Road Tests Sales Legends

Sales Legend: Brief history of the Mazda MX-5

Time 12 years ago

mazda4TWO seats, soft top and rear-wheel drive – three ingredients that form the basis of a recipe for success.

Add in a dash of affordability, a pinch of cute styling and lashings of handling prowess and you’re well on your way to a Michelin Star winning banquet of a car!

When Mazda designed its MX-5 it kept things simple. The concept was to recreate a classic British sportscar of days gone by – a modern interpretation of a Lotus Elan or MGB – and boy did they crack it. As only the Japanese can, they took the idea we had and made it even better – and buyers lapped it up.

The little Mazda has been an unequivocal sales phenomenon for the firm, shifting more than 860,000 units since it first arrived on our shores in 1990. Yes, the MX-5 really is nearly 20 years old. But where did the idea to create such a car come from? Well, quite unbelievably, that was all down to one humble journalist’s chat with the head of research and development for the car manufacturer back in 1976.

Motor Trend magazine scribe Bob Hall was lamenting the dwindling numbers of ‘classic British sportscars’ on the roads and suggested a carmaker should try to recreate an inexpensive
roadster for the masses. The conversation planted a seed in the mind of then R&D head honcho Kenichi Yamamoto.

Five years later, Hall was offered a job at Mazda in a product planning role and met the same man he’d spoken to – but by then Yamamoto-san had moved up in the world… to chairman of Mazda Corporation! The chief remembered their chat and tasked Hall with turning the idea into reality.


Hall immediately set about putting his great plan for an affordable sportscar into place and a competition was set up between Mazda’s design houses in Tokyo and California. The Americans opted for a front engine, rear-wheel drive layout – in line with the British roadster roots Hall was trying to recreate. But the Japanese couldn’t decide between two drive trains: front-engined with front-wheel drive or mid-engine with rear-wheel drive.

Both teams presented their plans on paper, and the mid-engine model was discounted. The second round of judging saw clay models produced and the American team emerged victorious. Their concept, dubbed ‘Duo 101’, was earmarked for production.

This was back in 1984, and it would be some years before it would become the MX-5 we know and love today. Mazda commissioned a British company – International Automotive Design – based in Worthing, West Sussex, to build a prototype, and after positive reaction from the public, top brass finally signed the car off in January 1986. 

Three years later it was ready to launch at the California Motor Show – with the name that’s become somewhat of an icon: MX-5. The M stands for Mazda, the X came from ‘eXperimental’ and the five was the project number. 

But the real key to the MX-5’s success has been just how good each model is on the road. Rear wheel drive, like all good sportscars should be, with sprightly engines that weren’t too powerful, the Mazda was a delight to pilot. 


It’s won thousands of fans the world over – including a host of celebrity followers. Car nut Jay Leno believes it will be the car that future generations will want to collect and even Jeremy Clarkson loves the baby Mazda calling it ‘basic, honest and wonderful’. 

mazda3In its 19 years, there have been four generations of the MX-5 – all of which have stuck to the original concept closely. The first was with us for eight years and launched in the UK in March 1990 costing £14,925.

It featured a 1.6-litre 115bhp engine capable of hitting 60mph in 8.7 seconds and a 121mph top speed. Mazda UK sold 20,088 models of the MkI – but worldwide more than 580,000 found homes!

The MkII’s biggest difference was at the front, with the pop-up lights of the original – outlawed for safety reasons – replaced with fixed units. Under the skin there was plenty of reworking too and the 1.6-litre was joined by a new £15,995 1.8-litre that produced 145bhp and hit 130mph. UK sales doubled to 47,157.

Seven years later – in 2005 – the third generation arrived and with it the MX-5 got its first complete redesign since the original. Inspired by the then recently-launched RX-8 it got a gentler wedge shape and flared wheelarches.

Again, under the skin, the designers got to work introducing a new chassis but the big news was the 1.6-litre axed in favour of a 1.8 and a new 160bhp 2.0-litre introduced too. Only a year later, Mazda tweaked the formula again adding a retractable hard top model – the Roadster Coupe. 

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That brings us to 2009 and another MX-5. This time changes were designed to make it ‘sharper, leaner and greener’ – and give the eight-strong line-up the edge to still win sales.

But what really makes Mazda’s little roadster such a success is the fact the maker has stuck closely to the original concept: simplicity, fun and value – all three of which go a long way when it comes to pleasing car buyers. It just seems funny, then, that it took a humble
journalist to point that out to a car giant…

by James Baggott  

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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