Mazda North America keeps its heritage fleet in an underground garage: and it’s where the rarest and most interesting MX-5S are kept
[ Well, not actually buried, but Mazda North American Operations’ heritage collection does dwell underground, in a basement in Irvine, California. And among its gems are some historic MX-5S. Words: Matt Stone Photos: Adam Wolf, revlimiter.net ]
As you know from its early history, the MX-5 is a multi-ethnic child, with many parents and shepherds along the way, the car owing largely equal parts to its Southern California and Japanese birthrights. When Mazda set up shop in the United States in the early 1970s, the company had a vision that the North American market would ultimately be vital to the brand’s worldwide success, and by the ’80s was well on its way to investing in R&D and design centres in the United States – in addition to only the more common sales, distribution, and parts offices that many ‘imported’ car companies usually set up – in Irvine, California.
It was here that the original kernel of the idea that became the MX-5 was planted by a young American, former automotive journalist named Bob Hall who joined Mazda North American Operations in the late ’80s on the design team (under which product development fell at that time). And, of course, we know that another American, designer Mark Jordan, left many and deep fingerprints on what would become the Miata, and what kept it so true to Hall’s original idea for a small, light, über-fun, affordable rear-drive roadster sports car.
So it makes sense that many of the car’s family ties reach to Southern California. What is now called the Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) Research centre, on the outside doesn’t look remarkably different from dozens, if not hundreds, of modern low-rise industrial/office complexes in Irvine, California: it is, of course, very different inside, given the nature of its work and workforce. There are offices, a design studio, engineering facilities, a fabrication shop, a huge central courtyard for viewing vehicles in natural light, and ‘the Basement’ – most car makers have this sort of place, calling it the dungeon, vault, museum, whatever – and it’s the place where the DNA and dinosaur bones are quietly housed. Switched-on car makers have realised the need to preserve and protect historical assets, not only to learn from, as time and product development progress, but to help celebrate and burnish their design and product heritage.
The lobby alone nearly stops the enthusiast’s heart: in the two-storey, high-ceilinged, glassy reception hall sit two fabulous mk4 concept Roadster design studies, one the Speedster Evolution, the other the Spyder. These dazzling roofless wonders were built not only to further explore (and exploit) the new MX-5’S design ethos, but also as something fresh and innovative to reveal and display at the legendary Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) aftermarket trade show that takes place every autumn in Las Vegas.
The brilliant white Speedster is a very pure track-inspired roadster with no top or roof structure of any kind, and no
windscreen either. Very racy.the silver Spyder Evolution wears a windscreen, and a beautifully shaped and crafted German Haartz cloth ‘bikini’-style top. Naturally, both get sportified cabins and harness-style seatbelts, and something else: centre-mounted exhaust pipes, a la Porsche Boxster, indicating that this is something certain members of the design team may find attractive for future MX-5S, although there has been no out-loud discussion or official announcement of the subject.
The other eye-catcher hanging on the reception room wall is the hand-crafted 1:3 scale, pedal car model that looks for all the world like a kid-sized mk1 MX-5, painted in a metallic gold that’s very popular in Japan. It is reputedly one of only two extant, and cost a king’s fortune to hand-build. Cool.
Mazda NAO’S basement is literally that, one of only three industrial basements in Irvine: subterranean spaces are rare in Southern California because of the earthquake risk. As you’d expect, it’s completely unmarked and well protected. After walking down a long slanted driveway, Randy Miller, our Mazda host for this very private tour (the facility isn’t open to the public in the sense of a museum) fans his keycard at the security system and the motorised metal door begins grinding its way open. At this instant, the room is totally dark, only the first few feet marginally lit up by whatever sunlight makes it down that far.yet as we enter, the room and parking bays begin lighting up about a dozen feet at a time, as the motionsensing lights click on.
Once the lights fire, so does the heart, as this Aladdin’s cave begins to unveil its many wonderful secrets. Race cars, from showroom stock to IMSA to international prototype racers from years and championships gone by; pace cars, stock production machines never sold in North America (such as a gorgeous Luce hardtop coupe), or no longer seen or made; plus nearly every Miata concept and design study you can imagine. As the door rolls up, the thing that strikes you immediately is that it smells like a real, working shop, not a perfumed, marble-floored museum. There are no fancy displays, pinpoint lighting or computer touchscreens, but there are battery trickle-chargers and extension cords running hither and yon, tyres and wheels stacked up where there’s room, cans of oil, and such. A real garage. Randy maintains the collection and is especially skilled at fettling the racers; many of NAO’S executives are active (and talented) racers, in everything from Spec Miata to vintage, the latter being where the older IMSA and endurance prototypes can run these days.
