Miata : Mazda MX-5 : Irvine Design Team Draws One Big Success

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In August, 1988, designers at Mazda Research and Development of America affixed a futuristic sculpture onto the two-story rear lobby wall in the company headquarters in Irvine.

The casting showed the front and rear of a car, a motif not unusual for an automotive design studio.

But what was depicted was not a discarded or never-to-be design. Rather, it was pieces of Mazda’s hot new Miata two-seat convertible, a car that was not publicly unveiled until February, 1989.

In most auto companies, such an action would be heresy. At Mazda, the whole thing has been treated as a good inside joke.

Chief product planner Bob Hall laughs as he recalls the auto writers and industry insiders who walked into the lobby without even glancing at the sculpture--or who looked and had no inkling of what they were seeing.


“Nobody even came close to guessing what it was,” he said with a chuckle.

And that says a lot about Mazda and why it--and not one of the Japanese or Detroit behemoths--is the company that woke up the automotive world with a relatively inexpensive lightweight sports car.

The Miata began as just an image in Hall’s mind a decade ago. From the official proposal to product introduction took seven years. The car cost about $100 million to develop, far less than the typical $1 billion spent in Detroit to bring a new model to production.

That the irrepressible Hall--a former automotive journalist whose conversations are liberally peppered with one-liners and puns--was recruited by Mazda is the main reason for the Miata’s becoming a reality.

It was Hall who first proposed that the company follow its successful RX-7 rotary engine sports coupe with a cheaper open roadster. The idea was broached in 1979, accompanied by a sketch scrawled on a blackboard, while Hall was interviewing Mazda’s then-director general, Kenichi Yamamoto, now chairman of the company--for an American auto magazine.

And it was Hall, after joining Mazda in 1981 as assistant director of product planning at the research center in Irvine, who continually pushed for a two-seat convertible. Colleagues said that nearly every Mazda executive who made the journey to Irvine from corporate headquarters in Hiroshima was harangued by Hall, who is proficient in Japanese, about his dream car.

It seems equally important to the Miata’s existence, however, that there is a Mazda Motor Corp.

“There are probably a lot of auto makers asking themselves why this is a Mazda and not one of theirs,” said Jack Teahen, senior editor of Automotive News in Detroit. “The simple answer is that it is a car Mazda saw a market for and was willing to devote time and money to develop.”

Toshihiko Hirai, the product program manager who shepherded the Miata through its final design and engineering and then into full-scale production in Hiroshima, said the car was developed with one idea in mind: “We searched for a vehicle that was fun to drive, a lightweight sports car.”

To accomplish that goal, he said, “we searched for components to make handling fun. We wanted to achieve what we call in Japan jimba-ittai ,” which translates as oneness of rider and steed. “This concept must be understood by all engineers associated with the development of the sports car. And to put it into reality we had to try various new and different things.”

The car was an instant success with buyers, and dealers have reported much heavier demand than Mazda has so far been able to supply.

Worldwide production is pegged at only 50,000 cars a year, and 80% of that is earmarked for U.S. consumers. American buyers have signed waiting lists that can stretch to as long as six months in some areas, and many dealers have tacked premiums onto the price just for the privilege of a place on their waiting list.

Price Is Selling Point

The U.S. base price of $13,800--it can swell to around $18,000 when loaded with options--has helped fan public interest. Most other true sports cars sold in this country start around $20,000 and go up sharply from there.

The Miata also appears to have captured consumers’ attention for another, earthier reason: The consensus of the automotive press is that the car is sexy and spirited. It looks good, handles well and performs the way a sports car is supposed to.

Hirai personally reviewed the sounds produced by more than 100 combinations of exhaust pipes and mufflers. A major subject of debate among the Japanese engineers working on the exhaust system was whether it should have the deep rumbling tones associated with British sports cars of the 1940s and 1950s or the higher-pitched staccato blatting that Japanese prefer.

The British sound won out, to the delight of a large contingent of Mazda people.

Hall, 36, who grew up in a family of sports-car buffs in Pasadena, is most pleased with the finished product.

He says that among his earliest memories are those of being buffeted by the wind as his father roared along in one or the other of the many open roadsters he owned. And in the initial pitch he wrote for the car--sent to Hiroshima in early 1982--Hall argued that it had to be “designed to be accepted by the true enthusiast, the tweed-cap type, as a true sports car, not a sporty car.

‘Holy Grail’

To that end, Hall never even thought of making the car anything other than a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive convertible.

He said that he characterized the car in his proposal “as a sort of Holy Grail. I basically said that it was a car that just had to be done, and that if Mazda didn’t do it, someone else would. I was on pins and needles the whole time the project was going on, waiting for some other company to announce that they were bringing out a ‘cheap sports car from Japan.’ ”

Hall’s written pitch progressed from desk to desk at the corporate headquarters for nearly a year before the word came back to Irvine: The car, code-named the P729, had been approved for design studies as part of Mazda’s new off-line program, the company’s system for planning and developing future projects.

