Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

| 26 Dec 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

I never thought I would see England win a World Cup trophy – any World Cup. I never thought Oasis, soundtrack to my youth, would spectacularly self-destruct and split up.

And back in the early ’90s I never, ever thought that the Mazda MX-5 would be considered a classic in my lifetime.

It was always too new; too modern; too good, in that effortless, trouble-free way only Japanese cars seem to pull off. 

Its lack of foibles and character flaws somehow made it less worthy in my eyes than the troubled British classics it tried so hard to emulate – like Liam without the drugs and alcohol. And who would want to party with him?

Of course, I was wrong (on all three counts).

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Had I taken off my pre-’72 blinkers, I would have seen the MX-5 for what it truly was: a classy, well-built and, most of all, fun reinterpretation of the traditional sports car, heir apparent to the MGB as the go-to affordable classic of the next generation.

Now in its 30th year and fourth iteration, more than 1,000,000 examples have left the Hiroshima production line, making it the best-selling two-seater sports car of all time.

By far the most successful was the first-generation NA, a car that burst onto the scene in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show and revived, single-handedly, an automotive segment that had withered on the vine with the death of British Leyland.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

The story of how the MX-5 came to be is a road fairly well travelled, so we won’t go into too much detail here.

To cut a long story short, a 1976 conversation between Motor Trend’s Bob Hall and then head of research and development at Mazda Kenichi Yamamoto eventually led to a collaboration between Mazda’s east and west divisions nearly a decade later.

Japanese engineering and attention to detail met Californian lifestyle, but not before a Lotus Elan was spirited away to the Miyoshi proving ground to be poked, prodded and probed like an Area 51 abductee.

The result was a ’60s sports car for the ’90s, a machine that beat the past masters at their own game and on their own turf.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

The MX-5 took many forms during the eight years of first-generation production, but the purest is without doubt the early 1.6-litre model, which was available to UK buyers from a year after its launch in 1989 until the introduction of the 1.8-litre NA2 in 1994, when it was detuned from 114 to 95bhp.

Mazda recently acquired just such a car for its heritage collection, a gem of a machine with no-cost white paint and charming ‘Daisy’ alloys that do a decent impression of Minilites.

It’s not quite base spec – an entry-level car could be ordered with wind-up windows, a blanked-out stereo and steel wheels – but it shares the same no-frills cloth interior, and is the perfect place to begin our MX-5 journey.

It might not be the fastest, the most expensive, or the most desirable, but the 1.6 is certainly the most significant MX-5 ever produced.

It didn’t need bells and whistles to win over a legion of loyal fans – some 250,000 in the first three years alone.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender
Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

All that was required was a back-to-basics, fun-focused driving experience, and that it delivers in spades – today as in 1990.

It shows its character from the first turn of the key, the standard stainless exhaust coming to life with a surprisingly rorty note.

Like all aspects of the MX-5, the exhaust was the result of meticulous research – no fewer than 25 variants were tested before designers made their choice.

The same attention to detail manifests itself in the ride, an endearing blend of roadholding and feedback with just the right amount of grip to have a good time on its narrow 185/60 R14 tyres.

Like its spiritual ancestor, the Elan, the MX-5 featured independent suspension by double wishbones, but both front and rear, while the effect of the Lotus’ central backbone chassis was mimicked by a ‘Power Plant Frame’ that linked engine, gearbox and differential.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Great handling was further assured by a low kerbweight of just 955kg, thanks to an aluminium bonnet and a lack of creature comforts.

That bonnet hid the MX-5’s party piece: a 1598cc variant of the engine used in the Familia GT, but with reworked timing and a lightened flywheel to major on power rather than the torque required for the heavier saloon.

The twin-cam ‘four’ produced 114bhp at 6500rpm and 100lb ft of torque at just 1000rpm less, making it perfectly suited to the lightweight roadster.

