Mazda MX-5 – Rebirth of the Classic Roadster

Mazda MX-5

Sporty, small, open two-seaters have always inspired enthusiasm. In the course of reason, practicality and stricter safety regulations, however, they disappeared somewhat from the scene. Until Mazda breathed new life into the roadster genre in the early 90s with the MX-5.

Legend has it that it all began with a petrol conversation between two car enthusiasts. One, Bob Hall, was an American motoring journalist with a penchant for European roadsters and a leg up in Japan. The other, Kenichi Yamamoto, was head of research and development at Mazda at the fabled meeting in Hiroshima on 16 April 1979.

Five years later, he would rise to become president there. At the beginning of the 1980s, Mazda had a number of vehicles in its portfolio, but without wishing to offend the Japanese, all of them were somewhat very conventional and “unspectacular”.

With the launch of Project OGG in November 1983, a few fresh, attractive products were to be added. OGG stood for “Off-Line Go-Go”: “Off-Line” was meant to express the experimental character and the “Go-Go” stood for the Japanese number 55, since all projects in this programme had to have at least a 55 percent chance of being realised in order to continue.

The list included a small model with 660 cc engine capacity, a functional van and, if possible, a light sports car below the RX-7. In fact, a suitable car in all categories was subsequently to hit the streets: The Kei-Car Carol, the MPV and the MX-5.

But the road was still going to take a while. First of all, they had to decide where exactly they wanted to go. It was quickly agreed that they did not want to take part in the competition for “bigger, stronger, faster – and more expensive”. But would they rather have a closed coupé with a front engine and front-wheel drive or a mid-engine and rear-wheel drive? Or something completely different, almost classic, a convertible with front engine and rear-wheel drive? In any case, the car should be built more with the US market in mind than focusing only on the domestic market.

A JAPANESE-AMERICAN CO-PRODUCTION

The coupés were designed in Japan, while the American Mazda design team was hired for the convertible. Somehow they must have been closer to American taste, because in the end their concept of a roadster with a front engine and rear-wheel drive won the race.

The Japanese engineers were then left to rack their brains over how to translate the idea into a production vehicle. But as far as possible, not a bit of the driving fun and the “zoom-zoom” was to be lost. Long before this term gained a foothold in Mazda’s marketing lingo, they had adopted various flowery terms over the years. “Jinba-Ittai” was the motto while the engineers were developing the MX-5.

The bon mot, which cannot be translated quite one-to-one, is best described as the connection between rider and horse. The car was also intended to form a perfect symbiosis with the driver.

Mazda MX-5

A low vehicle weight with balanced distribution between the front and rear axles, a low centre of gravity, a front engine placed far to the rear, a smooth driving experience and an easy-to-operate fabric roof were to be the ingredients for an intimate, immediate driving experience. Finally, in the spring of 1987, a near-production prototype was shipped to Los Angeles, where the roadster faced test subjects and dealers. And it passed with flying colours.

Both the potential buyers were taken with the car, as were the US dealers, who would have liked to order the car immediately.  Thus strengthened, the final stages of series production began: completion of the design process in autumn 1987, presentation of the MX-5 NA at the Chicago Motor Show in spring 1989 and the European premiere at the IAA in Frankfurt am Main in September 1989.

MAZDA MX-5 – THE TRIUMPH OF THE PURIST

What excited the trade fair visitors at the time and also captivated the buyers of the well over 400,000 units of the MX-5 produced was above all the purist overall concept. With a wheelbase of 2,265 mm, it was 3,975 mm long, 1,675 mm wide and only 1,230 mm high.

For optimal weight distribution, all heavy parts were distributed between the axles. The engine was placed quite far back, the fuel tank in front of the rear axle and the battery in the boot. Thus, the distribution of 50:50 was almost exactly met. The suspension was a completely new development. For the first time in a Mazda model, a double wishbone suspension was used on both the front and rear wheels.

This gave the engineers more freedom in tuning the car and improved the contact of the tyres with the road. For the powertrain, the starting point for development was the transversely mounted engine from the second generation Mazda Familia (323) with front-wheel drive, which was designed for a rear-wheel drive configuration.

In its new guise with cast-iron engine block, aluminium cylinder head with central spark plug and modified valve train, the 16V DOHC four-cylinder was designated B6-ZE (RS). With a compression ratio of 9.4:1 and electronically controlled fuel injection, the engine developed 85 kW/115 hp at 6,500/min and a maximum torque of 135 Nm at 5,500/min. Thanks to a fully balanced crankshaft and lightweight connecting rods, the engine speed limit could be raised from 7,000 to 7,200/min.

TIGHT PROPORTIONS, SHORT GEARSHIFTS

With the close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox, the developers concentrated on easy and fast gear changes. This was achieved with short shift travel, a low-inertia clutch disc and large-diameter synchroniser cones. In 1990, a four-speed automatic transmission was also offered, but if there’s one car you should absolutely drive with the crisp manual joystick gearstick, it’s the MX-5.

In 1994, the 1.8 litre engine was introduced with 96 kW/131 hp at 6,500 rpm and 152 Nm at 5,000 rpm. The final drive ratio was changed to 4.1:1, rigidity was increased and the suspension improved. A year later, the 1.6 litre engine was replaced by a new entry-level unit. The power of the small engine dropped to 66 kW/90 hp, a new engine management system changed the responsiveness so as not to give up too much of the driving pleasure.

Limiting the car to the essentials is also reflected in the exterior and interior design. Clear lines and harmonious shapes and proportions characterise the exterior. The folding headlights were a typical identifying feature of Mazda sports cars at the time. The interior is businesslike and minimalist. Compared to earlier British and Italian roadsters, one had to get used to the lower quality materials. But in return, you didn’t get a cheaper entry into the world of small, sporty, open two-seaters.

At the market launch, the MX-5 NA with the 1.6 litre engine cost from DM 35,500 in Germany, the later special models as well as the variant with the larger engine went towards DM 40,000 and beyond. By the time production ceased in January 1998 and was replaced by the second generation NB, a total of 431,506 units had been produced.

33,911 of these vehicles were registered in Germany for the first time. Today, the NA in particular enjoys great popularity as a classic.  The MX-5 is still being built today, currently in the fourth generation ND. In total, more than 1,000,000 units have rolled off the production line. Interestingly, the NA still leads the field in terms of production figures.

The NB has already produced “only” about 290,000 vehicles, the ND is currently at about 140,000 units. However, it can still catch up, also due to the additional Targa Coupé version RF.

Then as now, the MX-5 is a relatively inexpensive entry-level model. You can enjoy the open roadster feeling from mid four-digit values, even good models are sometimes under 10,000 EUR.

The vehicle was kindly made available by Mazda Classic – Automobilmuseum Frey.

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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