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Motoring Top Stories

Retro: 1989 Mazda NA MX-5 - Roofless for the people

Wheels Magazine logo Wheels Magazine 18/05/2017 Michael Stahl
Retro: 1989 Mazda NA MX-5 - Roofless for the people: <p>Mazda’s iconic roadster brought driving joy to the masses yearning to breathe free.</p> © Wheels Staff

Mazda’s iconic roadster brought driving joy to the masses yearning to breathe free.

Everyone is supposed to own a sports car at least once in their lifetime.

For several million people around the world – more than a million of them as new-car buyers – that was made possible by Mazda’s brilliant MX-5.

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The world into which the NA-series MX-5 arrived in 1989 had been largely starved of convertibles since the early-to-mid 1970s, when Britain’s MGB ceased production, while other manufacturers shied away from production in the face of proposed – but never enacted – new roof-crush safety standards in the US.

The MX-5’s simple and honest styling recalled a more romantic era of motoring; its modern mechanicals implied reliability. It was a roadster without oil leaks, soaked upholstery or roadside strandings; an economical, everyday sports car that was a hoot to drive.

© Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd US automotive journalist Bob Hall, who later became a long-time Wheels staffer, is often credited as the father of the MX-5. In 1979, Hall proposed and sketched a low-cost rear-drive roadster for Mazda president Kenichi Yamamoto; that led to his hiring by the brand’s California styling studio in 1981.

Initially working on pick-up trucks, Hall was soon personally tapped by Yamamoto to start work on the sports car concept.

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Engineer Toshihiko Hirai was appointed program manager; his concept of jinba ittai – ‘rider and horse as one’ – became the MX-5’s mantra.

The final car wasn’t as simple as it looked. While the MX-5 invited comparison with the likes of the MGB and Lotus Elan, its handling and comfort stemmed from a rigid, unitary chassis designed with a super-computer.

Similarly, while originally conceived with a sohc engine and a live rear axle, cost savings along the development path made way for more advanced components. 

Computers also produced a cocktail of strangely familiar sports car emotions.

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The 1.6-litre dohc engine was ‘styled’ to suggest classic Alfa Romeo or Fiat twin-cam fours. Engineers analysed cassette tapes of several European and Japanese sports car exhausts in the tuning of the MX-5’s soundtrack.

None of this overshadowed the purity of the MX-5’s 50/50 weight distribution and a communicative chassis that was all the more enjoyable for not being overwhelmed with power.

Between April 1989 and October 1997, Mazda built a total of 431,544 NA-series MX-5s, selling 231,800 in North America (as the Miata), 118,300 in Japan (Eunos Roadster), 67,800 in Europe and around 6100 in Australia.

Nothing 'B' about it

The MX-5’s all-alloy 1598cc four-cylinder was based on the 323’s transverse B-series donk, but with a modified block for rear-drive, a new dohc 16v cylinder head and a lightened crank and flywheel.

Outputs of 85kW at 6500rpm and 130Nm at 5500rpm went through a snickety-quick five-speed manual to push the roadster from 0-100km/h in 8.8 seconds.

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Balance for beams

Designed from scratch as a convertible, the MX-5’s steel monocoque was reinforced with an aluminium bridge running down its centre.

Double-wishbone suspension at each corner was similarly exotic, brakes were discs all around and, with its 980kg balanced 50:50 front to rear, the MX-5 introduced sublime handling to the masses.

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Inside Job

Black plastic and vinyl lined the MX-5’s cosy and cheerful interior, though at just under $30K the roadster was about $5K more than a fully specced 323 hatch.

But beautiful details like Alfa Spider-inspired door handles, a gearshift that clinked against metal stops as in a Ferrari, and a manual roof that a stronger driver could operate one-handed while seated, made this a joyful place.

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