The Mazda MX-5 has a problem: its ubiquitous nature means that many people take this incredible little two-seater for granted. The flipside is its sheer affordability - spend £2000 and you should get a fine example of the Mk1. Even the best will command perhaps £5000. What you’re getting is a reliable everyday sports car that is an absolute blast to drive.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Mazda MX-5, the development of which was a truly international effort. Mazda opened an American R&D centre in 1983, and only a year later its sports car proposal won approval ahead of coupe alternatives from Toyko. The first full-sized prototype, meanwhile, was built by British firm IAD.
Chief engineer Toshihiko Hirai drove all sorts of classics to gain inspiration, from Lotus Elan and Seven, to Fiat X1/9 and Triumph Spitfire. He was fastidious in his approach, right down to the noise he wanted the car to make: he even taped his favourite exhaust notes and would play them during his commute.
The intention was to recreate the magic of those earlier models in a simple car that was cheap to buy, cheap to run and great to drive. Hirai’s motto became: ‘Oneness of horse and rider,’ making it clear to his team that this had to be a predictable, safe, tactile, controllable car rather than a savage road-bumer.
'There is little doubt that the shape is highly derivative and offers more than a nod to the original Elan, but it was very skilfully done. In period, its rounded corners were a contrast to the angular shapes offered by the likes of the Toyota MR2 Mk1 and Bertone X1/9. It is a compact, well-proportioned car with no fussy details and a friendly face.
Inside, everything is unremittingly black, but it’s a simple and ergonomically sound cockpit. Clear dials positioned where you want them, a hood that is a cinch to use and a pleasing level of build quality combine with echoes of the past such as the low driving position, deep transmission tunnel and stubby, high-set gearlever.
‘The chief engineer taped his favourite exhaust notes to play during his commute'
Japanese-market Eunos Roadsters often boast better equipment than UK cars, with power steering, electric windows and air-conditioning as standard. Contrary to popular belief, they also offered the same level of rustproofing as European cars.
A well-sorted MX-5 is a precision instrument. The steering delivers constant feed-back - whether assisted or not - and the Mazda responds to inputs without delay or inertia. From its sharp turn-in to its ability to gently unstick the rear tyres on the way out, it encourages you to take the long way home, to revisit favourite B-roads. Its 1.6-litre twin-cam does not deliver searing straight-line pace - the 1.8, introduced in 1994, feels more muscular but is a little more gruff. It revs keenly though, and is allied to a fabulous short-throw gearchange.
You will not stand out from the crowd in an MX-5, but there is a good reason why it has inspired an immense club following and a booming specialist scene. Here is a car that you can use without worry all year round - the smart optional hardtop now commands £500 - and work on yourself. A car that can entertain you without being stricken by foibles so often explained away as ‘character’. A car that is just terrific fun.
THE KNOWLEDGE WHAT TO LOOK FOR
• If the rear drain holes become blocked, corrosion will form at the lower-front edge of the wheelarches and also affect the sills.
• A leaking or noisy water pump will be upwards of £300 to replace. You might as well change the cambelt while it's all apart.
• Many cars have been modified, with varying degrees of success. If suspension or engine work has been carried out, try to drive a standard car before buying so that you have an appreciation of how an MX-5 should feel.
• The 1.6 remained on sale when the 1.8 came out. but not with the same spec as the original. Its powerplant was detuned to 88bhp.
• Eunos chassis numbers start with 'NA'. MX-5 ones begin “JMZ”
Thanks to Duone Harris; The Mazda MX-5 Owners' Club: mazdamx5oc.co.uk
Clockwise, from main: MX-5 corners beautifully, with lovely steering; black plastic prevails inside; sweet twin-cam; pop-up lamps; 'daisy' alloys
Mazda MX-5 Mk1
1989-'97/431,506 (all Mk1s)
galvanised steel monocoque with central Powerplant Frame
iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1598cc 'four'
114bhp @ 6500rpm
100lb ft @ 5500rpm
driving rear wheels
independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
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