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.
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.
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.
Over the years, the Hall family made the natural progression upward: from the TD to a Triumph TR2, an Austin-Healey 100-6, and finally to a 1966 Healey 3000 Mark III. Bob and his identical-twin brother, Jim, were born in 1953 and before they began school, their father let them practice “driving” while seated in his lap. When other kids were playing baseball or riding bicycles, the Hall brothers were motoring around vacant parking lots in the family car while their indulgent father read the paper at the sidelines. When they weren’t driving, the Hall twins attended sports car races during the sport’s southern-California heyday at such tracks as Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Willow Springs.
After high school, Bob spent six weeks as an exchange student in Japan. Back in Los Angeles, he learned Japanese by reading comic books with a dictionary in hand and by listening to Japanese movie dialogue in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo district.
Bob Hall began his working career as a cub reporter at Motor Trend magazine. After reading a story about Japanese cars that was full of mistakes, Hall accosted Motor Trend’s editor at an auto show demanding an explanation. The editor agreed with Bob Hall that the story was a mess and admitted firing its author. When he challenged Bob Hall to do a better job, Bob submitted a manuscript and won a staff position for his trouble.
Soon Bob Hall was Motor Trend’s Japanese expert, which provided him with a free pass to the Land of the Rising Sun. In 1976, he met Kenichi Yamamoto, today’s chairman of Mazda Motors, and formed a lasting friendship with the man who perfected the rotary engine. Hall planned to stay at Motor Trend for a year or so as a break form his studies at the University of California. Instead he stayed five years, outlasting three editors. His brother Jim also worked at Motor Trend before taking a job at General Motors.
In 1978, Bob Hall moved to a new position-the west-coast editor of Autoweek magazine. He had already made up his mind that his ultimate goal was to work at a car company, preferably Mazda. That dream came true late in 1981 when he was offered a job at the US arm of Mazda Research and Development, in the planning department.
The seeds for the car that would ultimately become the Mazda Miata had already been planted. On one of his journalistic pilgrimages to Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima, Bob Hall was invited to spend a few minutes in open discussion with Kenichi Yamamoto, at the time the head of R & D. Mr. Yamamoto posed the natural question, “What kind of car should Mazda make in the future?”
Bob Hall remembers his response, “I shifted into over drive. I babbled at 70 mph (in a trans-Pacific hodgepodge of English and Japanese) how the RX-7 is a neat car, an A-plus sports car, but the simple, bugs-in-the-teeth, wind-in-the-hair, classically-British sports car doesn’t exist anymore. I told Mr. Yamamoto that somebody should build one and that the Mazda 323 (at that time a rear-driver) would make the perfect platform for an inexpensive roadster. He put on his poker face so I had no idea whether or not the idea was sinking in. We discussed it for a few minutes, then moved on to other subjects.
“Then when I got back to the US, I tried to promote the idea elsewhere. I wrote a column in Autoweek fostering the rebirth of the roadster and cajoled you into spreading the word to Car and Driver!” (As C/D’s technical editor in 1980, I wrote a plea to all the world’s econobox manufacturers suggesting that they recycle their obsolete sedans by fitting them with new soft-top, two-seat body work.)
“Then months later, when Mr. Yamamoto visited the R & D offices in southern California, he surprised me. With a glimmer in his eye, he turned and said, ‘Hey Bob, what about your lightweight sports car? Why don’t you study that!'”
Bob Hall quickly discovered two camps of thought when the notion of an inexpensive roadster was aroused: those who immediately understood and appreciated the idea and those who could not be convinced of its virtue. Unfortunately, the timing was bad in the early eighties because the Japanese had just launched their quest for unbridled high-technology. The doubters felt that a lightweight sports car wasn’t “new” enough to fit in with Mazda’s future plans.
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.
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.