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25 Years Ago – Spring 1991

Then & Now

1956 Porsche 356/1500S Speedster & 1991 Mazda Miata
The Second in a series of wheel-to-wheel comparisons

In purely technical terms, a comparison of the Porsche 356 Speedster and the Mazda MX-5 Miata doesn’t compute. How can you relate a horizontally-opposed, air-cooled, rear-engine car of the Fifties with a front-engine, twin-cam, 16-valve machine of the Nineties, one that we currently accept as the state of the sports car art? You can’t.

So forget the specifications for a minute and consider the generally accepted definition of a sports car: a small, two-seat roadster built for just one purpose, driving pleasure. Now, in that context, put yourself back in the Fifties, and into the Porsche.

For that time the Speedster was very light and simple but also extremely sophisticated, neatly detailed and well finished. Just like the Miata today. The Speedster had a tight structure, supple suspension and precise steering. Just like the Miata today. The Speedster had a very reliable engine, developed from a high-volume production unit to give substantially more power and brisk if not exactly neck-snapping acceleration. Just like the Miata today.

In the matter of style, the appeal was not so obvious. The shape of the Porsche .356—in particular the roofless Speedster with its low windshield—was likened by many to an upside-down bathtub, and its nose, lacking the traditional radiator intake, was extremely plain.

Not like the Miata, which can be said to be a scaled-down expression of currently accepted styling themes. In the mid-Fifties only a very adventuresome person took naturally to the Porsche’s extreme aerodynamics; hindsight tells us that the 356 shape was logical and harmonious, well suited to its purpose and therefore an excellent design. Personally, I find its looks more appealing today than ever.

Getting into a Speedster today, especially Bill Strickler’s beautifully restored but thoroughly exercised example, I’m more impressed by the way it copes with the driving demands of the Nineties than by its shortcomings. Certainly the steering has a bit of play compared to a Miata’s and you must think about the brakes at first rather than just count on them, but after a short familiarization the Speedster feels nimble and eager for the road.

Although the engine doesn’t wind as high as the Miata’s and there are only four gears instead of five, the Speedster has enough torque to feel strong (helped by its significantly lower weight, at 1745 pounds almost 400 less than the Miata’s).

In its day and over the years the Porsche 356 has earned a reputation for oversteering, not surprising when you consider that its engine is entirely behind the rear wheels. In fact this “problem” was considerably reduced on the 1955 Speedster and subsequent 356 models by a change in the front torsion bars; the type retained its entertaining, “tossable” handling without such an alarming end-effect, at least for an alert driver.

What makes the Speedster seem still modern today is the integrity of its structure, the smoothness of its ride and its relatively quiet performance; it never feels strained. There’s no Shock of the Old when switching from the Miata to the Speedster.

Inside, the Porsche gives great aesthetic satisfaction. While simple, the interior is beautifully finished, with lovely leather bucket seats and a painted instrument panel that provides a fresh, colorful environment, especially compared to the all-black interior of the standard Miata. (This is one of the reasons I look forward to the BRG Miata with its tan cockpit.) The Speedster’s top goes up and down just as easily as the Miata’s, and the little side windows can be attached fairly quickly, but the low windshield, low seating and small rear window reduce the driver’s view substantially.

Now that we have the feel of the two cars, we can get back to a numerical comparison without being misled. The Mazda has 32 more horses—if you really use the revs—and it’s almost a second quicker from 0 to 60 mph. The quarter-mile times differ by only 0.4 second; what is significant is that the Miata is going 6 mph faster at that point and will continue on to a maximum of 117, compared to 101 for the Speedster.

It’s really engine revs that make the difference; the modern twin-cam, 16-valve engine just keeps on going. In this respect, the bore/stroke ratios are interesting. The 356/1500S engine was modern for the Fifties by being decidedly oversquare; the Miata B6-ZE “reverts” to the traditional longer stroke, meeting today’s reliability standards through modern metallurgy. This should produce lots more torque, although I’ve never felt the Miata really strong in this department. The 23.0 mpg obtained by the Porsche is just 2.5 lower than the Miata’s; this was an excellent achievement for the Fifties, obtained by a combination of light weight, allowing more relaxed gearing, and good aerodynamics.

While the aesthetics of driving the Porsche and Mazda two-seaters are on a par, in actual practice of course you couldn’t get as much hard driving out of the Speedster, day in and day out, then or now. It wouldn’t be fair to try. What is truly remarkable is how satisfying a thirty-five-year-old sports car can be. If you put a 1956 Volkswagen sedan — which shared much of its basic technology with the early Porsches — beside a 1991 Mazda 323, the comparison wouldn’t hold up. The true achievement of the Porsche 356 Speedster was that it went so far beyond its beginnings. The Miata, on the other hand, is just what we expected from Mazda.

Specs

Copyright 1991, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

1 comment to 25 Years Ago – Spring 1991

  • David

    Cool comparison. It’s not the common Lotus Elan one, but I think it still works.

    (On the 356) “…Personally, I find its looks more appealing today than ever.”

    I so agree, but not just because it’s a Porsche. They’ve definitely made ugly cars, too. The 356 is simply a thing of purpose-built beauty and simplicity. This gets me to my only serious criticism of Miatas… Styling. The NA is gorgeous. It’s simple and clean. It’s a near perfect marriage of form and function, both inside and out. Time has been very kind to this design. They seem even more attractive to me now than when they first came out, and they were good-looking then! The NB is elegant and sleek. While much more styled than the NA, it’s still tasteful and restrained. Time seems to have been kind to this design also. The NC.1 seems the logical evolution of the exterior of the NA (man, I miss those pop-up headlights), but after that it really starts falling apart for me. I have a very hard time with the Mazda grin on the NC.2s and NC.3s. While the engineering ethos of the ND went back to their roots, I just don’t understand what happened to the styling. While I give Mazda really high marks for continuing the Miata for 25 years, I wish the design language of it’s aesthetic evolution was more harmonious, like that of the 356 or the 911. This is hardly unique to Mazda, however. Most modern Japanese styling is a bit garish for my western tastes. Aesthetically, I think Fiat, Abarth particularly, has built a much better looking modern Miata.

    This is only my opinion and certainly isn’t meant to offend or influence anyone else’s sense of aesthetics. Taste is a very complicated and subjective thing. Your mileage may vary…