The British used to be famed for their ability to build small, affordable sports cars with an emphasis on fun – the MGB and Midget, Triumph Spitfire and the slightly pricier Lotus Elan at the top of the list.
But when those famous marques either bit the dust or priced the ordinary motorist out of the market, it took the Japanese to bring affordable open-top fun back to the market.
The Mazda MX-5, launched in 1989, was aimed squarely at reintroducing the golden age of two-seater thrills for no more than the price of decent saloon.
Join us as we take a look at the biggest-selling two-seater sports car in history.
The Mazda MX-5 has never been particularly fast. It’s never been packed full of luxury trim and gadgets. That was never the point.
The point has always been to produce a no-frills, affordable sports car for the masses – and boy, did they get it right…
Early prototypes of Mazda Experiment 5 were designed by a British consultancy, with the idea of deliberately producing a Lotus Elan-type roadster for the modern age.
Launched at the Chicago Motor Show in 1989, the MX-5 – with Elan-style pop-up headlights – weighed in at just 940kg, which allowed the 1.6 litre engine to produce just about enough punch, but it was the stunning handling that won the hearts of reviewers.
With 114bhp, a 0-60 time of 9.1 seconds and a top speed of 114mph, it was brisk but not quick – but as Autocar said at the time, that was never the idea.
“If you’re expecting a Mazda MX-5 to set you alight, you’re in for a disappointment. But as with everything the MX-5 does, it’s not the result but the participation that puts a smile on your face,” says the original road test report.
“This is the two-seat roadster that car enthusiasts have been screaming for since the demise of the old Lotus Elan. It also has the two ingredients essential in any sports car powerplant: instant throttle response and an invigorating exhaust note.”
After seven years of development, the British ideal of a two-seater roadster had been realised – and improved upon:
“The MX-5 is a total success. Mazda’s single-minded determination to provide fun has produced a car of the rarest quality. Above all else, it is its ability to involve the driver intimately in its every reaction and response that makes it a joy to drive. Few others, at any price, can offer so much,” raved Autocar.
Jeremy Clarkson was equally impressed: “The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it 14.”
In 2014, the MX-5 passed 940,000 global sales, and there are few signs of it losing momentum, especially with the release of the latest model receiving yet more rave reviews.
Launched as the Mazda Miata in North America and the Eunos Roadster in Japan, sales of the little car immediately took off, and continued to thrive as the pop-up headlights were dispensed with to comply with pedestrian safety regulations for the mark 2 in 1998.
Demand initially outstripped production, thanks partly to enthusiastic press reviews, and more than 400,000 mark 1s were sold, helped by a price tag of just over £14,000.
Power was beefed up for the mark 2, with a new 140bhp 1.8-litre unit propelling the roadster from 0-62mph in a much more zippy 7.8 seconds, and reaching 130mph. The new look and increased power only helped the MX-5 to reach new sales heights.
The model was updated, with special editions and extra power throughout its life until an all-new, more aggressive looking mark 3 was introduced in 2005.
A 2.0-litre engine married to a six-speed gearbox increased power to 158bhp, which helped to counteract the extra weight, and a coupe was also introduced.
Throughout its life, a whole host of special editions have been churned out, including 10 and 20-year anniversary models, the MX-5 Miyako limited to 500 units, the MX-5 Sport Black, the Venture Edition, the super-charged MX-5 Yusho, Kuro edition, and the mark 2 Mazdaspeed turbo with a 0-62mph of just 6.2 seconds.
It has also spawned a whole industry of tuning and accessory firms offering upgraded parts for competition or road use, with supercharger and turbo kits readily available.
And with so many mark 1 and 2s around on the second hand market, it’s not too difficult to get hold of a decent example and boost its power to around 180bhp – turning your fun little roadster into a much more serious sports car.
With a huge network of devoted owners, well-served by clubs, you’ll never be too far from a helping hand with upgrades, spare parts, or just days out with like-minded fun-seekers.
The new MX-5 is a stunning evolution of the original design and looks set to the give the Japanese car-maker continued unbridled sports car success.
Buying a used MX-5
You can get your hands on an early MX-5, or a high(ish) mileage mark 2, for under £1,000. And, because of the early cars’ simplicity – there’s not much to go wrong – you can easily find real bargains for your summer fun.
For £2,000, you can get yourself an exceptional mark 1 or a well-sorted mark 2 with between 50,000 and 80,000 miles on the clock – although, as ever, condition and service history is arguably more important than mileage, especially on usually-reliable Mazdas.
A mark 1 with a good service history shouldn’t be a problem engine-wise, but watch out for rust (a Japanese imported Eunos may be a good bet here, as they spent the first part of their lives on salt-free roads).
We’d opt for the pureness of a mark 1 in good condition, with a good service history and that hasn’t been hammered by boy-racers, for somewhere between £1,300 and £2,000.
Good ones are becoming more rare, and its rear-wheel-drive, double wishbone all round set up, with great handling and just enough pace will give you all the fun you need over the summer months.
Insurance from Adrian Flux
Get standard or classic car insurance for the Mazda MX-5 and its variants, including foreign imports, with Adrian Flux.
Features can include:
- Agreed value
- Limited mileage discounts
- Owners club discount
- Laid up cover
- Wedding hire cover