In February 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda pulled the wraps off a lightweight, affordable sports car that would go on to be the biggest-selling two-seater convertible in history. The Mazda MX-5.
Standing for Mazda Experiment and project number 5, the MX-5 went through seven years of heavily critiqued design, engineering and testing before being given the production green light.
It eventually went on sale in the UK on 14 March 1990, priced at £14,249. That day was also when we published our full road test of the affable sports car. Powered by a 1.6-litre inline four cylinder engine putting out 114bhp at 6500rpm, enabling a 0-60mph dash in 9.1sec and topping out at 114mph, the MX-5 was never about searing pace, as Autocar wrote back in the day.
“If you’re expecting a Mazda MX-5 to set you alight, you’re in for a disappointment. But as with everything the MX-5 does, it’s not the result but the participation that puts a smile on your face.
“This is the two-seat roadster that car enthusiasts have been screaming for since the demise of the old Lotus Elan. It also has the two ingredients essential in any sports car powerplant: instant throttle response and an invigorating exhaust note.”
The real ace up the MX-5's sleeve proved to be its five-speed manual gearbox. “Rising no more than a couple of inches from the transmission tunnel, the well-weighted gear lever snaps through its tiny throws with millimetric precision,” we mused. Allied to pin-sharp handling and spectacular balance to flaunt its 950kg kerb weight, it allowed the driver plenty of mid-corner adjustability.
“The MX-5 is a total success. Mazda’s single-minded determination to provide fun has produced a car of the rarest quality. Above all else, it is its ability to involve the driver intimately in its every reaction and response that makes it a joy to drive. Few others, at any price, can offer so much.”
In 1997, the second-generation MX-5 arrived, sans pop-up headlights of the original – due to safety regulations – and with an extra 115kg of mass due to its sleeker look. The 1.6-litre unit was joined by a new 140bhp 1.8-litre motor to counteract the extra bulk, enabling 0-62mph in 7.8sec and a top speed of 130mph.
That model was a sales smash. Throughout its life, the second-generation received a facelift and more kit. The output of both the 1.6- and the 1.8-litre engines were boosted and buyers could enjoy a six-speed manual gearbox.
It would go on to develop even more of a reputation for rust in its later years than the car it replaced, but a handful of special editions and the same dynamic handling as its forebear would ensure many still see regular use on UK roads.