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25 Years Ago – Summer 1993

My Friend, Mr. Hirai…

by
Norman H. Garett III
Founder Miata Club of America
Concept Engineer Miata Project

We were delayed for a half hour while the technicians replaced a front shock on one of the prototype 323 test mules by the side of the road. It was 1984 and we were testing the new series against samples of its competition in the high deserts of California. There were ten of us from Mazda, a few of us from the Design Studio staff in Irvine and the rest were technicians and senior project managers that had flown over from Japan.

I killed some time taking in the scenery around us. My boss, Mr. Kubo, was speaking with one of the Japanese managers by a small pond down the road, so I headed toward them for some company. As I approached them, I overheard the hushed tones of their gentle native tongue and decided not to interrupt. I walked to the pond’s edge and began skipping a few smooth flat stones across the water. A few minutes later, my solitude was broken by the sight of a second stone skipping along a parallel path to mine. As I turned to see who had launched such a skillful skip, my eyes met with a wel­come smile brightening the face of my boss’s friend. With an even broad­er smile and broken English, he offered me a slight bow as he said, “Hullo. My name is Hirai”.

Before me stood a singularly endearing Japanese gentleman in his late fifties. With a slighly graying crew cut, the physical similarity to Ozzie Nelson was immediate, right down to the fatherly nature. It was my first meeting with the special man who was to become one of the most important men in the Miata story. Our words were few that day, but as we shared a few minutes engaged in a boyhood pastime, we some­how came to understand each other very well.

It was to be another year before I saw Mr. Hirai again. A group of program managers and staff were out to dinner at a local Newport Beach restaurant. Up and down the long table the conversation bubbled about sports cars and the love of driving. The Miata project was moving toward its second clay model, not yet approved, and many parts of the recipe were yet to be decided upon. We all spoke of our particular love of cars. Someone put forth the concept that a sports car should respond as a horse does to a skilled rider, almost anticipating the next command. Hirai took that a step further and expounded on his theory that the first sports cars were the Roman chariots. We all nodded in agreement as point after point was made around the table about the true meaning of a sports car. We ended the evening with the glow of friendship and the fire of opportunity for the car we were pulling out of thin air.

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the Miata was approved for production and that Mr. Hirai was to be the program manager. I am sure that there are many others who were technically capable for the job,


but I was glad he was chosen. We became amazed at Mr. Hirai’s uncanny ability to cut to the core of true not sports car essence as he translated abstract wishes into nuts and bolts. A true engineer, he was looking to make a marketing impression with a pretty shape and a nice spec sheet. Mr. Hirai had elevated his think­ing and the thinking of the design team to the goal of cre­ating that fire deep inside the car that rewarded all who were to drive it. Very philosophical for an engineer, very Eastern for a product concept, but very necessary for the building of a virtuous sports car.

Time after time, I watched as Hirai-san guided, fought, and persuaded element after element that was being designed into the Miata. Weight was one of his greatest concerns. Agility was another. He would work his way back up the design process to find each hidden gremlin that might later “box-in” certain decisions and ferret out those problems at their genesis. If compromises were to be made, it would not be because the design team was caught by surprise. Thorough and deliberate, progress was made with a singular purpose that was a first for Mazda and a model of corporate cooperation.

There were conflicts in Japan, of course. Conflicts of cost, conflicts of timing, conflicts of procedure. As a testament to his leadership skills, Mr. Hirai guided the design crew through each storm and dark night with strength and intellect. Each new day, the project would awaken right on course and a few milestones closer to the goal of making some­thing more than just another car.

Each time I saw him, he had the expression of a young boy just look­ing up from his Erector set. The design process fascinated him and his enthusiasm inspired and led all of us to find the same spark in our hearts to do our best.

I wax eloquent about Mr. Hirai because I have seen so many exec­utives in the auto industry be driven by circumstance, wafting about in a rough sea of indecision and conflicting input. What Mr. Hirai was able to do was not supernatural, but it was and is very uncommon in today’s world ofproject committees and corporate politics. Singular vision exer­cised with unvarying steadfastness was very much rewarded in the Miata project. As Mazda has learned from the course Mr. Hirai chart­ed, so can many companies.

Mr. Hirai retired a few months ago. I hear he is now teach­ing at a local college near Hiroshima. I wonder if those stu­dents know how fortunate they are. I am sure that Mr. Hirai will not let them escape his tutelage without imparting cer­tain aspects of his personality into their way of thinking. And after the Miata, that will be another of his great con­tributions to this world.

Mr. Hirai, you have worked hard for your rest. Be sure to know that each Miata owner appreciates your contributions to the automotive landscape. Let’s hope that your legacy inspires others to help to create cars as significant and reward­ing as the Miata.

And during your days of relaxation, remember to skip a stone for me sometime.

Copyright 1993, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

1 comment to 25 Years Ago – Summer 1993