“It started off small,” Hall said, “because at the time Mazda research was a four-person office. The project grew as the office grew.”

About the same time the project was approved in Japan, Hall recruited an old friend, designer Mark Jordan, from General Motors Corp.'s Opel facilities in Germany. Jordan, whose father is a GM vice president of design, grew up in Detroit. He was steeped in automotive culture as a child, and he studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, one of the few schools in the United States that emphasizes automotive design.

Ready for Contest

“Things really got going when Jordy came in,” Hall said. “He started staying after hours to work on the project and could really interpret the proposal visually.”

In early 1984, another former GM designer, Tsutomu (Tom) Matano, joined Mazda and jumped into the project.

They quickly produced the first clay model of the P729, which was to be presented in a September, 1984, design competition at Mazda’s Tokyo studios. The outcome of the competition would determine which car project Mazda would pursue.

And although the Irvine crew stayed true to Hall’s vision of a front-engine, rear-drive convertible, other designers in Japan were pushing two hardtop vehicles. One was a front-engine, front-drive model and the other was a mid-engine, rear-drive model. Both were based on the ubiquitous wedge shape shared by nearly every other car on the road; the Irvine design, by contrast, featured a softer, rounder shape.

Jordan said that when he took the first batch of the Irvine crew’s design sketches to Japan, his counterparts there shook their heads and told him that they felt sorry for him “because the car didn’t look new and was too soft.”

Basis of Campaign

But that look was a key part of Hall’s idea, and it has been translated to become the major theme of Mazda’s Miata marketing campaign: “It Takes You to 1990, and Back.”

“We wanted to do a car that would be familiar, but not ‘retro.’ It’s like pre-washed denim,” Hall said.

“We wanted to appeal to three groups. I call the first one the OFs, or old farts, like me. People 36 to 94 who grew up when there were inexpensive lightweight sports cars around and who probably had one and who would love to have another. Then there are the YWs, or young wimps. They’re 16 to 24 and never were exposed to the old sports cars, so this is something new and fun for them. And the third group is the middle group, the 25- to 36-year-olds who came in at the end of the sports car era and saw them but didn’t buy one and now wished they had. The Miata was conceived to give them something to buy.”

The Miata is indeed more than a throwback. Mazda built it from the ground up, eschewing the cannibalizing of other models and creating most parts specifically for the Miata, using all technology available today.

The car thus represents a blending of the American desire for nostalgia and the Japanese effort to engineer a good set of cheap wheels using modern technology.

Wankel Engine

That the Miata is not a product of Detroit can be attributed largely to the fact that Mazda, the No. 4 auto maker in Japan, has long recognized that taking a calculated risk can pay off big, industry specialists say. Mazda is the company, after all, that brought the Wankel rotary engine into mass production and that installed it in the RX-7 two-seat coupe in 1978.

Hirai, the Miata program manager, said he believes that his company was able to produce the car because Mazda is smaller than Toyota, Honda, Nissan and the three U.S. auto giants, “so it is not in the capacity of our facilities to be able to compete in huge markets. So we have to do something different than our competitors or we will not be outstanding.”

That explains why the Irvine model was the winner of the initial design competition in 1984, when full-size clay models of the three versions were displayed side by side for Mazda’s executives to review, Hirai said.

“I promoted this kind of product inside Mazda,” he said, “because I wanted to drive such a car myself. If Mazda had introduced this vehicle as a front-engine, front-drive hardtop, people would say we’d introduced another (Honda) CRX. And if we put forth the Miata as a mid-engine, rear-drive, then they’d say it was another Toyota MR-2.”

In the Miata’s price range, however, no front engine, rear-drive convertible had been introduced since the Triumph TR-7 in 1978, which was a short-lived model.

Working Prototype

After Mazda officially chose the Irvine design, the company retained International Automotive Design in England to build a working prototype. The intent was to work on the styling rather than to develop a fully engineered car.

Once the prototype was completed and had been run on a test track in England, Mazda executives decided that it needed to be tried out, but quietly, in the United States. The intent was to get a feeling for the American consumer’s response to the car without letting the world know what Mazda was up to. The prototype was then shipped to Santa Barbara in October, 1985, for a quiet test run.

The results were spectacular--almost disastrously so. “People loved it,” Hall said. “They ran down the road asking who made it and where they could get one.

But the day Mazda chose to drive the prototype around town was also the day a major U.S. automotive magazine decided to do a photo spread on classic Porsches using Santa Barbara as a backdrop.

