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25 Years Ago – Fall 1994

Vroom with A View

By Barbara Feinman

BANGOR, MAINE–There aren’t a lot of people in Maine, and there are even fewer Miatas. In fact, there isn’t a surplus of much up here, except lovely views, black flies, cheap lobsters, and good roads to explore.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had this romantic notion of living in New England, driving along winding coastal roads, a perfect blend of nature and technology. So when the executive editor of The Bangor Daily News asked me to come be the newspaper’s summer writing coach, I accepted immediately, visions of lighthouses and Longfellow preoccupying my thoughts.

When it was time to leave Maryland I stuffed clothes, books, etc. into every square inch of my Miata, setting out on the longest trip I’d ever driven solo–more than 700 miles. Because I have a highly developed aptitude for losing my way I make a point of bringing along a navigator on excursions farther than the video store. But there wasn’t room for a passenger and I knew, once and for all, it was time to confront my cartophobia.

“It’s easy,” my sister said, “You don’t even need a map. Just go north. If you hit Canada you’ll know you went too far.”

Thanks for the advice, sis.

A few days later I arrived in Bangor–a sprawling metropolis famous for Paul Bunyon, home of horror writer Stephen King, and also the final stop on Greyhound’s bus line.

My boss had invited me to stay at his home until I found a place to live. Before I began my apartment search I needed a day of acclimation–get my bearings, as my father would say. Come to think of it, I’ve yet to see my father lose his bearings. He’s the kind of guy who drives with one of those dashboard compasses; not because he needs it, but just in case.

When I turned the key to get in the trunk the latch failed to release. My boss gave it a try. Still no action. There’s nothing like not being able to get at your toothbrush after spending two days on the interstate.

“I read about this in a Miata newsletter,” I told my boss, jiggling the key compulsively. “Defective trunk locks are not unheard of.” It was Saturday. Forty-eight hours till I could seek professional help. And of course, I noted to myself wearily, my warranty had run out. This was not boding well, karma-wise, in terms of my summer.

Monday morning first thing I drove over to the Bangor Mazda dealership. I went into my routine about how the trunk lock must have been defective, that it shouldn’t matter that the warranty had run out… The mechanic was silent as I went on and on. Finally he said, “Yup, I’ll have a look at it.”

About two minutes later he came and found me in the waiting room. “You want to see what was wrong with your trunk?”

I jumped up and followed him.

He stuck the key in the lock, smirked, and then the trunk popped open. Goose feathers flew everywhere.

“Err, I guess I packed it a little too tight,” I said, removing the culprit.

“I guess so,” he agreed, blowing a feather away from his face. “It jammed the lock.”

“Yeah,” I said, flushed. “So how much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “Welcome to Maine.”

As I drove off, pillow now safely stashed in the front seat, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw he was watching me drive away, laughing and shaking his head.

“Welcome to Maine,” I mumbled, remembering the state slogan while plucking a goose feather out of my hair, “The way life should be.”

After I got the trunk situation resolved it was time to find a home. I circled an ad in the classifieds: “Reliable, responsible roommate needed. Room available in horse farm.” Horse farm, huh? Now that would he a Maine experience.

Forty-eight hours later I found myself settling in to my new room at the Horse Of Course horse farm in Winterport, an old village along the Penobscot River. My roommates were to be eight horses, a beagle, an Irish Wolfhound, a barn cat, and one extremely nice riding instructor named Linda, who owns and runs this place.


My Miata was an interesting addition to the collection of trucks, hay conveyors and other assorted contraptions that cluttered the barnyard. In fact, my car was a conversation piece for the endless stream of equestrians, potato farmers and neighbors stopping by for a cup of coffee.

The attention my car attracted was fun, yet there were days when I would have preferred to be inconspicuous.

“Hey BLUE!” I heard someone yell as I sat at a red light in downtown Bangor one afternoon. Our police reporter and I were out on assignment. We looked over. There were two guys in a pickup truck hanging out the window. Emphasis on pickup.

