Ikigai Man: Bob Hall and the Original Mazda Miata

Don Sherman
Rear Half View

Bob Hall single-handedly invented Mazda's original MX-5 Miata, and hounded everyone he could until it was approved for production.

It sounds like some dastardly plot attributable to the PLO, KGB, or Red Brigade: during the nineteen-eighties, affordable sports cars have been erased from the American market. At the dawn of the current decade, a Corvette convertible packing a 190-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 cost $13,140. Car and Driver toasted the top down, two-seat class in May of 1980 with a run through California's wine country in a Fiat X1/9, an MGB, a Triumph Spitfire, and a Triumph TR7, none of which cost over ten grand. Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and TVR offered three more open roadsters, each of which cost less than $20,000.

Now, they are gone. A 1989 Corvette convertible sells for the princely sum of $36,785. Every last British and Italian sports car has either fallen by the wayside or sought refuge in the loftiest branches of the marketplace.

Overhead Front Passenger Side View

To add insult to injury, a few benighted motoring journalists have anointed small pickup trucks "the sports cars of the eighties." Even Lotus has been sucked into the mire: before the decade is out, the Norwich firm will celebrate the return of the Elan-with front-wheel-drive and a Japanese-made powertrain!

It's a despicable situation. Yet, before the clock strikes 1990, sports car salvation will be in hand. About the time this journal hits the newsstands, Mazda Motors of America will introduce the car the rest of the automotive world can't seem to comprehend: an inexpensive, two-seat convertible with a potent engine, rear-wheel drive, and purely sporting intentions.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata, as it is called, bows to the buying public at this year's Chicago Auto Show (now in progress). To date, only four motoring journalists have driven this wind-in-the-face throwback, so a full hands-on report will have to wait a few weeks. In the meantime, we bring you this background introduction to the Miata with the cooperation of the man who made it happen, Mazda product planner Bob Hall.

But first, the particulars. The Mazda Miata is expected to sell in the US for less than $14,000. It's powered by a 115-horsepower, twin-cam, 16-valve normally aspirated 4-cylinder engine displacing 1.6 liters. The fully independent suspension uses unequal-length control arms, coil springs, and anti-roll bars front and rear. A 5-speed transmission, power-assisted 4-wheel disc brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering are standard equipment. Options include a molded fiberglass hardtop, power steering, and power windows. Riding on a tidy 89.2-in. wheelbase, the steel-bodied Miata weighs approximately 2150 lbs.

Front Drivers Side View

In many respects, Bob Hall is a perfectly natural father for the Miata. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he has a native's appreciation of warm wind, sun, and surf. Hall is a card-carrying car nut, he's fluent in Japanese, and he has the persistence of a puppy dog who doesn't understand "no!" when his passions are aroused. His vanity licence plate reads IKIGAI, a Japanese word that, loosely translated, means "obsession," or "the thing you do in life that justifies your existence." Mr. Hall wears the label he was given by a Japanese cohort proudly.

Bob Hall's father piloted B-25 (Mitchell) bombers from Britain during World War II and returned home with an acquired taste for foreign cars. He obtained his first sports car quite by accident one day when a stranger in a spanking new, bright red MGTD rolled alongside at a Los Angeles stoplight and asked if Mr. Hall would consider a trade. Since Bob Hall's father was then driving a Morris Minor convertible, he didn't give the stranger the time of day. But when at the next light the man in the next lane insisted he was quite serious, Bob Hall's father pulled to the curb to discuss the proposal. It turned out that the TD owner's wife had presented the poor soul with two alternatives: return home in a car with a back seat or face divorce. A swap was negotiated and Bob Hall's father drove off a happy man.

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