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Shoutout to a campus classic: The 1990 MX-5 Miata

(RL GNZLZ / Flickr)

John Masefield once wrote “All I ask is for a tall ship and a star to sail her by,” in his poem “Sea Fever.” But had he the opportunity to drive the pocket-sized convertible pictured here I’m sure that he’d be pining instead for a red Miata and an uninterrupted ribbon of asphalt to drive her on.

Looking at its innocuous and almost cutesy fascia today, it is hard to understand the stir that this car created in the automotive world when it first debuted. Yet, when the unassuming MX-5 Miata first took to the stage during the 1989 Chicago auto show, the presence and significance of its arrival was undoubtedly larger than its diminutive dimensions alluded to.

Though the car didn’t make its first appearance until the end of the 1980s, the origins of its gestation reaches back far earlier. The story begins with Bob Hall, at the time a Mazda employee, who was lamenting to his boss in the early 1980s about the disappearance of the “proper sports car”—that timeless wind-in-your-hair, lightweight, high-revving two seater. A vehicle that defies all practicality but provides an emotional overload.

It was the kind of machine that a dreamer would see themselves piloting on an empty twisty road, the sun sinking low, the only sound the raspy exhaust. Gripping the thin, wood-rimmed steering wheel through your finest driving gloves, only taking your hand off the delicate tiller to move the wooden-knobbed shifter from gear to gear…Ah yes, the timeless reverie of all aspiring sports car owners.

Unfortunately, this romantic idea of the sports car was often dreamt but rarely realized. The old sports cars Hall was nostalgic for were fun, top-down machines—but they also hailed from Europe, which meant finicky, undependable and temperamental. Fun they were, but reliable they were not.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, those old sports cars couldn’t cope with their maligned reputations, detuned and emissions-choked motors, and rising inflation. Slowly, these beleaguered cloth-top warriors waved their white flags and retired from the battlefield, leaving behind only their legacy and few spots of oil.

By the early ‘80s, the cheap two-seater sports car was about as dead as bell bottoms and disco. It was about this time that Hall’s desire to build a sports car began making headway at Mazda. Various design and engineering proposals were tossed about in the early years, including configurations such as FWD and mid-engine, as well as a coupe body. In the end, though, Hall’s initial concept won out—the tried and true rear-drive, front engine convertible was green-lit for production. The sheet metal to be draped around this new Mazda was inspired by none other than the original Lotus Elan, itself an icon of the lightweight, minimalist sports car ideal.

When the wrappings were pulled off the final product in February 1989 at the Chicago auto show, the results of Mazda’s MX-5 (Mazda Experiment #5) was an affordable breath of fresh air in a world stale with sports cars that had swollen sticker prices and bloated curb weights.

It was small (155 inches bow to stern), it was light (a shade over 2000 pounds), and it was quickly heralded as a champion of an automotive genus that most had long given up on. Under the gossamer hood was a 1.6 liter four cylinder, boasting a 7000 RPM redline and a DOHC design, both a big deal during the malaise 1980s. Hooked up to this engine was a five-speed manual transmission. Notchy, precise and mechanical, it was the perfect match to the eager motor and the willing chassis.

Some cars simply drive from point A to point B; the Miata danced. The small, rear-drive car was fitted with an independent double-wishbone suspension all the way round, along with anti-sway bars. Coupled with a low center of gravity, light weight and short wheelbase, the car was composed and agile when the roads got twisty. Enter a corner, downshift and make all those 115 ponies work to get you through the apex—that’s how the Miata begged to be driven. For only a tad under $14,000 in 1990 money, the fun-per-dollar ratio was unparalleled this side of a motorcycle.

It was so fun and well balanced, in fact, that the car has since become one of the most successful amateur road racing cars to date—witness the rise of the Spec Miata series, which is one of the cheaper and easier ways to get involved in road racing.

The auto rags loved it, the amateur racers loved it and most importantly, the buying public loved it. To date, over one million units of these pint-sized drop tops have been sold.

While the Miata has been improved over the years with a number of various updates spanning four distinct generations, the secret sauce that instills the car with its captivating magic has stayed steadfast. It has adhered to a creed that to this day remains an unwavering dogma: To be a simple, lightweight, tossable and fun car. It cannot boast of ridiculously high horsepower or outrageous grip in the skid pad—but it doesn’t need to. Its low limits and affordable entry price mean it is an accessible car for the everyman, for those jostling to feel the wind in their hair but not wanting to endure a milquetoast Chrysler 200.

Emotions are a powerful thing. They can stir within us powerful desires to toss aside rational thoughts and apprehensions, and to instead let our heart guide us. The original Miata, as well as the three following generations, has succeeded in the market not because of any practical and reasonable justifications. It has won over the hearts of enthusiasts because it romanticizes, but rather affordably and reliably embodies that age-old want of those who have oil running through their veins and pistons in their hearts—the elemental roadster. So let Masefield have his tall ship and star—just give me a Miata and a windy road.

Anthony Sophino’s can be reached at asophinos@umass.edu.

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