Hagerty Video: The World’s Most Successful Sports Car Almost Never Happened — Mazda Miata Jason Cammisa Revelations

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Posted: 2023-10-19 15:00:39
Author: Hagerty
This is the unlikely success story of the Mazda MX-5 Miata: the world’s bestselling 2-seat roadster and the only remaining true lightweight sports car.

It almost never happened in the first place.


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The Mazda Miata has succeeded where every other lightweight sports car has failed, by decidedly NOT giving the customer what they want. No more weight, complexity, speed, or luxury.

On this episode of Hagerty’s Revelations with Jason Cammisa, we welcome special guest and father of the Miata, Tom Matano, to tell the story of how the Miata has survived economic downturns and done the impossible.

In the process, it’s proven every other carmaker wrong — cars can indeed be light, simple, and fun, even while meeting modern emissions and safety regulations.

But it all almost never happened — battles between Mazda’s North American office, which conceived the Lotus Elan-like roadster, almost resulted in a front-wheel drive or mid-engined car, and led the original team with Matano and Bob Hall, to ask for the project to be killed off.

Forget the whole thing. Just kill it.

Thankfully, Mazda didn’t. And 35 years later, the Miata reigns King of Sports Cars, selling the same amount of cars in the US every year as Porsche sells 911s — despite the 911’s incredibly broad product offering.

Hagerty Video Transcript

For three and a half decades Miata has proven the entire car industry wrong cars can’t be small cars can’t be light it just can’t be done well the Miata did it and it continues to do it in the process it has banished to the history books every single competitor that’s thrown against

It it survived economic downturns pandemics and Tik Tock and it’s done this by adhering to one simple philosophy do not ever give the customer what they’re asking for just give them a good Time this video is brought to you by the Hagerty Drivers Club sign up today using the link below Mazda is a company that in the 1970s and80s became defined by the rotary engine powerered RX7 but that wasn’t enough for one outspoken stubborn Automotive journalist named Bob Hall who thought Mazda needed

To make a lighter and more affordable sports car than the RX7 was years later he left his job as a journalist and partly because he speaks Japanese became one of the first Americans to work at Mazda’s us product planning office where he never stopped tormenting everyone to make an lws a lightweight

Sports this is the kind of car that defined European cars of the 1950s and 60s Alpa Romeo mg Triumph Fiat Austin Healey and perhaps more than most Lotus they were called sports cars and I’ll read you a passage from a magazine that was called Sports sports cars Illustrated way back when these cars

Ruled the Earth sports cars were more than just two-seaters they were a way of life with social protocol weekend competitions and heroic Tales of roadside repairs sports cars were much more than cars they were the nucleus of a movement a reason to get out of bed on Saturday

Morning they were also killed off mostly in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it seemed American safety regulations would outlaw convertibles altogether well then and when buyers realized that cars didn’t need to be flaming dripping smoking fragile ill- engineered poorly assembled falling apart rolling oil

Slicks what was lost though was the joy of driving and Bob Hall relentlessly nagged his employer to please build something that would bring back the joy in the early 198 80s Mazda’s us operations sent over a document entitled what is a sports car to an American outlining the only way it could be

Successful there needs to be some measure of performance but numbers don’t matter it must be simple it must be light seat two and only two and have a soft top and the biggest requirement engine UPF front rear wheeel drive Mazda’s home office didn’t see the importance of that last bit the world

Was at the time moving to front-wheel drive in fact Mazda had just switched its 323 from rear drive to front and said why don’t we just make a sports car out of that after all Honda had done exactly that with the CRX Japan also suggested as an alternative moving that

Transverse powertrain to the back of the car and making a mid-engine sports car like Toyota had just done with the MR2 the US said no way and to solve the disagreement management came came up with a design competition the Tokyo Studio would do the two transverse engine designs the front wheeel drive

Car and the mid-engine one meanwhile those Anacronismo who was vehemently opposed to the other layouts an lws must be an everyday sports car he said comparing them to a pair of running shoes which you just put on and around the block so the mid ship is like you need a special shoes special track to utilize

The fullest skills to enjoy it my shirt my shirt just as big an issue was that the mid-engine car would be difficult to produce and heavy because of the additional bulkheads needed to isolate the passengers from the engine and a front-wheel drive sports car I’d argue there is no such thing

Thing as a front wheel drive sports car but I don’t have to because Lotus argued that for me the very same year as the Miata debuted Lotus made its first and only ever front-wheel drive sports car the M100 chassis Alan ever seen one I rest my case and the great irony is that

The Alan was named after the Alan the car that inspired not only the miata’s layouts but also its looks Bob Hall and Tom matano were successful in convincing Mazda that the Lotus layout was the only way to go the design brief for the lws was swinging time machine and us-based designer Kishi Hayashi started to work on the design after three clay models he sent his work

To his boss in Japan who responded I felt sorry for Hayashi after spending so many years in the US he must have eaten too much steak and forgotten the delicacy of Japanese Cuisine he called us fat well there’s a joke no one was eating the Miata Tanaka then brutalized the design

So much so that Bob Hall Tom matano and the original team were convinced he’ killed its chances entirely meanwhile Mazda Us’s own marketing department kept asking why the car wasn’t front-wheel drive which would cheaper to produce and when Mazda Us’s head of sales saw some Polaroids of the nearly finished

