Historiography: The Legend of Jinba ittai

1990 Mazda Miata 2
All Photos by Randy Stern

Twenty-five years ago, the roadster was reborn.

One could argue that the roadster has always been in our consciousness. You look any small two-seat convertible and wonder if it had ever left our consciousness. To explain, what was once a common place in many communities – albeit foreign and strange to many eyes – had to be reconstituted to meet the stringent requirements for safety, emissions controls, and other safety and environmental caveats the modern world had thrown on the original roadster.

By 1970, Britain, Italy and Japan produced these prodigious little machines for our universe. The brands were familiar to car folks of every stripe: MG, Triumph, Datsun, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Austin Healey, Lotus…they both warmed and broke our hearts as they buzzed by county roads. They were easily mismatched on urban freeways, but once they exited them, they simply came alive with pleasure – if only for a few moments.

Then, they became extinct on our shores. The nanny-ism of Federal laws and regulations made them fossils. Only the Alfa Romeo Spider remained – a body unchanged in decades, but attached with paeans to Federal law.

It feared that a generation of enthusiasts would never know what it was like to drive a MGB or a Triumph Spitfire through the rain. Nor would we see the enthusiasm extolled by owners of the Fiat 124 Spider or the Datsun 2000 roadster. Our cries for affordable fun without all the filters of nanny-ism fell of deaf ears.

That was until 1989, when the Mazda MX-5 Miata arrived at McCormick Place in Chicago to a waiting universe. If one thing was said on that day: The modern two-seat small roadster has returned.

The Miata was a departure from anything Mazda was making for its global markets. The roadster arrived when Mazda was trying to find itself between making a rotary-engine sports car, a series of front-drive models of various stripes, a pickup truck, and a minivan. Mazda always had a sporting streak, thanks to the innovative RX-7. To add a classic roadster to the mix may not be too far fetched for the time, but it was not an easy buy-in from the beginning.

Mazda hired Bob Hall into their product planning group in 1981. He came from Motor Trend and had a reputation for being an advocate for Japanese cars through his work and interactions with the OEMs. Hall came up with the idea of reintroducing the small roadster with modern elements as part of the package. He looked to MG and Triumph as inspirations for the new car.

Hall had a design team in California create such a car for Mazda's executives to see whether it could be built. By 1986, his team developed a car that served as a paean to these memorable roadsters, but with improved running gear, modern driving dynamics and a massive reduction in noise, vibration and harshness. Mazda approved the final vehicle and continued to work out the details. The output of this was the idea of "Jinba ittai" – "rider (and) horse as one body." To the general public, the new roadster earned the auspicious name of Mazda Experiment, project number 5 – MX-5. The roadster's nickname derived from the Old High German word for "reward" – Miata.

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All of this made sense when the new Mazda roadster debuted at the Chicago Auto Show on February 10, 1989. The first generation model was the talk of the show – a conversation that continues today. One look at the final Miata design saw influences from the Lotus Elan of the 1960s. That rounded shape with signal lamps on the front nose and the headlights hidden behind flip-up doors. The rear was simple, but distinctive; modern, but full of heritage. In all, the MX-5 Miata charmed many enthusiasts to the tune of 400,000 units sold worldwide by the end of the NA generation's run.

At Cal State Hayward, a fellow student who was part of an organization I would eventually head, bought one in its second year. It was red with a black interior and top. The reason why he waited was that he could not drive a manual. An automatic transmission showed up the next year, so he bought his with that option. One would argue that a proper roadster – Miatas included – should be driven with a manual. True, but the reality of the American driver sunk in with the option to placate those who want the fun of a Miata without engaging a clutch pedal.

I always like the first generation Miata. It was small – I can barely fit behind the wheel. I had no problem in the passenger seat, though a steep drop into the seat and floor needs a careful step. Regardless of which seat you occupy, the Miata is a sensation of motion. A low center of gravity, a curb weight of just 2,116 pounds and a willing 115 horsepower 1.6liter four-cylinder engine gave the Miata the reputation of bringing that sensation of "bugs on the windshield – and in your face" kind of motoring once enjoyed by an older generation.

Perhaps the best attraction to the original Miata was the price. At the time, the base price of $13,800 was right in the middle of the popular vehicle market. For context, my 1991 Acura Integra RS coupe with an automatic transmission started slightly less than the Miata. The price alone made the Miata popular in the USA – beyond Mazda's wildest dreams.

Over the years, the Miata grew – in both reputation and in a few dimensions. The second generation may not have changed in the overall basic shape, but it honed in the image of the Miata for another several years. Exposed headlights certainly helped, but Miata fans still believed it had Jinba ittai.

By the 1999 model year, the engine has already been fleshed out to 1.8liters and 140 horsepower. Unlike the prior generation, trunk space was expanded to actually hold enough goodies for a weekend for two. If you ever looked backwards in a Miata, you had a plastic rear window to contend with. The second generation replaced the plastic with real glass.

The same notion was transferred onto the third generation. It grew slightly in various parts of the car, to placate safety regulations. For 2006, the "larger" Miata now offered a 170 horsepower 2.0liter four-cylinder tasked to pull 2,441 pounds of roadster. Later iterations of the current generation added more performance, a KODO style grille and many special editions leading to the upcoming 25th Anniversary one.

The Miata's story centers on the idea of how the modern roadster became an icon. It made the old small two-seat sportster a reliable one, with modern technology and engineering ensuring that it will not breakdown as frequent as its predecessors. The Miata was fuel injected, eliminating those nights of tearing apart SU carburetors on many dorm room kitchen floors a couple of decades prior. Though simple in today's terms, the Miata's suspension was high tech for its day, ensuring that Jinba ittai was accomplished around the bend and down the straightaways.

2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Yet, if taken literally, the idea of Jinba ittai does not entirely translate well to the Miata. A rider sits on top of a horse. Though in race mode, the rider is hunched towards the horse’s head for aerodynamic affect. If any of this makes sense, the Miata might have been designed differently, but there is intention in equating the relationship between horse and rider when it came to the development of the Miata.

The point of integrating the driver with machine is evident in these past three generations. Any sports car worth its salt knows that an engineering equation must include a low enough seating position to placate the center of gravity towards inducing optimal handling and the maximum fun factor. The Miata tackles this equation by simplifying these tenets in an attainable package.

The result is the exact car we know and love – the modern roadster. It is a formula that is ready for another generation – debuting in a year or so. It is the kind of formula that attracted Fiat Auto to the fourth generation project, with discussions on how to execute the agreement between it and Mazda to design and engineer not only the next MX-5, but of Spiders for Alfa Romeo. The chassis and driveline made an appearance at this year’s New York Auto Show. All we saw was the presence of a Skyactiv chassis matching the dimensions of a typical Miata.

Mazda stated that the future is Skyactiv. Does that include the Miata, as well? If the chassis shown off in New York could tell us, we might see a weight savings bringing it back down the 1990 model, along with more powerful Skyactiv G engines. Perhaps the Miata’s future is indeed Skyactiv, but will this translate into something enthusiasts to rally around when it shows up sometime in 2015?

What the Miata does to enthusiasts is to change perceptions of what performance can be. We extol the mantra of how the power-to-weight ratio works in the roadster’s favor. We celebrate the fact that Mazda recreated the small roadster that framed part of the 1950s and 1960s and made it more reliable. We also cheer on those who take their Miata on the track to prove its worthy of a greater "reward."

To wax poetic about a quarter century of a modern classic may be up for debate. Consider this: What other car introduced twenty-five years ago still has an impact with enthusiasts and pundits alike? All you need to remember is this Japanese phrase: Jinba ittai.

You can still call it the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

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