The Greatest Cars

Mazda MX-5 Miata

By Jack Nerad

Mazda MX-5 Miata How did a company founded to process a cork flooring substitute create not just one but two of the most successful sports models the United States has ever seen? We can tell you this: it didn't happen overnight. In fact the story was some 70 years in the making.

It all began in the midst of World War I when several Japanese investors formed Toyo Cork Kogyo, which processed a substitute for cork that was harvested from Abemaki trees. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the war ended and Japanese could get real cork again, Toyo Cork Kogyo fell on hard times and the bank that had lent it capital reorganized it -- something that would happen at least twice more in its checkered history.

The savior of the troubled concern was a fisherman's son named Jujiro Matsuda, who was born on August 6, 1875. After a series of business failures early in his career, Matsuda invented and patented a newfangled pump, which resulted in the establishment of the successful Matsuda Pump Partnership. Another setback occurred when he was forced out of his own company, but in 1912 he formed Matsuda Works, an armament manufacturer whose major client was the Russian Czar. This venture made him rich, and when the ailing Toyo Cork Kogyo came calling, he was wealthy and retired.

After becoming president of the company, Matsuda quickly pulled it out of the fake cork business and into industrial manufacturing. In the process, he changed the name of the concern to Toyo Kogyo Kaisha Ltd, which means Orient Industry Company, Incorporated. Based on Matsuda's inventiveness, the company soon became involved in the manufacture of three-wheeled "trucks," essentially three-wheeled motorcycles with a small cargo area, perfect for hauling goods in the unbelievably narrow Japanese roads. Equipped with 500 cubic centimeter engines, the Mazda Type DA Tricycle Trucks proved to be popular in both Japan and China in those years between the two great wars.

In 1940 the company introduced a car prototype, a tiny sedan that bears some resemblance to the current Chrysler PT Cruiser. World War II destroyed any chance that vehicle might have had for series production. Instead, Toyo Kogyo was pulled into the manufacture of war material, and then it somehow escaped total destruction when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The end of World War II, which followed the dropping of the atomic bomb within weeks, presented significant new challenges to Mazda. The re-building of the country's industrial base was a slow process, controlled in part by the occupying American troops and, later, by the new Japanese government. Tsuneji Matsuda, who had taken the reins when his father died in 1951, feared that the Japanese government might eliminate Toyo Kogyo from automotive manufacturing in the post-war "rationalization" of the nation's industries. His scheme to counter that threat was to build vehicles with a breakthrough engine - the highly touted but temperamental Wankel rotary engine, invented by Felix Wankel.

Matsuda struck a deal with NSU, but when the NSU-built Wankel engines arrived in Hiroshima, the Mazda engineers were shocked. The design was a nightmare of vibration and combustion chamber leaks that resulted in dismal fuel and oil consumption. But Matsuda had already staked his company's reputation on the new technology, so he turned to Toyo Kogyo engineer Kenichi Yamamoto to make good on his promise.

It would take nearly a decade, but Yamamoto and his team eventually succeeded where all others, including NSU and Wankel himself, had failed. Toyo Kogyo engineers dropped their brainchild into a stunning two-seat sports coupe called the Cosmo in 1964. The rotary engine got another boost when Toyo Kogyo decided to install the new powerplant in a wide variety of its more mundane vehicles, including the popular Familia. By 1971 Mazda had built 200,000 rotary-powered vehicles, and Matsuda's gamble on the technology was rewarded. But before he could pat himself on the back, the bottom fell out when the Gas Crisis hit in 1973-74. Rotary-engine vehicles were maligned for poor fuel economy, and Toyo Kogyo was sent reeling into reorganization. It turned out that it was a piston-engine car, the 323/GLC (Great Little Car), which would revive its fortunes.

Despite the major setback, Mazda engineers believed in the rotary engine concept. They initiated a project code-named X605, which would eventually result in the Mazda RX-7. Led by project head Moriyuki Watanabe, who would eventually become chairman of the board, the Mazda engineers and stylists designed a light, simple and "international" sports coupe. The car was a very straightforward hatchback design, and inside the car was equally no-nonsense with a pair of bucket seats, three-spoke steering wheel and sporting round gauges. The cargo bay was accessible through a large, strut-supported rear hatch.

Of course, the RX-7's key high-tech item was under its hood. The engine was a 12A two-rotor rotary displacing a mere 1146 cubic centimeters. In original trim it produced just 100 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. While the power figures aren't impressive, the engine weighed just 312 pounds and the car itself weighed just 2,350 pounds, so its performance was more than adequate.

In the United States where more than 375,000 first-generation RX-7s were sold before it went out of production in 1985. Unfortunately, the two subsequent versions grew more sophisticated and thus significantly more expensive, and sales volume suffered.

As the RX-7 went up-market and sales started to tail off, Mazda product planners began to believe that a new sports car, slotting below the RX-7 in price and performance, might be a successful gambit. That view was supported, if not created, by Mazda's Southern California-based research and development operation, a company that operated largely independent of Mazda Motors of America. There, researcher Bob Hall and designer Mark Jordan were trying to build enthusiasm for their idea of a open two-seat sports car similar to the Lotus Elan.

Two-seat sports cars -- MG-TC, Triumph Spitfire, Austin-Healey Sprite, Fiat 124 Spider, et al. -- had enjoyed a profitable niche in the United States during the Fifties and Sixties, but by the time the Eighties rolled around they had virtually vanished. Based partially on this information, the two American product specialists and Tom Matano, a Japanese-born design guru based in California, began to build a case for a Mazda-built two seater in the spirit of the Elan. Finally, after years of pushing the project, Mazda gave it the go-ahead. In fact, "a Lotus Elan that starts" was the description that auto journalists would eventually tack onto the Mazda Miata production car.

Like the Elan, the MX-5 Miata was exceedingly small. Just 155 inches overall and with a wheelbase of just 89.2 inches, the Miata was so tiny it felt like you could slip it in your pocket. In this case small size was a virtue, because it allowed the Miata to get ample acceleration from the modestly sized 1.6-liter dual overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine. Reasonably high-tech, the 116-horsepower Miata engine provided enough oomph through its five-speed manual shifter to propel the car from zero to 60 miles per hour in under nine seconds. That isn't startling performance, but the Miata's responsive "go-kart-like" handling and the joy of open-top motoring made for a pleasurable driving experience.

In the interest of design integrity, simplicity and low price, the Miata was not shod with huge tires and wheels but instead rode on P185/60HR14 tires. The Miata did feature a sophisticated double-wishbone front and rear suspension, which helped keep the tires planted and offered spectacular real-world handling.

Also important was the Miata's attention to detail. For instance, Mazda might have used clunky passenger-car exterior door handles from another of its models, but instead it featured units that were reminiscent of the Elan's. The hidden headlights were another example. It certainly would have been cheaper and simpler to give the Miata fixed headlights, but the hidden lights were much more in keeping with the design aesthetic.

From its cute styling, to its fun-to-drive handling, to its affordable $13,800 price, the original Miata, a 1990 model that went on sale in 1989, was a huge hit. Nearly 36,000 of the little cars were sold the first year in the United States alone, and the Miata has gone on to be one of the bestselling two-seaters of all time.

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