It's hard to believe but the Mazda MX-5 celebrates its 25th birthday this year, writes Adam Binnie.
The occasion will be marked with a special edition model, before the launch of the fourth-iteration MX-5 in September 2014.
The MX-5 earned the title of 'bestselling two-seater sports car of all time' from Guinness World Records in May 2000, after global production reached 531,890 units.
As of May 2014, almost 945,000 MX-5s have been produced, and the 1 million mark is expected to be reached by 2015. Even Mazda has admitted that it didn’t expect it to be so popular.
So how did the MX-5 defy its diminutive stature to become the world’s favourite sports car? We look back on the rise of roadster...
The Mazda MX-5: the genesis
The story begins at Mazda HQ in 1979 when motoring journalist Bob Hall told the company’s then head of R&D that the world wanted an inexpensive sports car.
The concept was, and still is, to combine the fun of a classic MG or Lotus with reliability, a lightweight design and 50:50 weight distribution.
When that R&D executive, Kenichi Yamamoto, became the president of Mazda in 1984 he began shaping Hall's initial sketch below into what would become the MX-5 .
The front-engine, rear-wheel drive format which would come to define the car was chosen by Mazda’s designers in California; this third prototype (red car above) shows how close the early sketches were to the real thing.
Unusually the job of building the first concept car was contracted to the British company International Automotive Design. A clay model was taken by IAD and turned into a plastic body, with mechanicals mounted underneath. The company, run by John Shute, was also responsible for the design of the bonnet.
The 16-valve, 1.6-litre engine came from a Mazda 323, and the suspension was designed from scratch. A late prototype was taken to California in 1987 and tested by 240 car enthusiasts, who were overwhelmingly positive. The design was approved later that year.
American journalists first got their hands on a dozen prototypes in 1988, and the year after the MX-5 was introduced to the public at the Chicago Auto Show. It was initially available only in blue, white, silver and red.
MX-5 engineer Takao Kijima said the driving force behind the car’s design was the idea of Jinba Ittai, a Japanese phrase used to describe a horse and rider moving as one body.
Engine output was kept to 113bhp because more power meant bigger brakes, a stiffer body and according to Kijima, ‘a heavier and duller car’.
The car was called the Miata in North America, and the Eunos Roadster in Japan, before being shipped to Europe in 1990 complete with MX-5 badges.
The powerplant revved to 7000rpm and took the Mazda from 0-62mph in just under 9 seconds. A unique exhaust system provided the rowdy soundtrack, so essential in a convertible.
Perfect weight distribution was achieved by the front mid-ship placement of the engine, between the driver and front axle, and the use of independent suspension on each wheel.
In 1994 the MX-5 was given a facelift and an upgraded 1.8-litre, 131bhp engine. By 1998 the MX-5 fanbase was nearing 500,000 people.
Act Two for the Mazda MX-5
Mazda faced a tremendous challenge in designing the second generation of MX-5 and set itself no margin of error. The difficult second album was launched at the Tokyo motor show in 1997 and although it wasn’t a massive departure from the first car, there were a number of noticeable changes.
Gone were the pop-up headlights, replaced with fixed ovals, saving 5.6kg and making the car safer for pedestrians. The weight loss didn’t end there, with savings found by using plastic bumpers, and by redesigning the soft-top and seats. The engine was also uprated with a new aluminium cylinder head and twin overhead camshafts.
A model upgrade in 2001 saw a new front intake and a boost to the 1.8-litre engine from higher compression and variable valve timing, resulting in 144bhp. A turbocharged, 179bhp version was built by Mazdaspeed and although it wasn’t available in Europe, it was just one of many special editions.
From left to right, and top to bottom, these MX-5 special editions are the Le Mans, the Monaco and Merlot, the California, the Isola, the MX-5 Sport, the Jasper Conran Platinum, the 10th anniversary edition, the ZSport and the 25th anniversary edition.
This short list is just a handful of some 42 different one-off models made by Mazda, including the VS, which had a Bose sound system and wooden wheel, the turbocharged Roadster Turbo, and the Cafe Roadster which had front foglights and a four-point roll-bar.
Mazda also experimented with a number of alternative fuel MX-5s, despite the car's inherent lack of boot space. None of which made it into mainstream production.
By 2005 the car had already become the bestselling two-seater sports car of all time and overall sales had increased to more than 700,000.
Three is the magic number for the Mazda MX-5
The time was right for the MX-5 to be given a lift and it came in the form of the wider, faster and more muscular third generation, powered by 1.8- and 2.0-litre engines.
New levels of luxury included a 150-litre boot, a seven-speaker stereo and soft-top which could be operated with one hand. Despite an additional 20mm of length and wider track, Mazda’s attention to saving grams meant the third-generation MX-5 weighed 1080kg.
The engine was pushed towards the centre of the car, as were the fuel tank and battery, and a new monocoque shell increased stiffness. A retractable hard-top followed in 2006, followed by two facelifts in 2009 and 2012. Today’s MX-5 benefits from improved aerodynamics and suspension as well as a sportier look. It is a grin-inducing ride and will be a hard act for the fourth generation to follow.
Read our review of the 2014 Mazda MX-5 1.8 RC here.
To celebrate the MX-5’s birthday a limited edition 2.0-litre version will go on sale from 1 August 2014. The anniversary version is limited to 1000 cars, 750 of which will be sold in the UK.
The car was unveiled at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, held on 26-29 June 2014, and is based on the Sport Tech Nav, but includes features unavailable on any other model, including its ‘Soul Red’ metallic paint, and hand-painted, dark red dashboard decoration panel.
The new fourth-generation MX-5 will be unveiled to an exclusive audience in Barcelona on 3-4 September 2014.