Roadster sales said there was no market for the car period no matter how it looked the president of Mazda Germany saw the car and said there’s no sales potential anywhere in Europe and then Mazda’s home office in Japan said projected sales volume in Japan was so small as to make the car economically

Nonviable and after hearing that it was the the US team the team that had created this and won multiple internal battles Each of which almost killed off the Miata entirely who said you know what just forget the whole thing kill the car kill it dead done gone forget it

Forget we even asked this is why we can’t have nice things or something like that but by this point Mazda was too far in and it wanted an answer from potential customers directly and so it sent Tanaka’s full-size fire glass model to California to hold a customer Clinic to

Everyone’s surprise when the US team saw the model in person they loved it turns out the pictures hadn’t done it justice and all of that worrying and arguing was unfounded designed with inspiration from Japanese theatrical no masks that change expression via light and Shadow the Miata was more than a two-dimensional

Car it was a face in fact when Mazda’s computers analyzed it differences in lighting condition gave gave the Miata 260 different faces compared to just 80 for a typical Mazda it was immediately endearing simple small elegant retro happy and the 240 people at the customer Clinic were enthralled without knowing

Anything about the little convertible or even who made it 60% of them liked it 80% of them said they’d be willing to buy it and the average price they said they’d be willing to pay for it was more than 40% higher than Mazda’s planned price more than anything they thought it

Was a Porsche or an Alfa Romeo and the primary reason why people didn’t like it was because they’ owned a lightweight sports car in the past and it was unreliable little did they know it was a Mazda that wouldn’t be a problem and based on that triumphant customer Clinic

The lws and its team were given a green light sorry thank you get it green light from an engineering perspective it was all simple a conventional is unibody structure that used finite element analysis to keep the weight as absolutely low as possible this was only possible because the car

Was a bespoke thing from the get-go not some heavy sedan turned into a roadster which meant the Miata immediately joined the ranks of only a small number of true sports cars made on their own dedicated platform every one of which has has become an icon for the Miata it meant

The best of everything double wishbones at all four corners four-wheel disc brakes a close ratio 5speed manual and nothing you didn’t need the engine was mounted almost completely behind the front wheels a 16 valve 4-cylinder from the 323 that was turned around 90° and given a new valve cover designed to be a

Voluptuous Beacon of the aggressive twin cams that lie beneath it pulled to 7,000 RPM with a distinctive exhaust note designed by a bunch of Engineers who studied and then replicated the sound that made people close their eyes and say that sounds like a little red sports car between the transmission and

Differential was the ppf or power plant frame an ingenious aluminum lattice that rigidly connected the entire Drive Line This enormous piece eliminated Drive Line lash but weighed only 10 lb but it gets even better by allowing the elimination of some of the other mounts in some it added zero weight to the

Whole car weight was the lightweight Sports middle name and the production Miata weighed just 2200 lb to get there every single part needed to be weight optimized even the wheels which are visual copies of 1960 style mini lights but with seven spokes instead of eight to drop the weight by 10% any criticisms

Of this car being too small too loud to anything were met with Fierce resistance from everyone involved the Miata team solution to countries that required a full-size spare tire which the engineers couldn’t fit in the design well they just didn’t sell the Miata there problem solved if

You had a problem with this car it’s because you had a problem with sports cars the Miata was undiluted sports car Perfection a blast to slide around a racetrack but fun in a parking lot it was comfortable Reliable watertight well built good charismatic and thanks to the stubbornness and Clear Vision of all parties involved on both sides of the Pacific it’s remained that way ever since the second generation Miata almost came with a single clutch automated manual but the chief engineer was able

To Stave off that awful fad which ruined so many of our favorite turn of the century cars it was available with a turbo for a short time until that too was dismissed for being contrary to the miata’s Purity the third generation Miata is new from the ground up and the

Chief engineer said quote the decision not to change the size has been the hardest part of my work it’s a challenge to repress the desire to address every request I must focus on Keeping the Faith in the lightweight Sports True Value remember even the mighty RX rendered itself extinct by chasing speed

And comfort at the expense of low cost lightweight and simplicity after just 2 years total Miata production surpassed that of the alpar Romeo Spider which had been on sale for 26 years in its 10th year the Miata became the bestselling two-seater sports car in history and then it

Doubled that number at last count 1.1 million Miatas as of 2022 the Miata has succeeded where every other so-called lightweight sports car has come and gone and it’s done that by sticking to the original formula adjusted for inflation this costs less than it did in 1989 and in those intervening 3 and 1

Half decades it hasn’t grown it’s the same size and it’s gained less than 100 Lb compare that to the portion 911 which has gained 600 lb is 9 in longer and 8 in wider and with just one engine in your choice of transmission and top Mazda sells just as many Miatas here every year as Porsche sells 911s even though Porsche makes 37 different

Variants of the 911 with three transmissions seven engines two wheel drive four-wheel drive Coupe convertible Target standard body widebody two- seat four- seat dot dot dot by not falling into fads or chasing chasing speed or growing into something it was just never meant to be the Miata has wound up being

The only true lightweight sports car on the planet if the original lightweight Sports were the nucleus of a movement the Miata is the positive electric charge that holds together the entire car community Oh A