“You don’t just sit in it. You become a part of it.” – Mazda MX-5 brochure, 1991
Mazda’s marketing department waxes lyrical about the Japanese phrase Jinba Ittai which translates as “rider and horse as one.”
This might sound like baseless marketing speak from a major manufacturer, but don’t jump to that conclusion just yet. With well over a million cars sold across four generations of MX-5, it’s hard not to believe the Mazda hype.
The car’s physical form may have debuted in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, but its soul featured on beautiful B-roads the world over in the 50’s and 60’s in the form of lightweight sports cars. When the Lotus Elan provided the primary design inspiration and the Japanese provided the build quality, you knew things were on the right track.
The story behind the Mazda is as fascinating as the car itself. American motoring journalist Bob Hall deserves most of the credit, having suggested to Mazda’s head of R&D at the time that he should consider building a car to revive the ailing British sportscar segment in the North American market. It took over a decade for the seed he planted to germinate into what would become the world’s best-selling sportscar.
This is a first generation “NA” car and is the only generation of MX-5 to feature pop-up headlights, which have only become more desirable with age. The first few model years featured a 1.6l engine with 85kWs, with later NA models being driven by a 1.8l engine. The NA was eventually replaced by the NB in 1998.
This particular example is the 1.6l and has just over 25,000 miles on the clock (yes, the odometer is in miles and yes, that is incredibly low mileage). The owner bought the car approximately four years ago, sight unseen, from a medical doctor in Port Elizabeth. Precisely 7,000 miles had been enjoyed by all the previous owners put together. Even better, they had kept the original brochure, which makes for a very nostalgic read.
The stereotypical way to enjoy this car would be with the top down on a perfect summer’s day. One might imagine the car residing in a garage along a coastal road, only taken out on Sundays for a bugs-in-teeth blast through the mountain passes.
But this is an MX-5, not a Ferrari. Practical fun is what this car is all about, which is just as well when the weather doesn’t cooperate. The ominous clouds were confirmed as dangerous when frantic messages were received from home in Milnerton that the rain was well on its way to Somerset West and that we should hurry up.
Luckily, the only thing we needed to worry about in the rain was the camera. The car performed flawlessly.
The owner lives on a farm, which requires narrow dirt roads to be traversed on a daily basis. The resident bull seemed as surprised to find an MX-5 in this environment as we were. The dips and tight bends were handled with no issues whatsoever, providing absolute evidence of just how practical these cars are.
The deliciously low seating position enhances the experience of using the popped-up headlights to aim at the twisties. The snug seats with just enough of a bucket shape are comfortable on long drives and supportive when things get more exciting. Fear not if you are tall, as there is plenty of space in the cockpit for two adults.
Despite being almost 30 years old, there wasn’t a single leak from the textile roof. The wipers work perfectly, as do the demisters. We have long believed that it is entirely possible to use a well-engineered early 90s car as a daily drive. Our experience with this Mazda confirmed this view.
As novel as the farm road experience was, the true magic lay ahead as we wound our way out of Somerset West towards Clarence Drive. With many classics relegated to the garage in such weather, the MX-5 had primarily modern cars for company as we drove along this incredible road.
A sudden turn to the left and we were heading up a sharp incline towards the Steenbras Dam pump station. This is one of those roads where you can’t help but think that the chief engineer and whoever approved the budget must have been petrolheads. With a sheer drop on one side and imposing rocks on the other, the feeling of being on a European rally stage is impossible to ignore. The hairpin halfway up does nothing to discourage spirited driving.
50-50 weight balance is something best experienced in real life. The short-throw gearbox provides the perfect companion to the lightweight rear-wheel drive chassis and the hearty little 1.6l engine. The package has won numerous awards and you’ll know why by the time you hit the apex of the first corner. Weighing in at just 940kgs, the Mazda did a wonderful job of carrying the torch for Colin Chapman.
Rider and horse as one? Yes, definitely. This may not be the strongest stallion or the fastest in a straight line, but this workhorse will deliver great driving experiences day in and day out without breaking the bank. Best of all, and especially with the headlights popped-up, this horse looks happier to see you than your 6 week old Labrador.
Globalisation has become part of our daily lives. It turns out that almost thirty years ago, the most usable and best value-for-money “British” roadster of all time was designed in California and built in Japan.