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Mazda celebrates the Miata's 20th birthday

Mon, 19 Jul 2010

Hard to believe, but the Mazda Miata is 20 years old. And Mazda didn't let the birthday pass without a party.

On July 17, parked in the inner courtyard of Mazda R&D in Irvine, Calif., were examples of every significant Miata and MX-5 Miata ever made. There were pristine first-, second- and third-generation cars as well as a number of racing Miatas and a couple of concept cars. The beautiful red Monoposto sat next to the gold, fixed-roof M Coupe, and that one was next to a 1995 M Speedster (the latter reminding us that there have been so many special- edition Miatas that the regular production cars should be worth more than the special editions when these things enter the collector-car market, though that may be unlikely given that most owners don't want to quit driving them).

Miata clubs from all over Southern California came, too, parking their Mazda roadsters in the lot outside R&D and setting up camp for a day of Mazda history. Mazda brought together the original Miata team for the occasion: product planner Bob Hall, designers Mark Jordan and Tom Matano, and engineer Norman Garrett, to name just a few. They all took the stage to relate how the iconic roadster came to be.

“We were sitting here, hired in the early '80s by Mazda to come up with ideas specifically for the U.S. market,” said Garrett. “It was easy to come up with four-door sedans and two-door cars. What we all missed [in those days] were sports cars.”

“The whole thing was predicated on a car that was fun to drive, enjoyable and no matter who you were, what you were doing, unless you'd been embalmed you'd get this grin,” said Hall. “And that was the whole idea. But with the reliability of a Japanese car.”

“All of us had grown up with the British cars,” said Garrett. “All of us had been racing them, running them around, and those companies died: MG died, British Leyland died, Alfa, Fiat disappeared, so we said, ‘There's a place to make a car like this.

“Rather than make a vacuous Stepford kind of car, it was important for us to make a car everyone would want to drive,” said Garrett.

Said Matano, “So, what if we come up with a car that we can drive every day, we can afford to buy and enjoy ourselves? It's kind of self indulgence.”

So a whole team thought it up, Jordan and Matano designed it and Japanese executives supported it.

“The guy you have to give credit to is Toshihiko Hirai, program manager for the car,” said Hall. “I had an idea, the designers had some styling, but if you didn't have Hirai to take that and make it into a car, you wouldn't have a car.”

Hirai's enthusiasm for the project was pivotal.

“At the end of the day, it would have been like a million other projects which we had and which never made it into production,” Hall said. “Every car company has them. Mazda has tons, Ford has tons, GM has tons, take your choice. They're all like that, projects that never see the light of day. Sometimes they're the best things to read and write about, but for whatever reason they didn't click. In this case, if it weren't for Hirai, there wouldn't be a car, nothing would have happened.”

“We had a lot of great players who all understood the concept,” said Jordan. “The concept was it was a perfectly balanced lightweight open roadster that was sexy, fun-to-drive and affordable. I think Bob Hall successfully communicated that concept to Japan.”

But it wasn't going to be a charity case.

“The idea came about, ‘Let's see if Mazda can make money doing it,' ” said Garrett.

That job fell to Hall, the Great Communicator.

Mark Vaughn
The Miata team discusses Mazda's landmark roadster. From left to right: Bob Hall, product planner, Jim Kilbourne, marketing research, Norm Garrett, engineer, Tom Matano, design, Mark Jordan, design, and Michael Jordan, moderator.

“Just imagine this,” said Hall. “You've got the business case, you've got all the research you've done, and you go to management and you say, ‘We want to build this car, it's a lightweight sports car.' And they say, ‘What is the current market?' And you go, ‘Um, zero. There's no car like it.' Now you've got guys that are, ‘What's the current volume in the segment? How can we grow it? What's the percentage we can take?' Well, I said, there is zero, but we can expect to get 100 percent of the segment.”

“So [at that point] there was this entry-level sports-car possibility,” said Garrett. “In Mazda's case, because they didn't have a dedicated factory like GM did with its [Pontiac] Fiero, that one Fiero factory had to support 100,000 units a year or it got closed. At Mazda, they did flexible manufacturing. They'd have the truck, 626, 323 going down the line and they could stick in the MX-5 Miata and still make money. So Bob sent the fax over and said, ‘Can you make money on 40,000 units a year?' And they sent back, ‘Sure.' ”

The logic was that in 1980, MG and Triumph sold 40,000 units a year of a “horrible MGB and a basket case Spitfire,” Garrett recalled. So when those cars went out of production or were unavailable in the United States, those customers were left with nothing to buy.

“So it came down to, ‘Let's fill their needs,' ” said Garrett. “The beauty of it was there was no competitive product, so we didn't have to benchmark it against anything.”

All they had to do was build a couple of them to see whether it could all be put together.

“The original proof-of-concept car was built off of a GLC wagon and an RX-7,” said Hall.

That was the front half of a GLC and the rear of an RX-7. They took one of those first mules to Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara for a driving evaluation because they figured it wouldn't create much excitement in staid, conservative Hope Ranch.

“Immediately people began chasing us and yelling, ‘What kind of car is that?” Garrett remembered. “We had some Japanese executives with us and they heard that. It helped our cause.”

A panorama of Miatas.

Work on the Miata proceeded. To make the production car affordable, the plan called for a GLC rear and an RX-7 front on the finished Miata. Yes, that would have meant a solid beam rear axle on the car.

“Then [a Japanese executive] came to us and said, ‘We have found some money; we can do a multilink,” Hall recalled. So that's what they did.

“The Ferrari Daytona was the bellwether [for suspension],” Garrett recalled. “It had double wishbones all around.”

The car eventually came together, came to market and the crowd went wild. So far, the total stands at 860,000 sold in a little more than 20 years, with a fourth generation in the works. The car is raced more than any other nameplate in America, with 2,500 spec Miatas on tracks across the States, including spec Miata, showroom stock-C Miata, showrooom stock-B Miata, improved touring, E production, F production and performance touring E, according to Robert Davis, Mazda senior vice president of product development and research.

The car's enduring appeal is simple, said Hall.

“You don't have to have somebody explain it to you. When you have that, a car will last a long time.”

By Mark Vaughn