybody ever really called it an MX-5?), it seemed instantly familiar; its resemblance to the lithe Lotus Elan was undeniable, right down to the hidden headlights and the chromeless, below-bumper oval grille. All the same, the little Mazda exuded its own spunky personality and was thoroughly modern, equipped with an air bag, four disc brakes, independent suspension, and a five-speed manual transmission; it even had available power windows and air-conditioning! A perky, fuel-injected, 1.6-liter DOHC sixteen-valve four-cylinder was more than adequate to the task of powering a car that weighed less than 2200 pounds. The whole shebang was classically formatted: front engine/rear-wheel drive. It was the archetypal British roadster rebooted with a bulletproof engine, modern underpinnings, balanced weight distribution, reliable electrics, a cooling system that did the job without foaming at the mouth, and a manual soft top that went up and down in seconds without any vexing English complexity. Even the sweet exhaust note recalled sports cars of yesteryear.
The Miata and I had lots of fun back then, and the car would go on to be named this magazine’s very first Automobile of the Year and a perennial All-Star; L.A. Style, “lifestyle” notwithstanding, would soon cease publishing. Flash-forward to the present, and I’ve been reunited with the Miata, but not for the first time. The example at hand is a second-year car (with the very desirable factory hard top) purchased new by Ray and Melenie Caldwell as a replacement for Ray’s chartreuse ’74 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia coupe and companion to Melenie’s ’73 VW Super Beetle. It was very sad when Ray died a few years ago, but his red Miata soldiers on as Melenie’s daily driver. With more than 80,000 miles on the clock, the car is still tight, with nary a rattle or squeak.
I’ve worked with Melenie for the better part of thirty years, so this car is more than familiar to me, but I’ve come to appreciate it on a new level that transcends mere wind-in-one’s-face fun. Its sheer competence is, in an unassuming way, simply astonishing. The short-throw five-speed is as easy to work as a video-game joystick, and the pedal layout begs for heel-and-toeing just for the heck of it.
Except for passenger and luggage capacity, there’s absolutely nothing about this eighteen-year-old car that would cause one to think twice about taking it on a freeway or, better yet, a twisty byway, where its brilliant handling comes into its own.
Sure it’s cute. But the essence of the Miata, its true gestalt, is its agility and how it makes the act of driving a very tactile experience, all at ordinary used-car prices. Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, nothing came close back in the summer of ’89. That’s still very much the story today. Zoom zoom, indeed.
Engines: 1.6-1.8-liter DOHC I-4, 116-133 hp, 100-114 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension, Front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes F/r: Vented discs/discs
Weight: 2116-2293 lb
233,830 (U. S. market)
(5 percent premium for detachable factory hard top)
Why not? It’s a solid, reliable sports car with optimal handling, adequate power, and delightfully retro – but not cloyingly so – styling. Exclusivity isn’t the point, but then again, there’s lots of inventory, so you can comparison shop to your heart’s delight. Parts and service can usually be found around the nearest corner, and you can count on economy-car mileage on regular-grade gasoline. For a good time with virtually none of the usual collector-car hassles and costs, the Miata is the way to go. It seems too easy, but that’s part of the charm.