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25 Years Ago – Winter 1993

Elevator Espionage

I get a lot of calls from my journalist friends asking why there has not been a competitor to the Miata entering into the market by now. It has been five years since the press introduction of the Miata and it is presumable that some other company would have tried for their piece of the sports car market pie by now.

The answer I give largely centers around the Capri and its lack of sales performance as contrasted to the Miata’s success.

It is hard to believe that the first Miata day model took shape over a decade ago. At that time the key words for the program were “Light Weight Sports” or LWS. The concept was crystal clear for those of us within Mazda – fill the gap left by the recently deceased British sports cars. Customers at that time were making do with Fiero’s and Honda CRX’s, but we thought a reliable MGB would be more to the market’s liking. Justifying 40,000 units per year (based on MG and Triumph sales in ’79-’80), Mazda headquarters in Japan gave the green light for our California studio to proceed.

Ford had received quite a bit of good press with the Barchetta show car in the late seventies – a small, two seat sports car based on Fiesta mechanicals (my, this all sounds ancient now…). A few product planners within Ford had been looking for a justification to build such a car for many years. In the early ’80’s, the chance came. Ford of Australia needed more export credits for a particular assembly plant. Putting two and two together, the powers within Ford decided to build an adapted version of the Barchetta in Australia for domestic sales and for export to the US and other markets.

The germ of the idea was great – a low cost two seater for the masses. Build it in an existing plant with as many existing parts as you can and you will have the afford-able answer to the British expiration. The plan was solid, but the execution began as a compromise from the get-go. It was decided to build the car on a Mazda 323 floorpan, in order to save money by not developing a new one. The choice was made to use the old tooling from the 323 line that had just been moth balled. Thus, a car destined to enter the market in 1990 was being built on a chassis introduced in 1982 and killed in ’86.

I recall riding in my hotel’s elevator while in Hiroshima and meeting new American faces each day. They were Ford engineers working on the Probe/MX-6 joint venture and the Capri project. They did not know of our plans to make a small sports car, but we were curious about how the “Barchetta” program was going and how it might be the death knell for our special car. “How is the 323 platform working out for the two seater?” I would ask, feigning knowledge of the project. “Fine, Fine. Front wheel drive is the only way to go with this niche market,” would be the reply, telling me they were locked into front wheel drive and mediocre handling performance from the start. It was a chess game, but as long as they stayed on that track, there was a chance the Miata would be “allowed” to be built.

The front wheel drive decision for the Capri was based, again, on cost. This was the one point that made the Miata possible. You may remember that Ford owns 25% of Mazda. The Ford Board knew about the Miata program and decided to let it co-exist with their Capri program. The two cars had completely different drivetrains and market focuses and were considered not to be direct competitors, sort of like the Midget and the MGB. The Capri was going to have two small rear seats and be priced lower than the Miata. The thinking (sound enough) was that the purists would buy the Miata and the more “practical” customers would buy the Capri.

There was a period of true pins and needles for us at Mazda R&D in 1985 when the Miata’s future was very uncertain. Internally, the MPV was competing for development money – the U.S. market was crying out for minivans at the time. Externally, Ford’s weighty scepter loomed over our little idea. Fortunately, all three vehicles were approved for production.

The rest, as they say, is market history. The Capri was scheduled to come out first at a low price. In fact, the Capri introduced at $12,800 six months after the Miata went on sale for $13,800. Very shortly afterwards, the Capri’s price rose to over $14,000. The press, as we remember, was ecstatic about the Miata and “kind” to the Capri. The market place rewarded the two cars in a less than equal manner.

Last year’s sales for the Capri were half those for the Miata, even with serious rebates and discounts from Ford/Mercury.

The problem with the Capri? There are none, really. It is a very pleasant 2+2 convertible with mild road manners and a reliable nature. Does anyone sneak out at night and wax their Capri? Is anyone drawn to chase headlights for hours, so enamored with the Capri’s character and style? Few are, if any. The Capri has a serious infection of that corporate disease – committee design. It pleases everyone and thrills no one. The lack of sales for the Capri has proven one thing – niche cars need to have stand-out personalities.

