An honest car
The title of this automobile essay is misleading. A ‘people’s’ car is a pleasant pipe dream.
Hitler named his Beetle as one, and it did sell over 4 million, being made in Mexico right into this century, a new contemporary model now selling briskly.
James May – the brainy one of Top Gear’s trio who pronounces was as wus – entertained us in a four-part television series trying to identify his ‘people’s’ car, a car that’s cheap, cheerful, reliable, and classless. He reached the obvious from the start conclusion no such thing exists because most of us on the planet are too poor to ever afford a bicycle let alone a car of any type. Nice job if you can get it.
I’d love to wander through the great art galleries of the world discussing what painting above all others is the greatest, only to state such a crème de la crème, unique work doesn’t exist, and then go home after a lovely expenses-paid world tour. I digress.
I do, however, believe there are a few honest cars. By honest I mean built to do what their designers intended, not altered in quality by bean counters in accountancy, not expensive to buy or run, no phony class badges such as GL or GLX, or unable to justify the claims of their makers. The humble Mazda MX5 roadster is one.
The first in Edinburgh
I bought the first to arrive in Edinburgh, in 1991. A 1.8 in white. It had been vandalised, parked outside the divorcee’s tenement flat. By the time I finished renewing it, it had all the quality of a Mercedes Benz.
It was a joy to drive. It had instant steering response, would dart around corners, had a snickety-snick racing gear change second-to none. (I never understood why other manufacturers didn’t strip down the transmission to copy it.) The car was completely reliable, and unbelievably cheap to run and service. Americans who bought them joked about dumping oil on the drive to remind them of their old British MG.
When the first MX5 was seen at a London car show I overheard an MG executive complain it had no heritage. I asked him what he thought twenty-two years of non MG production constituted. The British car industry abandoned sports cars, but we, the enthusiastic drivers, did not. In the mid-1980s cash rich Mazda saw the gap in the market and knew the answer: a European styled roadster but with a reliable Japanese engine, and a hood that didn’t leak.
Mazda was smart enough to understand cars sell well in Europe if they issue from a European aesthetic, especially the unrivalled Italian aesthetic. So, they handed the MX5’s body design to Europeans, engine design to Japanese, and suspension design to Americans. They all got together in Mazda’s Californian design studio to create the car and test it. On one test day the driver found a trial of cars following him, drivers keen to know what the new car was. Mazda had a success on their hands.
Now, let’s get one thing laid to rest. The MX5 is not a copy of the Lotus Elan. Even Mays repeated this xenophobic myth. It’s the classic Brit delusion – the Japanese did it better so, goes the rationale, it must be a copy of a Brit design. Wrong.
Mazda knew a roadster had to be lightweight, but they commissioned six different designs of the ideal before handing one they liked to their final designers to hone to perfection. The only aspect reminiscent of a Lotus was the pop-up headlights, installed because they were already manufactured for another Mazda.
In fact Mazda engineers and their American co-designers lifted various recognisable aspects from lots of classic roadsters to give buyers a feeling of familiarity: the door handles from an Alfa Romeo, the bonnet scoop from an E-Type Jaguar, the central console from an Austin Healy, the green instrument illumination from a Sixties MGB, and so on, and so forth.
Simple and uncomplicated
That little Mazda taught me all about a car’s engine, and how not to be scared about what lies under the bonnet. And the engine was accessible, easy to fettle or replace parts. Soon versions sprouted everywhere with add on bits, lowered, raised, tightened up with cross braces, racing versions, touring versions, and hard tops for winter days.
In fact, the humble MX5 proved so reliable I got bored quickly with it and soon started uprating everything metal to stainless steel, door locks, grille, full exhaust system, lightweight wheels, a quality hood with a glass, not plastic rear window, a deep pile Wilton carpet – no belly button fluff mats for me – and the entire interior leathered.
I had been so used to forking out money to replace bits on past British made cars, to spend next to nothing on my MX5 was unnerving. Until the advent of better put together Japanese cars British manufacturers left development to the customer. The E-Type Jaguar is a good case in point, the first series manufactured with a plethora of built-in faults. Here was a Japanese car that could drive for a thousand miles and back again without fault.
My biggest purchase was a bespoke supercharger created by one of the original US suspension engineers. It added extra oomph for hairy overtaking situations, 0-60 in a little over 7 seconds. “Zoom, zoom, zoom”, went Mazda’s television commercials, and they were right.
At first, unused to a roofless car, I was a bit embarrassed driving down crowded streets. In time, I learned to wear the darkest shades.
Cheap and very cheerful
I bought the car for £8,000 – all my savings in those days, and sold it sixteen years later for £4,000 to my local Automobile Association engineer who had always admired it. Ten years later he still had it. I believe it was worth £3,000 by then, a tiny depreciation. It is probably worth more now as a better than factory original.
