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25 Years Ago – Spring 1990

Stopping Traffic

by Peter Egan

On the first morning I drove our Miata test car to work, a black Mustang GT with side-pipes pulled up beside me at a stoplight. The owner, a rather Springsteenish looking fellow with curly hair and rolled-up sleeves on his T-shirt, looked straight ahead and didn’t give the Miata a glance. His girl-friend, however, climbed over his lap for a better look at the Mazda. “That’s it!” she said, shaking him so hard that ash fell off his cigarette. “That’s the car I was telling you about!”

Her boyfriend slowly turned his head and regarded the Miata sullenly from beneath a Gene Vincent spit curl. Then he looked straight ahead and draped his hand over his steering wheel. “I didn’t know they were so small.” he said, loud enough for all of us to hear. The light changed and he roared off in a cloud of rubber and smoke. The g-forces tossed his girlfriend back in her seat. Even in mid-whiplash, however, she managed to look back longingly at the Miata, like a child whose mother has snatched her away from a toy counter.

I grinned and took off in my own mini-snarl of revs and commotion. It’s as sheer flattery, this studied nonchalance of the Mustang driver. An automotive version of the “He ain’t so good” indifference people sometimes use on movie stars in restaurants. The acid test of fame and success.

That small incident, one of many, made it official: The Mazda Miata is the most noticed car I’ve driven in eight years of working at Road &. Track. Not literally official – I haven’t checked with Guinness or hired Price Waterhouse to tabulate the number of stares and shouts-but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the most publicly popular car we’ve ever had in our test fleet, surpassing even Testarossas and Turbo Esprits.

The first week was really something. I’d be driving the Miata home from work, stop at a light, and the guy behind me would leap out of his car and come running up to ask if Miatas were already in the showroom. While he was talking to me, someone in another lane would be hanging out the window of a delivery van and shouting, “Hey, what kind of car is that?” When traffic started rolling, a Samurai-load of high school girls would roll alongside and one of them would shout, “I want one!” with the sort of swooning intensity that was reserved for Lennon or McCartney 25 years ago.

There’s something happening here, as Mr. Dylan would tell us, and it hasn’t abated, even half a year after the Miata’s introduction. And, frankly, I love all the clamor. It’s nice to see the concept of a small, affordable sports car vindicated by success, and it’s also good to see a car-any car-that generates this kind of loud, general excitement again. It doesn’t happen very often in this business.

Working for a car magazine through the Eighties, I’ve attended dozens of introductions for cars. We normally gather in a hotel conference room, have some coffee and sweet

rolls, and then watch a slide show in which alluring portions of the new car are revealed to us in a fan-dancelike photo montage while the engineering goals of the company are explained. Finally We are led into a dark room where the new car sits on a pedestal, the lights come up and the new model is unveiled.

With few pleasant exceptions, most of these unveilings have been fairly disappointing. The crowd gathers around the car, reporters raise their eyebrows or shrug, and finally someone slides up to you and says, “Jeez, with a clean sheet of paper you’d think they could have come up with something more interesting than this….” and someone else says, “Well, the rear end isn’t too ugly….” and a third party says, “The front end kind of reminds you of a Porsche 944, only not quite as clean …” and so on into the morning, damning with faint praise or trying politely to put another lost opportunity in its best light.

The pattern that emerges here, after a near decade of press conferences, is not merely a lack of boldness in design, but a tendency for designers to lose touch with the textures and shapes that the human eye admires in cars. In his critique of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe noted that most architects were so busy impressing one another that they produced a whole generation of buildings in which no one wanted to live or work. The public was supposed to adapt to the taste of the architects, not the other way around, so our cities ended up being a collection of concrete boxes and places based on German worker housing of the Thirties.

That trend seems to be reversing itself in architecture. I’m seeing more new buildings I genuinely admire these days, where some of the more engaging styles from the past are being adapted to a modern vision of space and light.

Car designers-like architects, I think-have been watching one another more than they’ve been watching the customers who have to live in (and with) their cars. As a result, the past decade has brought us too many sports/GT cars that are heavier, wider, longer, vastly more expensive and so lacking in distinctiveness of line as to be anonymous or nearly invisible. Fast, sophisticated and serious, but not much fun.

What Mazda has done with the Miata is not so much reinvent the sports car as fill a huge vacuum, simply by remembering what a sports car is. They’ve built a car with a good power/weight ratio, rather than sheer power, so acceleration feels quick and spritely. They’ve also made it small enough to be nimble in traffic and parkable anywhere, and given it a front-engine/rear-drive layout for easy maintenance, repair and modification. It has a wonderful exhaust note and a convertible top, it doesn’t cost much (temporary gouging aside) and it is as a friend of mine in a Bluegrass band used to say, more fun than half a gallon of red ants.

The Miata also dos something few other cars have been able to do lately: It looks good to a lot of people. It may be derivative in its styling, and of course we have no way of knowing how the design will hold up 10 years down the road. But for right now, it looks good enough to stop traffic, and that alone is fair cause for celebration.

Copyright 1990, Road & Track Magazine. Reprinted with(out) permission.

1 comment to 25 Years Ago – Spring 1990

  • David

    I’ve been thinking about the last paragraph in this article…

    “The Miata also does something few other cars have been able to do lately: It looks good to a lot of people. It may be derivative in its styling, and of course we have no way of knowing how the design will hold up 10 years down the road. But for right now, it looks good enough to stop traffic, and that alone is fair cause for celebration.”

    A quick look on Hagerty’s valuation site reveals the original model finally starting some price appreciation after about 5 years of nearly static prices. Clearly, the design has held up remarkably well. Collectors even seem to be taking an interest now.