It’s an engine that stands comparison with the likes of Lotus and Alfa Romeo, and it matches beautifully the 929-derived five-speed – a snappy, short-throw gearbox that’s a joy to use.

Combined with a razor-sharp throttle response, fast progress is irresistible, particularly on a circuit. With peak power and torque at the top end of the rev range, the MX-5 begs you to hold on to gears, and the relatively modest output gives even conservative drivers the confidence to explore its limits.

It’s a car that leaves everyone grinning from ear to ear during our photoshoot – all without even cracking the national speed limit.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Mazda’s MX-5 can almost rival Heinz for its different varieties, and of the multitude to have graced British roads over the past 30 years, the Le Mans Edition is surely the most contentious.

That’s due almost entirely to its lurid paint, a green-and-orange patchwork connected by dotted white lines to emulate the Renown-liveried, Le Mans-winning, rotary-engined 787B driven to victory by Johnny Herbert (among others) in 1991.

That win was the first for any Japanese manufacturer, and Mazda celebrated in the best way it knew how: a special MX-5.

Just 24 examples were built – one for each hour of the famous race – and each featured the same jazzy colour scheme and a bodykit that now included front and rear bumpers, a rear spoiler and side skirts incorporating a Mickey Mouse dummy vent ahead of each rear wheel, plus a certificate of authenticity signed by Herbert himself.

Inside, it’s standard MX-5, with the same cloth seats, dashboard, Momo steering wheel and trim as the base-level 1.6 we’re testing it alongside, but dig a little deeper and there’s plenty to forgive the loud livery.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Standard springs were thrown out in favour of stiffer Tokico items, and the Daisy wheels were replaced by lightweight 15in five-spoke OZ alloys.

Mazda UK’s options for improving the MX-5’s power output were limited, so it turned to Brackley firm BBR, which had developed a dealer-fit forced-induction kit that was so well regarded it shifted more than 1200 units.

The low-pressure turbo ran at a boost pressure of just 5-6psi, but managed to extract a further 36bhp from the Mazda’s twin-cam, taking power up to 150bhp with a useful 154lb ft of torque. In practice, that equates to 0-60mph in 6.8 secs (down from a pedestrian 9.1) and a 130mph top speed.

How that extra performance translates to the road is curious, with a slightly muted throttle response compared with the base-spec car.

Like the standard 1.6, you have to climb the rev range to get the best out of the Le Mans, and it’s only when you floor the accelerator that it really comes to life.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

The turbo is only a tiddler, so there isn’t the rush of boost that you might expect, but above 3000rpm it gives a noticeable surge; hold it to 6500rpm and it really begins to fly.

A flurry of whooshes and whistles add to the experience as the turbo spools up and the wastegate opens, giving encouragement to row through the gears.

The chassis is a magnitude sharper than the 1.6, partly due to those trick springs but also, we suspect, thanks to the freshness of the suspension: Mazda’s Le Mans is the 22nd off the line and has a scarcely believable 1400 miles on the clock.

As a result it’s much tighter, with improved roadholding that really lets you throw it into bends – but it’s also more fidgety on the limit than the softer and more forgiving 1.6, demanding more input to keep it on the straight and narrow.

The gearbox, as close to factory-fresh as you’re likely to experience, suffers a bit for its lack of miles, with a slightly rubbery action in comparison to the rifle-like change in a run-in car.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender
Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

As a package it’s compelling, but how big an improvement may depend on whether you are willing to sacrifice a livelier drive at the bottom end for a couple of seconds off the 0-60mph sprint – and whether you would be seen in it.

By 1994 the motoring landscape had changed considerably, and the MX-5 fell foul of a number of safety regulations that necessitated putting on a bit of weight – bracing to meet new impact standards contributing to an additional 35kg on the scales.

Mazda’s answer to the MX-5’s middle-age spread was to increase power to compensate, again turning to its Familia GT and borrowing the 1839cc version of its twin-cam for the NA2.