If the original MX5 had any flaws it was the usual things: the cabin was a bit plasticky, and far too small. You sat on it rather than in it. Being tall I felt a bit too exposed. And the boot was minimal, but believe it or not, far larger than Jaguar’s latest £60,000 sportscar.
The Achilles heel was the battery, a small one to fit in the boot without taking up too much room. It could let you down if the car was stored more than three months. Nevertheless, I rate it as one of the best cars I have ever owned. It provided a tremendous amount of fun. It taught me every day driving could be an occasion not a utilitarian chore.
Spain here I come
On one glorious sunshine soaked trip I travelled from Edinburgh to Marbella in Spain, top down all the way, up and over the Pyrenees, down through Pamplona to Salamanca, across the great arid Plain where contrary to the song it never rained, down to Andalucía, skin burned clean off your forehead if a peely-wally Scot. Luckily, I’m half-Sicilian so I tan nicely. The journey was exactly 2002 miles. Memorable. You can buy that original shaped one in decent order for around £3,000, now in the category of a ‘classic’.
Open topped cars enforce good road manners. There’s no way you can shout abuse at that pedestrian, cyclist or driver. They can see and hear you. And they can reach over and punch out your lights! Get one with a tall enough windscreen and a good heater and Scotland’s worst cold winds are deflected, and prying eyes too.
The original model went through a series of design tweaks, and inevitably added weight with airbags and side crash protection missing from the first model.
The next major design almost ruined the sublime suspension, but a quick fix brought out a better iteration that included a metal folding roof that didn’t take up any boot space, a lesson to Mazda’s corporate competitors, Mercedes and their SLK. It is this model that I’d recommend to second-hand – sorry, ‘pre-owned’ buyers. If you drive mostly in town there’s an automatic version with paddle shift gears, a pleasure to use in stop-start traffic.
The fourth, fully redesigned model has been out a few months. It regains the charm and the manoeuvrability of the original, married to a contemporary higher quality interior, but to my mind is an awkward blend of Origami school and Voluptuous school of car design. The coupe version is controversial, practicality aside.
With its fixed flying buttress rear window the MX5 RF is singularly ugly, even if it does make you feel less exposed to prying eyes when moving in slow, High Street traffic.
It’s very difficult to blend angular shapes next to curves and radii. Seen from the side the nose, for example, looks like an anteater searching for termites. I shall never get used to those slitty eyes. (“Slitty”: oriental look. ©Chookie Embra) Cats have round eyes, not flat or square. A sportscar should have a mixture of the feline and the muscular in its shape.
The latest model has a 1.8 or a 2 litre engine. I drove one from Los Angeles to the pretty seaside town of Santa Barbara. On the way up I tried to overtake a slow moving SUV. The competitive driver decided he didn’t like overtaken by a wimpy wee sportscar and increased speed.
I hit the gas and caused the engine to run out of puff instantaneously, the car seeming to move backwards, the oncoming vehicle getting dangerously close to my overtaking space, a hairy moment That said, my advice is, always buy the big engine car if you can afford the difference. Who knows where I might have ended up driving the smaller engine version.
There is an alternative
Sharing the same platform, Fiat has brought out its own ‘MX5’, the Fiat 124 roadster, and a hot version, created by their go-faster division, Abarth. Sizes are similar, and interiors hardly changed, but the nose is handsomer on the Fiat, to my mind, if a little conventional, and it has a limited-slip differential to help put power down on the corners, a part missing from the basic model.
The Abarth’s engineering team appear to be wizards. Their version is faster, (0-60 in 6.8seconds) and much more chuckable than the Mazda. They’ve taken an already excellent rear drive, front engine roadster and made it more desirable, but at a £30,000 price.
The more expensive the car, the more you will park it at the empty rear of Tescos car park, and have longer to walk back again with your shopping. Most car owners like their cars to remain pristine, but unless garaged that’s an impossibility.
The Abarth fills a niche, that’s how the MX5 got started and rose to amazing success. The downside is those pesky British Fiat dealers. How good is their service workshop?
The big boys toys
Those who prefer bigger engines in their sporstcars should try a Porsche Boxster. Porsche’s semi-retro roadster is a better car all round, drives just as beautifully, though twice the price, more with extras. If you like getting your hands oily there’s not much you can do to improve a Boxster. Porsche deliver you a mature, finished product. And although putting an engine mid-vehicle gives an excellent 50-50 weight distribution, it also means Porsche have you over a barrel. Only they can fix the locked-in engine.
American MX5 after-market companies, of which there are many and varied, can put a V8 engine in your Mazda, so good is the chassis to take extra power, but believe me to drive one is a bit like wrestling a drunken gorilla. It does, however, have a great exhaust note.
I see more and more people using MX5s as everyday transport. Good on them. They’re friendly cars that gain friends. There’s nothing ostentatious or braggart about them. They are as close as we might ever get to a people’s roadster.
A million sold of a single model type and still selling well. Do you think the British car industry has learned any lessons? No? Pitiful, really.