Ikigai Man: Bob Hall and the Original Mazda Miata

Don Sherman
Front Drivers Side View

Early in 1982, Bob Hall submitted a background paper to Mazda's planning department in Japan. One incorrect assumption was that the light-weight sports car would have to use off-the-shelf components-probably a compete floor plan-for any hope of success. The proposal called for four-cylinder power, an existing transmission, simple suspension components, and a live rear axle.

Much to Hall's surprise, the seeds he had planted took root and quickly blossomed beyond expectation. "I was shocked how willing they were to consider new components at the earliest stage of the car's design-things such as fully independent suspension that were on early-early 'wish' lists."

By the end of 1983, Japan regarded the project as an off-line effort not slated for production. Supporters there favored a front-engine/front-drive layout or a mid-engine/rear-drive design, both wrapped in coupe clothing. The US team, goaded by the religious fervor of Bob Hall, stuck by its guns: a rear-drive convertible, or nothing. It was at this instant that Hall won his ikigai appellation.

The wheels of industry were turning. Early in 1984, the US arm of Mazda submitted full-scale sketches, many of which were prepared by Mark Jordan, the son of GM's vice president of design staff, Chuck Jordan. Hall describes the look at that point as "Ferrari-esque." Later that year, three full-size clay models were constructed around the three contending powertrain layouts.

Drivers Side Taillight View

During most of 1985, IAD in England was busy assembling a "proof of concept" mule that used a live rear axle from the first-generation RX-7 and a Mazda 323 four-cylinder engine. Hall did what he could do: "I was always bugging somebody about the progress of the car. It was important and it had to be done."

Late in 1985, after the running IAD prototype had been studied on the road in southern California, a second full-scale clay model was created in the US around a much tighter package. Masao Yagi simplified man of the exterior design details, deftly shifting the car's character away from miniature Ferrari 275GTB and toward the Lotus Elan. At this time, the project's status changed from "off-line" to that of an unapproved production model. Feasibility studies began in earnest.

At the January 1986 meeting of Mazda's board of directors, newly appointed president Kenichi Yamamoto recommended that the lightweight sports car be produced and approval was quickly granted. Shortly thereafter, Toshihiko Hirai, an engineer who previously worked on the current generation 323, was placed in charge of the Miata's development effort. Ex-Opel Chinese-American designer Wu-Huang Chin sculpted final exterior details in a third and final full-sized clay model. The open mouth, lost in the second iteration, was revived and all contours were gently rounded.

Bob hall was informed by his confidants that, "Mr. Hirai is a very hard man. The light-weight sports car may not survive." He was understandably nervous. In retrospect, Hall feels, "Mr. Hirai was the perfect man for the job-the best guy at Mazda to lead that project. He did one hell of a job!"

The journalists who've driven the Miata agree. While the new Mazda can't touch the power-to-weight ratio achieved by Lotus a quarter century ago, it is in every other respect, a major advancement of the sports car cause. The driving position is purposely very similar to the original RX-7's so no one need complain of cockpit cramps. The gear shift lever and throws are short and sweet like the best of the British. The snug top can be lowered or raised from the driver's seat without inducing a hernia.

The best news of all is that Mr. Hirai's development team got the handling right. According to the chosen scribes, the steering is light and quick with or without the extra-cost power steering. And the Miata has impeccable balance at the fringes of adhesion. It's eminently flingable. Which means that bugs in the teeth-caused by ear-to-ear grin on the driver's face-are assured.

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