“Yeah?” “What kinda car is that?”

When I replied they looked the car over, then us. “Ya wanna trade?”

“I could use a truck,” I said, shrugging. The sting of my jammed trunk had not completely worn off. The light changed and I moved to shift into gear.

As I drove off we could hear him yell, “You want to go for a motorcycle ride?”

A friend from New York came to visit towards the end of my stay here. She craved a few days away from the city and the humidity, and she wanted to make the most of her temporary liberation while her two teenage sons were at camp. She told them she was going up to Maine to drive around with the top down on her friend’s Miata–summer camp for adults.

The weather cooperated, delivering four days of perfect cruising conditions. I charted a route up and down the coast of Maine, and armed with my newly honed navigational skills and a Maine road atlas, we set off. My friend, Flip, spent a lot of her time, eyes closed, smiling, enjoying the sea air as we zoomed along.

“LOOK!”, I would yell, whenever I noticed a particularly beautiful view. She would open her big green eyes, peer out at the ocean, and then with the serenity of a Trappist monk, she would smile and gently let her lids slip shut again.

During our four-day road trip we passed a few Miatas here and there. “Why do you wave at some Miatas and not others?” she said, momentarily rallying from her zen coma.

“Well, you’re supposed to wave,” I explained. “It’s like a secret fraternity or something. But sometimes I can tell that the driver isn’t going to wave back, so I don’t wave.”

Flip was silent, eyebrows raised. “You always wave at other blue Miatas,” she pointed out, trying to identify a pattern. “Well yeah, because there’s a special bond there.”

At this, she couldn’t help herself, sighing, eyes rolling dramatically.

She may have outwardly mocked my Miata fever, but by the end of the trip I could tell Flip was secretly coveting my car. We stopped at one of those scenic overlooks and sat watching the water. “It’s perfect,” she murmured, eyes fixed on the waves pounding the shore. “Perfect.”

One of our final stops was an L.L. Bean outlet. When we returned to the parking lot with our loot we tried to jam cotton blankets and flannel shirts into the trunk. I remembered the pillow incident and warned Flip against over-stuffing. If we couldn’t fit everything in the trunk we were going to have to put the top up and use the back shelf for storage, I remarked.

“No,” she said firmly, shoving packages around fiercely, “whatever happens, the top stays down.”

Whatever happened, I couldn’t go back to the dealer with a stuck trunk again. Where’s a guy with a pickup truck when you need him, I thought.

Copyright 1994, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

 

25 Years Ago – Summer 1994

Rides of Joy

By Barbara Feinman

“I kind of feel sorry for you,” my neighbor said to me. Her husband was underneath my house, trying to turn off the water. We were huddled in the kitchen by the stove, trying to pretend the house wasn’t freezing. It was the middle of winter and another pipe had frozen and burst. We could hear rushing water below the floorboards.

“I mean, here you decide to move out to the country and we have the coldest winter in … well, EVER” She tried to hold back a giggle, but it was too late. I started to hum my favorite Billie Holiday song, “Everything Happens to Me.

It had seemed like a good idea back in October. Give up my apartment in Washington and move out to the country for six months or so. My siblings and I own an old captain’s house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, along a river that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. I’d go live in the house (nearly 200 years old) and write. That’s what writers do, I told myself; they move out to the country, and they think, and they watch the birds, and they hoe beans, and they write. You know, Walden and Henry David Thoreau and all that. I would do the zen thing. No more honking cars, only honking geese. No more sirens in the night. It sounded idyllic.

That was before the ice storms, the snow-storms, the frozen pipes, the burst pipes, the electricity (and heat) cutting off overnight, the tree blowing down, more snowstorms, the wild bird coming down the chimney and flying madly around (and then dying under my bed) … And to top it all off, my Miata wasn’t in its element, to say the least. It was the first garaged winter of its pampered four-year

existence. My driveway’s slight incline made any amount of snowfall a considerable obstacle. Part of my daily January routine became trying to dig my car out, wheels spinning, snow spraying. The neighborhood kids, liberate from school by the weather, would look up when they heard me cursing. The hill in front of my house, which overlooks Blackbird Marsh, was the perfect toboggan run.

