► Gavin Green on roadsters
► The British roadster is dead
► Only one roadster remains, the MX-5
A sage – or was it a cynic? – once remarked that the golden age was never the present. When it comes to driving conditions, our sceptical savant was undoubtedly correct. Traffic, speed cameras and social sentiment have tamed our former exuberance.
When it comes to fine sports cars, though, life has never been so bountiful. From the P1 to the latest Porsche Cayman, from all modern Ferraris to the F-type, from GT-R to GT3. Even the French have rediscovered their joie de vivre, as evinced by the Peugeot RCZ and a menu of spirited Renaults.
Yet in one key area we are a cursed generation. This is due to the almost total extinction of a breed of car that was once the favoured plaything of bright young folk. Ironically, it’s a type of car well suited to today’s driving environment, where fun should be generated by means other than speed and aggression; and where style, agility, a ‘special’ experience and affordability are all prized.
I refer, of course, to the British roadster. If we were to time-travel back to those happy days of deserted B-roads and no speed limits, we would find these quiet Elysian byways peppered with MGs and open-top Triumphs and – steered by a more serious breed of driver – Lotus Elans and big-engine Austin-Healeys.
Today, like the biplane and the giant beaver, they are all extinct, killed by poor quality (from leaking roofs to seeping sumps), fossilised engineering and no foresight. If we exclude minimalist Caterhams and Westfields, and other raw roadsters that revel in a certain intensity of self-flagellation, only one car maker serves up an affordable British-style roadster: Mazda.
The story of the first MX-5 has been told before, so I will not go into great detail – other than to tell you that the design was partly done by my old tennis partner Tom Matano, was inspired by classic British roadsters, that the Lotus Elan was the role model (a wise choice: the Elan was the best of them all, dynamically); and while MGs, Triumph TRs etc were by then mostly museum pieces, the MX-5 proved a great success. It quickly became the world’s best-selling sports car.
Emboldened by Mazda’s success, some car makers returned to the fold. Fiat launched its sweet and pretty Barchetta (little boat), Alfa Romeo reintroduced the Spider, hoping to ride a tide of roadster (and Graduate) nostalgia; Honda made the high-revving S2000; even Pontiac sold an inexpensive open-top two-seater, the Solstice. The Brits, their intellectual property impugned (nay, improved), briefly came back – remember the MGF? This was a typical Rover Group car: over-complicated, over budget and overwhelmed in the showroom by the MX-5.
For the new Mk4, Mazda focused on improving the best of all MX-5s: the first one. This was the smallest, the lightest, the most agile, the most driver focused. The Mk2 and Mk3 iterations, though unmistakably members of the same noble family, were beefier beasts, more benumbed. Some of that old zestfulness was missing.
So what are the key ingredients that differentiate a ‘British’ roadster from other sporting cars, such as a hot hatch or a pricey Porsche? First, it must be light and small. The Mk4 MX-5 is 55mm shorter than the diminutive original and weighs just 975kg – that’s 150kg less than the (recently deceased) Mini Roadster, a car which brazenly promoted its English roadster roots rather than, as the MX-5 does, subtly conveying the breed’s charm. That’s also 200kg lighter than a Fiesta ST.
Second, it must be rear-wheel drive. For ultimate balance, agility and steerabiity, nothing else will really do. (Ferrari, BMW, Porsche and Lotus – the long-term masters of driving enjoyment – all know this; Alfa Romeo is belatedly rediscovering it.)
Third, it should have two seats only, for more intimacy and less bulk. Plus it should be naturally aspirated, without the huff and puff of a frenzied turbo. Of course, you must rev the engine to generate thrills, but that’s half the fun. Then there’s the sensory wind-in-the-hair pleasure, accessible by the most deliciously easy (manual!) folding roof, one-handed and executed in seconds. Finally, a good ‘British’ roadster must be inexpensive. Happily, the entry level 1.5-litre MX-5 – all you need – is just over £18,000.
The British roadster’s golden age was indeed long ago, in a carefree driving environment far removed from today’s strictures and constraints. Yet the latest MX-5 could well be the ultimate expression of this happy genre.