If one vehicle embodies the spirit of today's Mazda, it's the MX-5 Miata.
It was not merely a fetching and fun-driving convertible. The little rear-wheel-drive, affordable two-seat ragtop helped rekindle the segment's light after its near-death experience in a post- Unsafe at Any Speed world.
On a spring day in 1979, Mazda Managing Director Kenichi Yamamoto received an American visitor who would inspire the Miata: Bob Hall, Automotive News' West Coast editor at the time.
According to an account in the 1989 book Mazda MX-5 Miata — The Rebirth of the Sports Car in the New Mazda MX-5 with a History of the World's Affordable Sports Cars, Yamamoto asked Hall: "What kinds of cars should Mazda build?"
Hall, whose father owned British open-top cars from the '50s and '60s, responded: "A low-priced, opened-bodied sports car," and he sketched his vision of a roadster on a blackboard. Hall also suggested Yamamoto drive a Triumph Spitfire.
Yamamoto ended up driving the Spitfire. Hall, a journalist by trade with no engineering experience, ended up getting hired to Mazda's North American research division. And a decade after that fateful meeting, Mazda ended up showing off a brand-new, production-ready convertible at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show.
With an affordable sticker price starting around $14,000, the MX-5 Miata was an instant sensation. It typically sold over sticker price after hitting the U.S. market, commanding a $5,000 to $6,000 premium, Hall said in a 2019 interview with Australian website WhichCar. In 1990, the car's second year in the U.S., annual sales peaked at 35,944.
Throughout the years, the MX-5 has gained power, tech, more-sophisticated engineering and — to the disappointment of some enthusiasts — size and weight. Those increases were a fate dreaded by the car's development chief, Toshihiko Hirai, after the U.S. mandated new frontal and side crash standards in the early '90s. But at its heart, the Miata remains a few-frills, grin-inspiring droptop, a favorite of auto critics, tuners and weekend racers.
The 1 millionth Miata rolled off the line in 2016. Though annual U.S. volumes have drifted downward as convertibles once again fell out of favor with consumers, the car remains a key part of Mazda's identity. Last year, Mazda celebrated the MX-5's heritage with a 30th-anniversary special edition.
"Did we imagine a more than [30-year] model run with more than a million built to date?" Hall told WhichCar. "It really wouldn't have been smart to think that way, but we did believe with some solid updating along the way, and a successful second-generation car, we didn't see any reason it couldn't live 10 years in the marketplace. Which it has now done so — three times in a row."