“Several of the photographers saw it,” Hall said, “and I had to do a lot of damage control. Basically that consisted of telling the photographers that Mazda would likely kill the project if any pictures appeared.” The magazine backed down.

Feasibility Study

The Irvine design crew completed a second full-size model in December, 1985, Hall said, and in January, 1986, Mazda approved a full-scale feasibility study--the last step before a car is approved for production.

For much of the first half of 1986, the Irvine designers worked to refine the Miata design, translating their thoughts into a third full-size clay model.

That model, Hall said, was shipped to Japan that summer--about the same time two Mazda officials who had been assigned to the Irvine design center almost from its inception were rotated back home to Hiroshima and into slots that would help guarantee the continuation of the project.

Shigenori Fukada, who had been Mazda’s product planning and research manager in Irvine, was named general manager of the company’s entire design division, and designer Shinzo Kubo was named assistant to Hirai, the Miata product program manager.

When Mazda completed its feasibility study and determined that a market existed for a lightweight sports car, Hall, Jordan and the rest of the Irvine design team turned over the project to Hirai in Japan.

Currency Value a Factor

By that time, Hirai said, nearly everyone in the company had caught Miata fever. There were a few rocky moments, though, when engineering problems cropped up.

The project faced its biggest threat, however, when the dollar started sliding against the yen. When that happens, a Japanese product exported into the United States becomes more expensive to the American consumer.

“It was always conceived of as a low-priced car, and if we couldn’t introduce it at a low price, we had no product,” Hirai said.

Finally, in May, 1987, Hirai, with advice from executives at Mazda Motor of North America, decided that the dollar’s slide had halted enough to ensure that Mazda had a low-priced car, and the decision was then made to put it into production.

All that was left was to give it an official name. Rod Bymaster, who joined Mazda’s North America operation as chief of the sports car division in 1987--just as the decision to produce the car was made--came up with the name, which is old High German, not Japanese.

“We weren’t getting anywhere with the names being proposed,” Bymaster said. “Japan originally wanted MX-5. A professional naming company came up with things like ‘Laguna.’ So I sat down one day and turned my dictionary to the M section and started reading. I got to ‘Miata’ and saw the definition--'a reward'--and it clicked.”

It’s an apt name. Since the first one rolled off the production line early this year and hit U.S. showrooms in July, Mazda has been richly rewarded.


1979: Automotive journalist Bob Hall, interviewing a top Mazda executive in Japan, suggests that the company produce an inexpensive two-seat convertible.

1981: Hall joins Mazda Research and Design of America (MRA) in Irvine as assistant director of product planning.

1982: Hall writes 50-page project proposal for a light-weight, inexpensive, convertible sports car, which will become the Miata.


GM designer Mark Jordan joins MRA as assistant design chief and begins after-hours work on the Miata design. Mazda establishes future planning program and agrees to explore Hall’s design.

1984: First clay model of Miata sent to Japan for competition in Mazda’s Tokyo studios. Mazda executives choose the Irvine studio’s concept of a traditional front-engine, rear-drive, two-seat convertible over Tokyo proposals for hardtop mid-engine and front-drive models.


International Automotive Design in England builds first prototype of Miata. The prototype is test-driven in Santa Barbara. Another clay model is completed in Irvine.

1986: Mazda decides to launch formal feasability study to develop the Miata. Toshihiko Hirai, former design head of Mazda 323 project, is named program project director of the project. Engineering work begins. Third clay model is completed in Irvine.


Tokyo design studios produce final clay model of the car. In May, Mazda makes final decision to launch production of the Miata.

1988: Mazda approves “Miata” as the official name for the car in the United States. Prophetically, the word is old German for “reward.”

1989: Miata is unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show to rave media reviews. Mazda dealers throughout the U.S. receive their first Miatas and lines of customers begin forming.

Source: Mazda Motor of North America

Miata Vs. MGB And Triumph TR 6 Miata resumes a long tradition of low-cost convertible sports cars, including the top-selling MGB and the Triumph TR6.

MIATA MGB TRIUMPH TR6 Engine: Max. Power 116 hp/6500 rpm 94 hp/5400 rpm 106 hp/4900 rpm Compression 9.4 to 1 8.75 to 1 7.7 to 1 Dimensions: Length 155.4 inches 158.2 inches 156.0 inches Wheelbase 89.2 inches 91.0 inches 88.0 inches Weight 2,116 pounds 2,335 pounds 2,360 pounds Performance: Top speed 116.8 mph 106 mph 106 mph 0 to 60 mph 8.6 seconds 12.5 seconds 11.6 seconds Fuel Economy 25 city/35 hwy. 26 avg. city/hwy. 18 avg. city/hwy.

Sources: Mazda Motor of North America; Road and Track magazine.