There is no question that Mazda’s new baby, the lovely MX-5, is set to become a runaway success. It has already become so in America and Japan, and if the enthusiastic press reports in Europe are to believed, that trend will continue in Europe as well.
Easier to be wise after the event with twenty/twenty hindsight, the arrival of the MX-5 was not a foregone conclusion. It was far from being ordained as being a success from the day of its conception. In fact, Mazda is the first to admit that the sensation the fabulous little sports car has caused was not anticipated at all, whether in Japan, California or anywhere else. The fact that it is set to become The motoring experience of the Nineties, however, is something few would dispute.
It was in 1983 that the work really began in earnest on the project, codenamed P279. As an idea it had been dear to the hearts of a few eccentric Americans, weened and fed on a steady diet of English sports cars in their youth, but since their demise, it seemed likely that a cloak had been drawn over that chapter of motoring life. That was reckoning, however, without the sheer chutzpah of the Mazda Motor Corporation.
Although it was known that the production of a lightweight sports car was the ultimate goal, the mechanical configuration and specification had yet to be worked out. Should it be front-wheel drive, mid-engined or rear-wheel driven as in the case of the Lotus Elan of the Sixties? It took less than 12 months for “a front engine driving the rear wheels” configuration to be decided upon even if at this stage the project was still far from going into production.
In fact, the next stage of development was neither in Mazda’s Technical Research Centre in Irvine nor at Hiroshima, but at Worthing in Sussex. Britain’s International Automotive Design, IAD, was commissioned to design and build a prototype car based on the American styling theme. This country has long been regarded as the home of the traditional open top sports car and IAD had built for itself a formidable reputation as one of Europe’s largest independent automotive and engineering companies.
For eight months, from January to August 1985, the project, now codenamed V705, which conveyed the message that it would be an experimental car, was left in IAD’s hands to produce a running prototype.
Tuesday, 17th September, 1985, is a red letter day in the model’s history for this was the date that IAD received a delegation from Mazda Japan and North America to view and then drive the prototype in England, a task it underwent with flying colours.
After this successful debut, it was scheduled to be shipped back to Japan, but on the orders of Managing Director Masataka Matsui, the newly appointed head of the Technical Research Centre to which the project and the car still belonged, it was redirected to the United States since the “P279 was conceived with America as its main target place and the styling was conceived and executed in America.”
As the momentum increased, IAD was again called in to play a part by Japan who commissioned the English specialists to build a fleet of mechanical prototypes in 1986. At the same time, a third full-size scale model was being worked in America and back at Hiroshima, the engineers and designers were putting the finishing touches to the first set of drawings.
Little by little the final shape and configuration was being formed until it was ready for presentation to Mazda’s American marketing representatives, followed by a series of clinics. Despite the enthusiasm with which the new baby was received, there was still one final hurdle to clear.
Michinori Yamanouchi, Managing Director in charge of product planning and development, had been an advocate of Mazda producing a micro car, which had become very popular in Japan. The trouble was that the factory simply did not possess the capacity for producing a small car alongside a sports car. It was a question of either or.
To his eternal credit, he decided upon production of the MX-5 which, in effect, meant pulling the plug on the other, in-house, project. From that time, Mazda’s little sports car has proved over and over again that this was the right decision, the result of which we in Britain are about to benefit with the arrival of the greatest little sports car in the world — the MX-5.