A few of the cars have been restored, many are highly original: a few extras now serve as a spares supply, giving up their bits, bobs and bones as needed to keep other cars running. The IMSA GTU and GTO cars are interesting and of particular significance to NAO as they raced successfully in that North American sports car series. Several 767 endurance racers have connection to the 767B that bagged Mazda’s sole victory to date at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991. One interesting machine that may or may not ever be restored, raced or shown much – although fast and competitive, it didn’t win a major endurance race or championship, and isn’t Mazda-powered – is the MX-R01 of 1992; after the Le Mans-winning 767B four-rotor racer was effectively legislated out of competition, Mazda teamed up with Tom Walkinshaw to build this non-rotary racer, powered by what is essentially a 3.5litre Jaguar V10.
Rows of brightly-coloured MX-5S dazzle. Three original, late 1989-- build mk1s that appeared at the Chicago Auto Show press conference introduction of the MX-5 make a big impact on us. Marking their American heritage and international reveal on US soil, they were finished in brilliant, white, red, and blue. The white example was soon built into a showroom stock spec race car – and later off-road rallied – reputedly the
Subterranean spaces are rare in Southern California because of the earthquake risk
first MX-5 ever raced; the blue and red cars look much as shown all those years ago, with each evidencing very low mileage. The red car joined the Millionth Miata on its whistlestop tour around North America.
Nearby is the mk3 Coupe concept, painted again in a Japanese domestic market-friendly metallic gold. Randy explains that as most of its Rx-7ish inspired rear body design was constructed of hand-laid glassfibre, it’s very heavy, and that this concept car was none too popular in Japan. And there’s another topless Spyder concept floating about the floor, an earlier cousin to the two cars featured up in the foyer.
Looking particularly sharkish and hungry is the new Gen4 Spec Miata racer, bearing major suspension and rolling stock, plus a stripped-out and race-trimmed interior with extensive roll-cage work. It’s our hope to put this car through its paces on a race track in the very near future.
Parked side by side are two very different mk2s. The red car is the design prototype, the goldish car a production version. Look closely and the detail differences are many and revealing. The door cuts are different, and on the prototype the bonnet is square at the leading edge, completely clear of the now exposed headlights. The production car shows a slightly different final headlight shape, and its bonnet line is modestly scalloped around them. The production example also wears fog lights and a different, ducted, lower front fascia panel – the road from concept to production is a long trail of detail evolution.
After lots of looking and tyre kicking it’s time for a drive to recalibrate our meters as to what the whole MX-5 Thing is really all about. So we start at the beginning, with the blue ‘Chicago’ car, production MX-5 #17. Well maintained and constantly wired to a trickle-charger, it fires easily and idles like the ostensibly new car that it is.we drop the still original soft-top, exit the garage, climb the long driveway up and out of the basement area, and hit the Orange county streets on a warm, sunny, blue sky day; just what this car was built for. This isn’t intended to be any sort of road test, but a quick run through gears and corners reminds us why this car captivated us so, and still does. Its inputs and commensurate responses are absolute sugar; light, lithe, analogue and direct. The engine sounds songful, revvy, and smooth; the stubby gearlever swaps ratios with little more than a snick of the wrist.
Not cramped yet cozy, the original MX-5 was a marvel nearly 30 years ago and still works today. In order to get a feel for the Alpha-omega of the line, our next stop is a cracking new mk4 RF, a Club-spec example loaded with every option you can fit into an MX-5, save an automatic transmission.we begin with retractable top up, in order to let the aircon cool the cabin a bit, and to get a feel for the (lack of) wind noise, and how quiet the car is. We park up, press the button, and let the top do its mambo disappearing dance, and take off again, roof recoiled and AC still on (the preferred roadster driving method in Southern California).
A quick run to 60mph shows how noise and wind buffeting are so beautifully managed, and how tight the car’s overall structure is – with nary a squeak, rattle or clunk from the cowl or the complicated roof panels. And given its racy rolling stock and Brembo brakes, this car is a handler, certainly the one in which I’d want to attack a mountain road or my local trackday.
Given our pick of which of the Basement collection to take home – clearly not an actual option as none of the archive cars are for sale, or likely to be any time soon – we’d opt for either the blue 1990 Chicago show mk1, or maybe the metallic red Mazdaspeed MX-5, which also happens to be the 750,000th MX-5 built.
Or we can find the new mk4 RF at our nearest Mazda dealership. Choices, my friends, choices…
The thing that strikes you is that it smells like a real workshop, not a perfumed, marble-floored museum
Above: the stunning M-coupe concept that debuted at the 1996 New York motor show Right: in white, red and blue, the original US launch cars revealed at the 1989 Chicago show Far right: the 2011 mk3 Spyder concept, revealed at the SEMA show in Las Vegas
Top: the MX-5 family tree dwells in the ‘Basement’ in Irvine Far left: mk4 concept cars – the white Speedster Evolution and silver Spyder – decorate the lobby at the MNAO Research centre in California Centre: mk4 Spyder’s classy bikini top, for sunny...
Top: Mazdaspeed Super25 was a mk3 endurance racer concept Left to right: revealed at the 1989 Chicago show alongside the standard car was the Club Racer concept; the (orange) M-speedster was also a Chicago star, this time in 1995