Welcome to Freeze Frame, our look back at moments from this week in automotive history.
9 February 1989 – Mazda MX-5 introduced at the Chicago auto show
This was day one for the Mazda MX-5. Not for Mazda itself, nor the engineers who had spent most of the past decade tirelessly working on Mazda’s new roadster project, nor for journalist Bob Hall whose meeting with Kenichi Yamamoto, head of Mazda’s R&D department at the time, had taken place all the way back in 1978.
But the Chicago auto show on February 9, 1989, was day one for a model line that has sold more than a million units in 33 years, making it the world’s most popular roadster. It was day one for the roadster boom of the 1990s, that brought us everything from the MGF to Boxsters, Z3Ms and the Lotus Elise. And it was day one for a craze that saw waiting lists and people on the street offering to buy the press cars from journalists testing them in the early days.
The MX-5, dubbed Miata in the US, could so easily have been overshadowed in Chicago that year. Across the hall was a rather more voluptuous sports car from Chrysler, the Dodge Viper Concept, which finally went into production in 1991. Closer to home, at least for Mazda, was the Honda NS-X, also previewed in prototype form (and prior to ditching the hyphen in its name), which would launch the following year.
But Bob Hall’s assertion in 1978 that there would be a market for a bugs-in-the-teeth affordable sports car had been spot on, and the engineers that had insisted upon a traditional front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout – chosen over front-wheel drive and mid-engined proposals – similarly accurate.
The credit for both the styling and the MX-5’s layout goes largely to Mazda’s North American studio. The team had carefully seeded the mothership in Japan with old Elans and Spitfires to convince the suits that a back-to-basics sports car would be worth the effort, particularly as the RX-7 already satiated demand for something more advanced and expensive. It was only right that car would be launched in the United States, particularly as this was likely to be its largest market too.
Mazda presented three production models at the show, appropriately coloured red, white, and blue. The latter, named Mariner Blue, has perhaps the most interesting story: Bob Hall wanted the option of a French racing blue, and designer Tom Matano mixed one that replicated exactly California’s rear license plate colour at the time.
A shame really that UK examples would be lumbered with an ugly yellow rear plate – at least until the appropriately-named California special edition arrived, in Sunburst Yellow, in 1995.
Mazda did actually have a yellow MX-5 Miata on its Chicago stand too, the wide-arched Club Racer concept. Based on a pre-production model, it had a handful of subtle differences to the production cars sitting nearby (aside from the obvious), but previewed a taste for modification that MX-5 enthusiasts have never lost.
Mazda still owns the car in its US collection, alongside those three motor show stars – the white example of which, incidentally, later became the world’s first race-prepared MX-5.