The larger capacity brought an extra 14bhp, upping the standard car’s output to 128bhp. The 1.6 remained an option only as a pared-back entry-level model, detuned to 95bhp.

As well as the power gains, all 1.8-litre cars benefited from a stronger, stiffer bodyshell, with a brace bar between the seatbelt anchor points and ‘performance rods’ front and rear to improve torsional rigidity.

A Torsen limited-slip differential replaced the optional viscous unit, while braking was improved via 20mm bigger discs all round, behind wider 6J rims in place of the standard 5.5Js.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Nowhere did these improvements better combine than in the RS Limited, a Japanese domestic market special that is widely regarded as one of the finest MX-5 iterations.

Just 500 were made, each finished in Montego Blue Mica – a green-heavy hue that also made its way onto the UK’s Gleneagles special edition – while the 1.8-litre engine came with a lightened flywheel for a sharper throttle response.

The Torsen limited-slip diff came as standard, with a final drive ratio of 4.3:1, as did thicker front and slightly thinner rear anti-roll bars and attractive BBS cross-spoke alloys.

But the selling point for many was a superb set of Recaro carbon-Kevlar fixed-back buckets, so sought-after today that to replace them will set you back more than £1000.

That’s a lot of money for a pair of chairs that you can’t even adjust, but remarkably they’re almost as comfortable as the standard cloth items, and even the one-piece leather pews fitted to other specials such as the VR-Limited.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

They hold you in place well, which is a good job because the RS proves to be the sweetest-handling car here and, having got your eye in behind the wheel of the Le Mans and 1.6, it’s tempting to drive it hard from the off.

The 1.8-litre engine is a bit lazier than the smaller version, though the lightened flywheel helps to give the RS a bit more zip.

The bigger motor also feels more mature, with a meatier mid-range that helps you power out of corners, while the Bilstein suspension set-up feels like the perfect compromise between roadholding and ride quality.

The sharp bends and rolling undulations of our test circuit reveal a car that seems perfectly balanced; even on aged tyres the RS offers addictive agility that has you ignoring calls to come in and swinging out for one last lap.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender
Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

This trio barely scratches the surface of the countless editions to grace the market over the years, each tweaking the recipe and altering the character of the world’s favourite sports car.

Now celebrating its pearl anniversary, the 1.6 is rightly revered for its spaniel-like enthusiasm, accessible chassis and irresistible anthropomorphic smile, and remains the purest of the bunch.

But with such a wide choice of specials including the potent Le Mans and purposeful RS Limited, the MX-5 world is your oyster.

Images: Will Williams

Thanks to Owen Mildenhall, Mazda UK; RS owner Rob Marshall and the MX-5 Owners’ Club


Classic & Sports Car – Mazda MX-5 at 30: the great pretender

Mazda MX-5 1.6

  • Sold/no built 1989-’97/431,506 (all Mk1s)
  • Construction galvanised steel monocoque with central Power Plant Frame
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1598cc ‘four’, Bosch L-Jetronic injection [1839cc RS Limited, turbocharger Le Mans]
  • Max power 114bhp @ 6500rpm [128bhp RS Limited, 150bhp Le Mans]
  • Max torque 100lb ft @ 5500rpm [116lb ft RS Limited, 154lb ft Le Mans]
  • Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension independent, by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion, optional power assistance
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 12ft 11in (3950mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1675mm)
  • Height 4ft 1in (1225mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5¼ in (2265mm)
  • Weight 2105lb (955kg) [990kg RS Limited]
  • 0-60mph 9.1 secs [7.9 secs RS Limited, 6.8 secs Le Mans]
  • Top speed 114mph [126mph RS Limited, 131mph Le Mans]
  • Mpg 29
  • Price new £17,000 [Y2,215,000 RS Limited, £20,499 Le Mans]
  • Price now from £3000 [from £6/16k RS/LM]


Future classic: Mazda MX-5 30th

Rotary club: Mazda Cosmo, NSU & Citroën

Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600