Car Culture: Mazda’s MX5

A weekly look at all that sucks and blows in the auto world and some good bits


The new and the old – in red and in white

An honest car

James May – the brainy one of old Top Gear’s trio who pronounces was as wus – entertained us in a four-part television series trying to identify a ‘people’s’ car, one that’s cheap, cheerful, reliable and classless. He reached the conclusion obvious from the start that no such thing exists because most of us on the planet are too poor to afford a bicycle let alone a car of any type.

I believe there exist a few honest cars. By honest I mean built to do what their designers intended, not altered in quality by bean counters, not expensive to buy or run, no phony class badges such as GL or GLX, but able to justify the claims of their makers.

The humble Mazda MX5 roadster is one.


If you have the inclination you can deck the interior like a Versace suit of armour

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 its weakest bits 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 don’t understand why other car makers haven’t copied 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 had the answer: a European-styled roadster with a reliable Japanese engine, and a hood that didn’t leak.

The genesis

Mazda was smart enough to understand cars sell well in Europe if they issue from a European aesthetic, especially the unrivalled Italian aesthetic. 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 drivers following him 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 Healey, 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. 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. Here was a Japanese car that could drive for a thousand miles and back again without fault.

In fact, the humble MX5 proved so reliable I got bored quickly with it and soon started up-rating everything metal to stainless steel, door locks, grille, full exhaust system, lightweight wheels, a quality hood with a glass rear window not plastic, a deep pile Wilton carpet – no belly button fluff mats for me – and the entire interior leather.

My biggest purchase was a bespoke supercharger created by one of the original US suspension engineers. It added extra oomph for hairy overtaking situations. “Zoom, zoom, zoom”, went Mazda’s television commercials, and they were right.

Cheap and very cheerful

I bought the car cheap – 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 and a classic.

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. The boot was minimal, but believe it or not, far larger than Jaguar’s latest £60,000 sports car. The Achilles heel was the battery, a small one to fit in the boot.

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.

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! With its tall windscreen and a good heater, Scotland’s worst cold winds are deflected, your toes toasted.


The new styled interior, complete with obligatory sat-nav

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.

The fourth, fully redesigned model 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 the Origami school of car design with contemporary fashion.

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.


The MX5 RF Coupe, the Roadster’s ugly brother

Plug ugly

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. In my opinion, a sports car should have a mixture of the feline and the muscular in its shape.


Fiat’s MX5 rival – same platform, prettier face

The big boys toys

Those who prefer bigger engines in their sports cars 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. Putting  an engine mid-vehicle gives an excellent 50-50 weight distribution but the engine is inaccessible … except by  Porsche mechanics.

Unlike muscle cars, or BMW roadsters, you’ll never feel as if wrestling a drunken gorilla.

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.

That’s the MX5 – a million sold of a single model type and still selling well. Do you think the British car industry has learned any lessons?



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2 Responses to Car Culture: Mazda’s MX5

  1. lanark says:

    It’s not unusual to see first generation MX 5s (or 323s and 626s) still in daily use. A sign of proper engineering.

    As someone who is currently running a vehicle from a large German conglomerate and at the end of their tether with irritating faults (latest being the dreaded failure of the DMF – yes it is a horrible diesel). My next car will be Japanese and very possibly be a Mazda (petrol engined of course), although a bit more practical than an MX 5. I have three children to accomodate!,

    Good article. I trust the RAV 4 is still going strong?

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    RAV still going strong, just serviced. It’s like a dependable friend these days.
    Mazda has built itself a good reputation as a niche filler. Most of their models offer some pizzazz over and above the run of the mill marques. Your experience with your German car is not untypical. I hear that a lot from other disgruntled owners.

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