Historiography: The Celebration of The Roadster

1990 Mazda Miata 1
All Photos by Randy Stern

Thirty years ago, McCormick Place was the place to be.

The lights inside the exhibition hall south of Chicago’s Loop would shine upon a return of a motoring revolution from another generation. The new vehicle reminded us of a time when cars were easier to work on but required a bit elbow grease to handle. It took bravery when the weather would change to make sure the driver and its other occupant were secure from the weather.

It was not because of varying design flaws. Quite the contrary. Since the first automobile, the idea of a roof was not completely thought out. You drove with the elements above you without a filter.

The open roof automobile came in various ways. One such variant on the theme was the roadster. A smaller two-seat machine that was designed to minimal offering nothing but maximum fun.

In February of 1989, that vehicle returned to our consciousness thanks to an innovative Japanese company based in Hiroshima – Mazda.

1990 Mazda Miata 5

The Mazda MX-5 Miata made its world debut at McCormick Place thirty years ago. The affordable little two-seat roadster would take the world by storm. It would engage enthusiasts for years to come.

This history lesson is not just about the Miata. It is about those that came before it. Also, to explore the reasons why it was the right time to reintroduce the roadster to the world’s roads in 1989. And, why they matter today.

My story begins at the end of World War II. As our armed forces returned from abroad, they returned with many new ideas that they saw overseas. One of them was the roadster – a smaller car with two seats, an open roof, and an efficient engine – all designed for maximum fun. It was a revelation to our armed forces that we never had such vehicles running around the streets of the USA.

We actually did. They did not sell is huge numbers. Not even to profitable volumes. Just a few from British and other European automakers. American manufacturers concentrated on family vehicles and larger luxury cars. Did they miss the mark before the attack on Pearl Harbor?

2014 Intermarque Spring Kick-Off

After World War II, the economy began to grow thanks to benefits given to our armed forces veterans. The G.I. Bill helped with buying homes, paying for college, and making the transition from war to prosperity an easy one. For some, a warmed-over pre-war car from a domestic automaker was not going to cut. Some of them saw those small fun-looking roadsters…and wanted one.

Importers began to set up shop after the war. Their aim was to bring these fun vehicles to our shores. The British automakers were the first to appear with their small roadsters. Morris Garages, also known as MG, had one of the most desirable and affordable models available after the war. The design of the TC harkened back to before the war, but it was absolutely suitable for American enthusiasts.

The TC was also called the Midget, which was also a suitable name for this car. The two-seat roadster sported a small 1,250 cc four-cylinder engine that put out only 54.5 horsepower. It was not the size of the car, the engine, and the lack of performance – on paper – that attracted former armed forces personnel to this car. It was about the absolute experience. It also kicked off the post-war craze of the sports car.

MG would become the focal point of this craze. While its parent company, Morris, sold small family cars, they enjoyed an early success with MG’s T-Series Midget roadsters. Every model would be an improvement upon the previous one, starting with the 1950 TD. However, they saw that pre-war designs were going out of vogue with the marketplace. A more “modern” roadster was needed to keep customers looking for the right combination of style and fun engaged.

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In 1955, MG brought out the MGA to replace the venerable T-Series. It was exactly what the world needed – a modern sports roadster. The engine was carried over from the last T-Series – a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that was upped to 68 horsepower. Compared to the T-Series, the MGA was seen as easier to drive and a solid British alternative to the larger Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird.

MG was not the only purveyor of roadsters in post-war North America. Standard Car Company’s Triumph brand rolled out the TR2 in 1953. It would be the start of a series of TR models that would solidify Triumph as the top rival to MG for affordable sports roadsters. The modern Austin-Healey 100 was introduced around the same time as the TR2, offering a sexier look, a larger 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine and superb performance for the time. It would be an offset model to the MGA a few years after the British Motor Corporation was established to merge Austin and Morris into one national automaker.

Smaller British automakers would soon join in on the fun on our shores. Morgan, Jensen, and Lotus would introduce small roadsters by the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. With every new small two-seater, excitement for enthusiasts would grow through these critical times after World War II for British roadsters.

It would not be the British that would entice American enthusiasts to these sports roadsters. Alfa Romeo introduced the Giulietta lineup in 1954. With several body styles to choose from, the most popular of them on this side of the Atlantic was the Spider. For the history of Alfa Romeo through the mid-1990s, the Spider would be the icon that would lure enthusiasts to the brand.

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By 1961, the classic lines of the 1950s became sleeker and even more modern. We also saw the introduction of the Triumph Spitfire, MG Midget, and Austin-Healey Sprite to diversify the roadster breed. European manufacturers found gold in small two-seat cars that offered a power-to-weight ratio that were the envy of larger domestic muscle cars. The formula was being perfected – light weight, adequate power, superb handling, and an unlimited ceiling for maximum fun.

Around the same time, Nissan began to develop a small line of automobiles to be sold on our shores. The Datsun Sports 1200 was one of the first to be imported to the USA. The lovely convertible was powered by a 1.2-liter engine that only put out 47 horsepower. Yet, it was only the beginning for the Japanese to play in a mostly European game. By 1963, the Datsun roadster began to take shape to its iconic design that would carry them through 1970. This would be the first breakthrough for Datsun in the USA, followed by the 510 sedan and the 240Z.

