Mazda MX-5: Past blast
Light on the scales and hip pocket, Japan's answer to the classic British roadster became an overnight success
Thanks to my dad, I grew up with British sports cars scattered in the driveway. But the last of these, the MGB, was killed off in about 1980, meaning the small, simple sports car was history.
So it was terrific when the news broke in the late 1980s about the development and arrival of the Mazda MX-5. The world had been starved of sports cars for a long time, and at its ’89 launch, there was nothing like it available on the market.
The car itself was a refreshing thing. It was loosely inspired by the Lotus Elan and it retained a lot of the Lotus philosophy: small, simple, light and pure. Knowing how car companies work internally, I reckon it must have been a massive ‘sell’ for someone within the company to convince Mazda management to create and build this car. But it was a terrific opportunity as there was no competition and – as the last 20-odd years and almost a million MX-5s proves – an obvious place in the market for a sweet-handling, simple and reliable drop-top sports roadster.
It was powered by a lovely little twin-cam 1600 that was adapted from the front-drive 323s of the time, but with changes to the crank and cams to make it more free-revving. The engine even looked good – engineers shaped the cam covers to give it a classic 1960s look. The gearbox was adapted from the RX-7 and the ’box and diff were tied together with a lightweight frame that stopped driveline snatch and improved throttle response. The suspension was classic upper and lower wishbone geometry at each end but rather than alloy, Mazda made them from pressed steel to keep cost down without affecting the dynamics of the car.
Really, the whole car was designed to fit into the niche – once dominated by the British – of a fun, simple, inexpensive and exhilarating car that everyone could enjoy. Combining Japanese build quality with the classic layout from the golden era of sports motoring, it was a breath of fresh air and an instant hit just about all over the planet.
My family had a little Mazda dealership in Devonport at the time of the MX-5’s launch. Our red demonstration MX-5 stirred so much interest. It was even terrific value for money – we took orders for this car hand over fist, at full retail, no discount. I’m sure you’ll understand that’s a great way for a dealer to be selling cars!
So driving this ’92 model brought back a lot of good memories for me. I haven’t driven one for a long time and I was looking forward to driving the original again. The first MX-5 is arguably the most appealing as later models, even though they became faster, also became a little heavier and softer.
It has a beautiful driving position in a cosy little driving compartment. Being in the car is almost like wearing it – like an extension of your body. You guide it along almost without thinking about it. There’s no power steering but there doesn’t need to be as the car, and the steering, are light. You almost think it around corners. I’m not a lover of tiny gearshift actions but this works beautifully, with a defined gate and a snick-snick feel – it’s almost like a switch.
The car is so nimble and vice-free – there are never any ‘Oh, what’s it about to do?’ or ‘Uh, it’s a bit twitchy there’ moments at all. It puts a smile on your face every time. It’s a beaut little classic.
But that’s not all. It’s a really easy car to live with, too. Okay, so it’s a two-door sports car, but that’s where the compromises end compared with many classics. It starts easily, there are no oil leaks and this one has air-con. Even the way the roof folds back was designed to be easy – a one-hand operation. You need to be careful you don’t crease the vinyl rear window – it zips out of place to prevent this – but you can do it sitting in the car. It’s all so dead easy and simple.
And you know what? There haven’t been any long-term issues with these cars. They were reliable when new and they’ve remained reliable throughout their lives. This one belongs to a friend of Uncle Phil’s and it’s a shining example of how good this design really is. It’s done 160,000km so it’s not exactly a pampered low-kay museum piece, but honestly, it felt almost as good as new.
There are no creaks, no groans or shakes that were once the hallmark of a sports car. Plenty of people compare the MX-5 to the MGB but the two cars have a different feel. The MGB feels vintage whereas the MX-5 feels like a present-day car, even though it’s now approaching a quarter of a century old.
About the only thing I would mention is this example’s front shocks were a little soft and I didn’t notice that until I got onto some bumpy bitumen. They are very tough mechanically and if you can find one that’s been lovingly cared for, the mileage on the odometer is almost incidental.
I OWN ONE
Martin Gunsberg has lusted after an MX-5 since he was a car-besotted 10-year-old in the late 1980s. However, it took until late 2012 for the dream to come true after Martin relocated from Brisbane to Melbourne for his career.
"It was too hot in Queensland for a convertible so I thought now was the perfect time," Martin says of his decision to buy a good early MX-5.
He soon discovered MX-5 condition varies widely. "There are plenty that have been babied for life, and others that have been daily drivers and are generally untidy," he reckons.
With diligent searching, he found a perfect two-owner car. "I really wanted a first-generation car – this is a first update car with the revised badging, mudflaps and number plate surround.
"When [the previous owner] was showing me the car, it was more an interview process – he was making sure the car was going to a good home!"
The car arrived with the optional hardtop – essential for Melbourne winters – and included the original but removed old-school cassette player, which Martin has re-installed.
He couldn’t be happier with his daily driver classic. "Every time I drive it I fall in love with it even more."
1992 Mazda MX-5
Engine: 1597cc 4cyl, DOHC, 16v
Power: 85kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 130Nm @ 5500rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Wheels: 14x6-inch; 185/60 tyres
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Top speed: 187km/h
* Condition 1
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