Driving my 1993 Mazda Miata earlier this week, I found myself transported, of all places, to the lunch table at junior high school.
Like most kids in middle school, I wanted to be at the cool table, but in fact, I usually wound up at the table with the nerdy Jewish and Asian kids. Before sitting down, I’d frequently give the lunchroom a quick scan to see if there was somewhere else I should sit. Maybe that girl I was flirting with in English class has saved me a space? One day, my friend Greg, a nice, goofy kid who was almost always smiling, noticed my skittishness. “What are you looking for?” he asked me one day. I regarded him with a mixture of envy and pity. “He doesn’t even know,” I thought.
Cars are often about ego, about trying to get to that cooler lunch table. Drive down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles or A1A in South Beach, and you’re right back in the junior high cafeteria. Men driving sports cars and pickups to broadcast virility. Women driving full-size crossovers and SUVs to assert independence. I’m not judging them. As an automotive journalist, I try on all sorts of different identities: I can be the young tough in a Roush Mustang one day, and the wealthy socialite in a Jaguar XJL the next.
My Miata casts aside this pretense. Just look at it. Pickups growl through massive chrome grilles. Sports cars snarl through intercoolers and air dams. The Miata? It smiles. It’s a car that unselfconsciously declares, “Isn’t this fun?”
It sure is. I just took the roadster out for the first time this spring. It was covered with dust from winter storage, and paw prints from a furry creature dotted the trunklid. No matter. I checked the oil level, hooked up some jumper cables. Then I zipped open the rear window and flipped back the top. Within fifteen minutes I was purring down the road, darting around potholes, and generally enjoying everything about Michigan’s first warm, sunny day of the year. The engine had warmed up by the time I got to work, so I took a hot lap around the office. First deep into the throttle, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder responding with gusto despite its 130,000 miles, then hard onto the brakes. No, harder—still haven’t gotten around to replacing those pads. Now turn in and then countersteer to catch a little tail slide. I reached the office parking lot and blew right past it, feeling the steering wheel load up as I gently accelerated into a sweeping lefthander. (Side note: our office park is pretty great. Someday, I hope to paint candy canes on the curbs; I’m sure our fellow tenants won’t mind.)
As I pull into the office park, it occurs to me that Greg did know. He just didn’t care. You sit with your friends at lunch because you like them, just as you drive a car that reminds you why you enjoy driving.
A coworker told me he’d seen me driving the Miata down one of Ann Arbor’s main thoroughfares. “You had a huge grin on your face.”