“Come on,” one of them would invariably say, abandoning his Flexible Flyer. “Let’s go push her out again.” The good news was that while my little car with its rear wheel drive didn’t fare so well in the snow, it was light enough for four medium-sized kids to rescue with relative ease. Each day I would skid around town, coming home with groceries, the news-paper and a bag of cookies for the sledders. I would invent errands — my cabin fever increasing exponentially.

At first I told concerned friends from the city who called that I “felt like a pioneer, that it was a real adventure.” But as the days turned to weeks and fresh snow kept falling, I grew less enthralled. About that time, I began to covet every four wheel drive vehicle that drove past my house. But I couldn’t afford two cars, and I could never do the unthinkable…

‘Spring is only thirty-nine days away,’ I would tell myself; looking out at the frozen marsh. But somewhere deep within my soul I feared that Spring just wouldn’t happen, that some-how it would just bypass us this year altogether. My little blue car sat patiently in the driveway, covered with ice and snow, and I would shiver with empathy, obsessively imagining it with its top down. I would picture putting the top down, zipping around the back roads. It seemed three million light years away.

Three months later. There I sat in front of my computer, putting the finishing touches on a project which had completely consumed me for the last month. As I stood up from the desk I realized it was a Friday night and I had nothing to do. I felt like celebrating, but all my friends were seventy miles away. I didn’t want to drink alone. But I had to do something more exciting than laundry to mark the end of this thing. I looked out the window absently. Of course! I’d go for a drive, put the top down and head for the hills — exactly what I had fantasized about all winter.

Dusk was approaching. It was the kind of perfect day where the breeze is light, the sun feels sweet against your skin.

I made my way over the wooden bridge and on toward Spaniard’s Neck, a long, windy, lush two-lane road where you rarely encountered another car, much less a police cruiser with radar. My joy rides usually

take the same route: Spaniard’s Neck to Conquest Farm. Conquest Farm is a private estate, with a long imposing driveway and vast rolling fields. To one side there stands a huge sort of barn-warehouse, filled with pigeons. I’ve never figured out what the pigeons are for. Sometimes I imagine they are carrier pigeons, trained in delivering mes-sages to star-crossed lovers. Probably not.

Across the road is a locked gate leading to Conquest Beach, which I’ve never had the nerve to climb over and explore. The view from the road is awesome enough – a beautiful, majestic vista of the river.

As I came around the bend and could see the farm in the distance, I noticed something ahead of me. I slowed down and realized it was two deer, sprinting across the road. I got closer and then cut off the engine. The deer looked at me and I looked back, realizing they were part of a large herd. I started to count: one, two, three, four, five … oh no, I thought, there are thirteen! I am horribly, excessively superstitious. Thirteen deer was a bad omen I started to recount. And then, from behind the trees, came ten more deer. Twenty-three, my lucky number! The day on which I was born. I sat. there in silence, watching the deer graze, feeling like I was on safari. They seemed unfazed by me, or the Miata, and they roamed around the field languidly. The breeze rolled in across the dashboard, there were crows cawing in the distance. The sun was beginning to set across the river.

I thought of Thoreau. His two years and two months at Walden Pond were filled with moments like these. Okay, so he didn’t drive around in a Miata, or approve of material things at all, but I’d like to think that if Thoreau had been there with me he wouldn’t have eschewed a spin in my little car. It had transcended its material worth for a moment; somehow it had led me there — reaping a chance meeting with twenty-three deer on a perfect spring evening.

Copyright 1994, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

 

25 Years Ago – Spring 1994

Accelerate!

Men say women drivers are road turtles. Ha.