And there is that price. Basically, the Capri is a convertible Mazda 323 Hatchback. The convertible option costs around $2000 at retail. The 323 Hatchback sells for $7000. Put that together to yield a reasonable price for a Capri at around $9000. Trying to sell a $9000 car for $14,000 is a fool’s game in any market.

Now I can make my point, after a long winded prelude. The Capri and the Miata have staked out the only two viable ways of meeting this small sports car market in a modern world. You can take an existing design and make it into a sports car, trying to keep the costs down and make up for lack of character with clever marketing and alloy wheel programs. Or you can start with a clean sheet of paper and spend your money making your idea of the perfect sports car, praying that the almighty customer will agree with you. Both represent risky propositions.

These two cars have essentially cornered the market in low priced sports cars – there may be little room for anyone else. Could someone make a $16,000 car from scratch and have it be better than the Miata? Probably not – and that is not said out of arrogance, it is just that the Miata was developed with no competition in mind. Any car now developed would have to position itself among a few cars in the field and compromises would be inevitable. Can someone take an existing sub-compact design and make it a convertible “sports car” – maybe. The lack of Capri sales even after sustained rebate programs is probably scaring anyone away.

We have seen Toyota move the MR-2 up scale (into the $20,000 range). Honda’s new “CRX” is the Del Sol which is more money and less car than the Miata ever pretended to be. The Fiero is dead. Alfa Romeo sold less cars for the entire last year than Mazda did Miata’s in its worst single month. Fiat has announced a new two seater, but our crash tests and product liability problems may keep it out of the U.S. market. The MGB is alive and well with a V-8 engine and a price to match for Brits only.

So is the Miata king of the hill? Well, it is king of its hill, which is the “affordable” sports car market. It has been included in all of the automotive magazine’s “favorite car” lists for each of its four years of production. It has spawned the largest single marquee import car club in the world (us).

Does that make it the “best”? No. What makes it the best is that little smile that creeps over you when you crest that hill or clip that apex and the sun is just right and the wind is billowing over the wind-shield and second gear feels so good and the engine sings happily. Being able to reproduce that smile on 250,000 individual customers around the world is what makes it the best. It is a feat not easily accomplished in today’s automotive world.

For that, we must say thank you to Mazda, for persevering through that product mine field on our behalf.

Norman H. Garett III
Founder Miata Club of America

Copyright 1993, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

25 Years Ago – Fall 1993

Stingray

by
Tom Voelk
Seattle, WA

“Red, definitely red,” I instructed the salesman on the other end of the phone. The words were sure. The words were firm. The words have been dreamed about for a very long time. And they took me back to a day so very long ago.

It was twenty years ago, that day was. I will never forget it. Lying in the backyard, the summer wind dancing across me. The smell, the tickle offish cut grass. The anticipation. Mom singing softly as she hung the laundry on the line. Brilliant white clouds soared across a big blue Minnesota sky. Oh yes, that day. My tenth birthday.

My rusty, old, crummy old, stupid old bike inherited from my big brother Mike was about to be replaced. I just knew it. Lying there in the grass with my head in the clouds, I was already riding my new Stingray. A red Schwinn Stingray.

Actually blue would be just fine. So would green. Ooooh no. Green was kind of dorky, it would have to be either red or blue. No, definitely red with the sparkled banana seat, high rise handlebars and chrome fenders. Oh! What a machine! The fastest in the neighborhood! Morn stopped hanging the laundry to ask what I was grinning about.

So when Dad asked me to help him “pick something up downtown,” well, I knew exactly what was happening. I didn’t let on though. For one thing, my Dad was stem and didn’t appreciate emotional displays. For another, our family wasn’t exactly rich, and I wasn’t going to spoil his big surprise. I wanted to sprint to the car. I walked. Casually.

Wow. I never knew a car could go so slow, or that traffic lights could stay red so long. Red. Oh yeah, that red Schwinn Stingray. My new bike, my Stingray, was certainly going to be the best on the block! It would also probably go faster than this old car.

