Mazda Miata History (1989-1997)
Article by Mark Trotta
Attractive, affordable, and fun to drive, Mazda's little roadster was first available to U.S. markets in May of 1989. After selling 35,944 units the first year, Automobile Magazine voted the Miata MX-5 "Automobile of the Year".
Kenichi Yamamoto, who had previously supervised the development of the rotary engine for Mazda, and Gai Arai, head of Research and Development at Mazda, were convinced the automotive market needed a modern but traditional sports car. The concept car design began in 1983. When Yamamoto became the President of Mazda in 1984, he approved plans for production of the Miata.
The original running prototype, production code "NA", was built with a fiberglass body, although production Miatas would have steel bodies with an aluminum hood. Built on a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, the Miata MX-5 was inspired by classic British roadsters such as the Lotus Elan, Triumph Spitfire and MG MGB, as well as Italian sports cars like the Alfa Romeo Spider and Fiat 124 Spider. Obvious styling cues borrowed from the Lotus Elan included the door handles and grille opening.
The body/chassis was of a conventional unibody construction, with detachable front and rear subframes. A longitudinal truss ran from the engine to differential, which helped reduce flex. Well-proportioned and balanced, the front/rear weight balance was nearly 50/50.
First Year Miata
Debuting in North America in May of 1989 as a 1990 model, first-year Miatas featured pop-up headlights, as would all first-generation MX-5s. The only model offered was a two-seat, soft-top roadster. A factory hardtop was available at additional cost.
With affordability a prime concern, base price of the 1990 MX-5 was $13,800. The base model was offered with manual windows, steel wheels, and without A/C or power steering. Weighing just 2,070 pounds, the first-year Miata MX5 measured 156" in length, 65.9" in width, and 48.6" in height.
First-year Miatas were available in just one of three colors; classic red, crystal white, or mariner blue. Several months after it's North America release, the Miata was offered in Japan, under the name Eunos Roadster.
Miata 1.6L Engine
The original MX-5 was powered a 1.6 litre (98 cubic-inch) four-cylinder engine. Specifically designed for the little car, the dual-overhead cam motor featured a lightened crankshaft, flywheel, and an aluminum oil pan with cooling fins. Fed by electronic fuel injection, engine output was 115 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, with 100 lb/ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. Top speed was 116 miles-per-hour.
The Miata engine bay was designed for easy maintenance.
The Miata was originally offered with a five-speed manual transmission only, a unit derived from the Mazda 929/Luce (also rear-wheel drive). The gear shift had a short-throw pattern and required minimal effort and was very well received. In Japan and the U.S., an optional 4-speed automatic transmission was also offered but was not popular.
An anti-lock braking option first appeared in 1991. Also that year, a limited edition model was offered in British racing green with a tan interior and top. The following year a yellow exterior was available.
In 1993, Mazda produced 1,500 LE (Limited Edition) Miatas. All 1993 LE models were black with a red leather interior.
Miata 1.8L Engine
The 1.6 litre motor, which was in use since 1989, was replaced in 1994. At 1.8 litres (110 cubic-inch), the updated engine increased output to 128 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque, although some markets were offered a de-tuned 1.6L as a budget option. A modest increase to 133 horsepower was seen in 1996-97.
In 1994, the MX-5 chassis was substantially braced to meet new side-impact standards. Several special versions arrived in 1994, including the first M Edition. It was followed in 1995 by an M Edition in Merlot Mica.
Mazda Miata Collectability
Recognizable by its pop-up headlights, the first-generation NA sold over 400,000 units from May 1989 to 1997. Early models seem to be the most collectable. Those with black exterior/red interior are the most difficult to find, therefore more collectable.
Miatas In Competition
Being one of the least expensive sports cars to own and maintain, the MX-5 is a very popular choice for amateur and stock racing. Early Miatas have proven to be very competitive in SCCA's Solo2 Autocross and Spec Miata race series.
On the racetrack, weight is everything on these cars. Some owners replace the already lightweight alloy hood for a fiberglass one. With the handling nearly neutral, forcing the little car into corners is easy and controllable.
Miata Tire/Wheel Options
There are literally hundreds of options of tire/wheel combinations for first-generation Miatas. The original tire size from 1990 to 2000 was 185-60-R14.
The first generation Miata NA was produced from 1989-2001. A second-generation Miata (the NB, no pop-up headlamps), appeared in 1998.
In 2000, the MX-5 was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's best-selling convertible two-seater sports car.
Read: Sports Car History
Presently, the Miata is in it's fourth generation, and has remained much the same as the original; a modern, contemporary, lightweight sports car. It is still an affordable, fun and inspiring little roadster.