Base­ment beau­ties

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

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, revlim­ ]

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

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