That game also expanded to include two new icons to the mix. Taking the air-cooled, rear-engine formula of Volkswagen, the Wolfsburg company hired Karmann to build a Ghia-designed two-seat sports car. The Karmann Ghia brought (West) Germany to the roadster game. Granted that BMW and Mercedes-Benz made two-seat, open-roof models, the entry from Volkswagen was more affordable and right in the same price point area as its British rivals. However, the roadster would be eclipsed by the lovely coupe it was sold alongside, not that it was a bad thing as plenty of the British roadsters also came in a hardtop coupe model, too.

Fiat also made roadsters. However, the 1966 124 Spider became the breakthrough the Italian company needed to compete against the British, Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo, and Datsun. It was a lovely machine that was kept in production well into the 1980s.

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It, too, was joined by a completely different two-seat car: the targa-roof X1/9. Fiat wanted to bring an exotic-like automobile to the masses. With the help of Bertone, they got exactly what they needed. Though priced in the vicinity of the 124 Spider, the X1/9 was a compelling take on the same theme for a more modern time.

But, all good things must come to an end. Or, so it seems. The small roadster fell to the same regulations that killed the muscle car – emissions controls, new safety regulations, and the re-calibration of the horsepower rating. If you can’t have fun with a big V8 and a mass of horsepower, you will also lose the fun and freedom of your small imported two-seat roadster.

For the British, the mega-merger that created British Leyland was also a contributing factor of the decline of the roadster. Under government stewardship, the grand scheme of keeping multiple entities under one management structure did not help the cause of MG and Triumph. The last ditch effort of making a more modern roadster – the Triumph TR7 and TR8 – saw America consumers going elsewhere for their affordable sports car fun. MG and Triumph customers saw how the Toyota Celica was much more reliable and equally fun to drive.

Newer Alfa Romeo Spider

By February of 1989, only Alfa Romeo offered a small two-seat, open-roof roadster. It has become a bit less affordable over time, mainly because Alfa Romeo was seen as a more premium brand at the end of the 1980s.

The door was open for Mazda. They had been developing a small, rear-drive, two-seat, open-roof roadster that would bring customers back 20-30 years. The key element to this roadster was its solid reliability, something many of its predecessors were known for.

I can tell the story of the MX-5 Miata’s development, because it is one where the passion of older British/Italian roadsters became a design and engineering challenge for Mazda. It may be a simple car to develop, but it had to be done right. BY the time the 81st Chicago Auto Show rolled around, Mazda was ready to unveil the result of pure automotive passion.

The NA MX-5 Miata was a masterpiece of simplicity and modernity. It was a straightforward interpretation of the classic roadster. A simple four-cylinder with a choice of manual or automatic – driven to the rear wheels. There were two seats, an easy-to-operate soft roof, with some nods to the day – such as a driver’s side airbag and a modern audio system.

MN C&C June 2014

Mazda would justify the MX-5 Miata by using a Japanese phrase: Jinba ittai. Translated, it means “rider and horse in one body.” One wonders whether the engineers at Morris Garages, Triumph, Morgan, Lotus, Alfa Romeo, and Nissan knew of the notion of “rider and horse in one body” in mind when they created their roadsters some decades before.

The response from the consumer was amazing. You not only got the enthusiasts of the past flocking to the MX-5 Miata, you had younger customers wanting one. The order books were backlogged, but the dealers were marking up the sticker prices for maximum profit. Still, you had the feeling that this would become a classic.

Alfa Romeo’s Spider would continue in production until 1994 – the only true competitor to the MX-5 Miata, despite its higher price and lower volumes. The Miata did induce some new competitors from more premium brands – the BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Audi TT, Lotus Elan, and Porsche Boxster. Neither of these vehicles would match the volumes and enthusiasm of the Mazda.

Now in its fourth generation, the Mazda MX-5 Miata continues to induce dreams of roadsters past and encourages enthusiasts to drop the roof and go for a ride. It is a mix of modern engineering and technology with the simplicity of the breed – two seats, a soft top, and that superb power-to-weight ratio.

MN Cars & Coffee September 2017

It is not the only car of its kind available today. Thanks to Mazda, another roadster icon has been resurrected for our driving pleasure. A lot of the latest Fiat 124 Spider may be shared with the fourth-generation ND MX-5 Miata, except for the front and rear clips, several badges, and the 1.4-liter Multiair turbocharged engine underneath its hood.

Perhaps this speaks to the impact the Mazda MX-5 Miata made upon our automotive culture. It brought back something a previous generation cherished and enjoyed for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. The generations that the MX-5 Miata has touched have done the same – cherish and enjoy this wonderful icon of modern automotive lore.

Other than the Mazda-made modern Fiat 124 Spider, there has not been any other car like the MX-5 Miata in its price range. That is a testament to not only its staying power, but the impact it made upon enthusiasts the world over. This car is indeed worth celebrating.

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