In our culture, women — bikini-clad and draped over a shiny hood — are perceived to be good at selling cars, not at driving them. According to men, the self-styled mandarins of the macadam, we women don’t have the right stuff; testosterone, they insist, is necessary for merging or passing with finesse on the highway, not to mention parallel parking.

The notion that women are bad drivers is as archaic as arranged marriages; ability to drive has nothing to do with whether you have an M or F on your license. Many of us are terrific drivers, or could be, if we would just loosen up and let our instincts for the road take over, if we would stop turning the wheel over to our fathers, boyfriends and husbands. Reader, you are not the ungainly driving turtle that men would like you to think you are. There’s a cheetah inside of you, perfectly poised, coordinated and fast.

I love to drive. Admittedly, I’m a special case; not all women grew up playing with cars as well as Barbies, tagging along with a big brother to a slot-car racing track on countless summer afternoons. David would help me at the remote control, watching carefully as I guided miniature cars around the curves, encouraging me to go faster, to take more risks. When I grew up I left the Barbies behind. But not the cars. Never the cars.

If you met me in, say, the super-market, you’d never suspect my fearlessness on the road. I’m only five foot one; I need help opening a jar of peanut butter. I am craven when it comes to rodents, snakes and flying (it’s not the altitude, it’s that someone else is steering), and if the truth be known, I slept with the light on for a week after seeing Jurassic Park.

But what I don’t have in physical strength or courage, I make up for with a lifelong passion for speed and an innate feel for the road that I’m sure many women share, I learned to drive a stick shift my fresh-man year in college when I purchased a used car. After a week or two I no longer needed to rely on my tachometer to determine when to shift; I could interpret the sighs and rumblings of my engine as easily as a new mother can distinguish her baby’s wet cry from its hungry one. Soon I was weaving in and out of traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway life a native Californian. Guys who rode with me would invariably exclaim, “You can really drive!” The unspoken end of the sentence —”for a girl”— was all the prodding I needed to throw the car into fourth and show them what I was made of, that I could outdrive any man, all the while silently praying to the Goddess of Vehicular Karma to protect me from LAPD radar.

If you love to drive, you know the incredible sense of freedom that comes while cruising along a windy road


with the top down on a breezy moonlit night, foot on the throttle, double-clutching into the turns. There is nothing better. You are the car, and the car is you. It is then, with the wind wildly tossing your hair, that you finally feel liberated, that you are relaxed enough to entertain secret thoughts of getting your brilliant novel published or of being stuck in an elevator with Sam Shepard. It is then that you are uninhibited enough to sing along with the radio and convince yourself that you are harmonizing not only with Bonnie Raitt but with all of humanity.

My memories of driving pleasure are far too numerous to describe, but my supreme moment (so far) happened about five years ago. After dinner at a restaurant, my friend Terri and I were getting into my car when we heard heavy footsteps running toward us. A man rushed past, followed by a cop on foot. “He went that way,” I yelled, pointing ahead of us. The cop opened the passenger door of my Honda Civic, yelled at Terri to get in the back and jumped in.

“Step on it!” he ordered. I kid you not; those were his very words. I needed no further instruction. hook off, foot to the floor, heart racing as my dream came true — permission to floor it with no threat of recrimination. When we got to the edge of the park the cop yelled “Stop!” and jumped out, to chase the man down a ravine. As we watched them slip away into the darkness, I felt like a guest heroine on Cagney and Lacey.

Why should the excitement of driving well be left to the male of the species? Two women have already made it to the Indy 500, the nation’s premier auto race. The most recent, Lyn St. James, placed a respectable eleventh in her 1992 Indy debut and was the only rookie to cross the finish line. I’m not suggesting you enroll in the legendary Skip Barber Racing School (although I am planning on attending it one day). I’m suggesting that the next time you get behind the wheel of a car, you embrace the opportunity to excel, and accelerate; your car couldn’t care less whether you’re a man or a woman. No one else on the road should, either. Particularly you.

by Miata Owner Barbara Feinman

Copyright 1994, Glamour Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

 

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.