And it was at that moment my daydreaming gave way to a sickening reality. I scrambled around to look out the back window. Dad had passed right by the Schwinn dealer! Didn’t he know? Hadn’t I made myself perfectly clear these past months? A Stingray! He kept driving. Past the bakery. Past the drug store. I slumped back around. The Stingray was long gone. The car was very quiet. I felt confused and betrayed as Dad pulled the Oldsmobile up in front of Sears.

How can you forget a day like that? It started with such promise and ended so bittersweetly. As I rode home that day I passed the Schwinn dealer and saw the shiny new Stingray I thought would be mine still in the window. That was the day I learned all about compromise, except for the fact I ate all the birthday cake I wanted.

So now twenty years later, I’m on the phone with a guy named Dave at Island Mazda. My wife has suggested a number of practical automobiles to replace my rusty old, crummy old car that was bought second-hand. She knows it’s in vain though. She knows what I really want. After just five minutes on the phone, Dave and I agree on a price for a new Miata.

Now in twenty years I’ve had larger setbacks in life than not getting a bicycle I wanted as a kid. But as he asked me what color I want-ed, I realized here, one childhood dream was coming true. He had no idea of the memories flooding my head. He couldn’t see my quiet smile. All he heard was, “Red. Definitely red.”

Copyright 1993, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

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.

25 Years Ago – Spring 1993

Do you know where “Miataville” is located? Well, you won’t find it on any map, and you can’t get there by driving your Miata (or any other car for that matter). Miataville does exist, however, and all you need to get there and enjoy its attractions is a personal computer. Miataville exists inside a giant computer located in Columbus, Ohio at a unique place called CompuServe.

CompuServe is the world’s biggest OLIS (On-line Information Service) and can be accessed by anyone with a personal computer and a modem over a standard telephone line. CompuServe offers many information services such as investment information, airline schedules, news wire service, shopping services, games, electronic mail (E-Mail), encyclopedias, databases, and even a “CB” channel where you can talk to other people on the channel via your keyboard.

There are also various group “forums” on assorted subjects such as computers, software, hobbies, sports, etc. In this forum there is also a special category called “Miataville,” which is an area specifically for Miata owners to share information, articles, latest happenings and news, problems, and anything at all related to Miatas.

The heart of Miataville is a message board & a library full of articles, news and gossip submitted by Miata owners.

The messages and articles you can read and/or download are all submitted by other Miata owners in the forum, and cover a wide variety of subjects. A random sampling of some of the messages recently covered a full plate of Miata owner interests such as the `93 models, gearbox changes, new accessories and radios, tires, driving schools, rattles, bike racks and hitches, and even advice on how to remove your sun visors.

The fun part of the forum is being able to carry on a dialogue with other Miata owners around the country via the message board. No message ever goes unanswered, and even when someone comes up with an esoteric question or problem, there is always someone with an answer, related experience, or if nothing else, an opinion. Signing up for CompuServe is easy, and their rates are competitive with other on-line services. You can call 1-800-848-8199 to sign up or to get more information.

See you in Miataville!
Member Gary W. Joseff

Copyright 1993, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

25 Years Ago – Winter 1992

This is the back page from the Winter 1992 Miata Magazine. I looked through the whole issue looking for just the right thing to add here, and while included the usual stuff, letters with questions, a camparo with a 1959 Mercedes Benz 190SL, a Club Chapter spotlight (Tar Heel), it seemed like there were actually more ads than content. So here you have just some of the fancy things you could buy for your Miata way back at the end of 1992.

Click on the image to get a bigger view. You can then enlarge the pop-up image to a much larger size by clicking on the symbol at the upper left to bask in all the glory of early 90’s goodness. Like a Coil Cellular Look Antenna, so you can pretend you had one of those big ticket mobile phone things.

Some of these things were actually very useful and within a few years were built into the car by Mazda, like the trunk shield and door sill protectors. A few were worthwhile like the window sandwicher to protect the easily scratched vinyl back window and the rear deck bags to practically double the trunk space for long road trips.

One of the first things I did buy for the front of my first Miata was one of the black mesh grills. I still run one today and it has protected the A/C condenser coil from innumerable leaves, grasshoppers and 2 low flying birds. As a bonus, it looks better than the open mouth on the NA & NB. Plus, I am almost embarrassed to admit, I bought a pair of those black leather driving gloves too.