Mazda MX-5 celebrates 30th anniversary with new edition
A chilly Scandinavian roadtrip proves the MX-5 has long since surpassed the cars that inspired it
When a car has been on sale for longer, and with greater success, than the classic models from which it took inspiration, perhaps we need to move the goalposts of iconography. In other words, the Mazda MX-5 deserves better.
It’s the 30th birthday of the MX-5 this year, and way back in 1989 it was playing against the grain of the car industry. Motoring fun was focused, almost entirely, on hot hatchbacks and performance German saloons. The two-seat sports car was all but dead.
Mazda decided that wasn’t good enough, so Kenichi Yamamoto (the man who kicked off Mazda’s rotary engine obsession) and Gai Arai, the company’s head of research and development, decided to re-create the sixties Lotus Elan for a new generation. Motor Trend magazine’s Bob Hall urged Mazda to go the ‘purist’ rear-wheel drive route — his friendship with Yamamoto (forged during an exchange student stint in Japan) and his fondness for old British roadsters, so popular in the California of his youth, doing so much to convince Mazda of the rightness of the concept (and how much it would appeal to the US market).
Mazda decided to create a classical front-engined, two-seat, lightweight sports car. Not as obsessively light as an original Elan, mind — there’s also more than a little of the MGB in the MX-5’s sturdy steel makeup, so one could argue it took stylistic inspiration from the Elan, and mechanical cues from the old MG.
Here’s the thing: neither of those progenitor cars saw their 30th birthdays while still in production. The MGB, once the world’s best-selling sports car of all time, lasted 17 years (plus a bonus year of production in the 1990s as the MG RV8). The Lotus Elan was on sale for a mere 11 years (a little longer if you count the somewhat bastardised 2+2 Elan Coupe). The MX-5 has now, by far, surpassed them both. By 2016 it had already sold a million examples, making it the best-selling sports convertible of all time.
So, shouldn’t it now be counted as the definitive small, affordable, two-seat sports car? It’s in its fourth generation (just updated this year with a new 184bhp 2.0-litre engine and — finally — reach-adjustable steering) and has stayed remarkably true to its original mission. Aside from the fact that you can now also buy an elegant retractable fastback version with a folding hard-top roof, the MX-5 has stayed utterly true to its roots and the purity of the original design.
It’s also the antitheses of those leaky, rusty, unreliable sixties roadsters. To prove the point, Mazda let us drive one from Lulea, on the Gulf Of Bothnia in Sweden, all the way (500 miles) to The North Cape in Norway, Europe’s most northerly point, amid the snow and temperatures that reached 20 below. The fact that it did so, without missing a single mechanical or electronic beat, surely proves that the MX-5 has long since surpassed the cars that inspired it. §