With one million sold, the Mazda MX-5 is the most successful sports car ever built, and the best starter collectible. Sold as the Miata in America and the Eunos in Japan, it was a mid-1980s contest between teams in these two countries. The Japanese pursued front engine, front-wheel drive, but American designers like Tom Matano had owned MGBs, Triumph Spitfires, and Fiat 124s, and favoured front-engined and rear-wheel drive.
Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elan inspired both teams, with its 1600cc, twin-cam Ford engine, spine frame and independent suspension. The US team upped the dimensions, and planned to build the car out of steel, instead of fiberglass. Pop-up headlights were featured, and Alfa Romeo’s twin-cam four-cylinder engine was studied closely.
The Miata – which means “reward” in old, High German – is credited to Motor Trend magazine writer Bob Hall, in Tokyo in 1976. Hall suggested to Mazda executives Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai that the company build a “bugs in the teeth, wind in the hair, inexpensive British roadster.” When Hall joined Mazda US in 1981, Yamamoto told him to look into it.
The first generation (NA) MX-5 was launched as a 1990 model, with a 1.6-litre, 116 bhp motor, a 5-speed transmission, rack-and-pinion steering, independent suspension, disc brakes all round and a “one-hand” manual hood. The first cars were red, or white, or blue, and weighed only 2,150 lbs. They were sold as the Miata in North America and Australia and as a separate line, the Eunos, in Japan. In 1994, the engine was increased to 1.8 litres and power to 130 bhp. There was also a 90 bhp model in the UK from 1995-1998.
The first cars had steel wheels, no air conditioning or power steering, and wind-up windows and sold in the US for $13,995 (£8,881). A hardtop cost $1,100 (£693). The "A Package" added power steering, leather-wrapped steering wheel, alloy wheels and cassette stereo. The "B Package" included power windows, cruise control and headrest speakers, while the "C Package" included a tan interior and hood and leather seats.
The later "R Package" was for racing, annual “M” special editions included "C Package" options, special paint and wheels. In the UK, Mazda celebrated its 1992 Le Mans win with a sought-after special edition with Brodie Brittain Racing turbocharger.
The NA MX-5 was phased out in 1997, with the exception of 400 Berkeley models for the UK, and 1500 "STO" ("Special Touring Option") versions in the US. The NB of 1998 can be recognized by fixed headlights, while the restyled NC of 2005 gained a retractable hardtop in 2009.
Many original NA models survive. The MX-5 is bulletproof, the only essential maintenance being replacement of the timing belt and water pump every 80,000 miles, or about five years. Vinyl hoods last 5-7 years, and are best replaced with a glass rear window, which won’t have to be unzipped when you lower the hood.
Tappets often tick at cold start, and could mean the oil needs changing. Cars built from 1989-1992 cars should be converted from R12 Freon in the air-conditioning to R134. Rust develops in door sills, wheel arches and drains in the rear wings. The one-piece plastic rear license plate panel is fragile and expensive, and check the battery hasn’t rusted the trunk floor.
NA Mazda MX-5s are delightful to drive, tight and not squeaky, with light clutch, positive brake feel and very smooth transmission. With 50-50 weight distribution they can be thrown around twisty roads with abandon.
Many MX-5s were bought as second cars and have been garaged. There’s a narrow range of colours with a few options like BRG and bright yellow, but beware repaints and colour changes. Standard colours for the NA are red, black, white, blue and silver. NB colours are red, green metallic, bronze, silver and black. Original hardtops always match the body colour. Alternatives from the era are sparse- the Alfa Romeo (916) Spider and BMW Z3 Roadster, plus the earlier MG R-V8 all offer top down motoring, but only really the Lotus Elise offers the nimbleness of the MX-5.