Special edi­tions have been an in­te­gral part of the MX-5 scene since the orig­i­nal car’s first birth­day: here’s the background story of how and why these lim­ited run cars were cre­ated

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

We look be­hind the scenes at how special edi­tion MX-5S were con­ceived, built and thrived on the UK market, from the early days right up to now

THE CYNIC IN US ALL knows pre­cisely why car man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­duce special edi­tion models – to sell more cars. A fancy name, a cou­ple of stick­ers, per­haps an ac­ces­sory or two: job’s a good un, for min­i­mal ef­fort. Send out a press re­lease ex­plain­ing the car’s in­cred­i­ble sig­nif­i­cance and fab­u­lous value, and you can breathe new life into a model that’s on the brink of flag­ging. And thus tens of thou­sands of Ford Fi­es­tas and Vaux­hall Cor­sas have been punted through Bri­tish show­rooms.

But whereas the ul­ti­mate goal is com­mon to all car mak­ers – de­spite what some might claim to the con­trary – the path to achiev­ing it doesn’t al­ways fol­low the same route. Some man­u­fac­tur­ers try harder. Mazda, for in­stance. And with the MX-5 in par­tic­u­lar.

Be­fore ex­plor­ing that state­ment fur­ther, a lit­tle background about Mazda in the UK. From the early 1970s un­til 2001, Maz­das were im­ported into this coun­try by the MCL Group, trad­ing as Mazda Cars (UK) Ltd. Then in 2001 the Mazda moth­er­ship in Ja­pan – Mazda Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion – de­cided it wanted to han­dle all Bri­tish op­er­a­tions it­self, and es­tab­lished Mazda Mo­tors UK. Each of these or­gan­i­sa­tions has han­dled special edi­tions in dif­fer­ent ways over the years.

Mark Fryer – who now runs his own Mazda spe­cial­ist, Free­lance Mazda, based in Chatham in Kent – started work­ing for MCL in 1980 as a tech­ni­cian in the com­pany’s Sheer­ness ve­hi­cle prepa­ra­tion cen­tre. ‘We han­dled all sorts of dif­fer­ent tasks,’ ex­plains Mark. ‘We pre­pared cars for the fleet market, the road test cars for the press of­fice, dis­play cars for mo­tor shows and, of course, we dealt with all the special edi­tion en­hance­ments for var­i­ous Mazda models, in­clud­ing the MX-5.’

While Mazda’s iconic lit­tle road­ster may even­tu­ally have devel­oped into the world’s best-sell­ing sports car, Mark be­lieves that af­ter its first year on sale in the UK, in­ter­est from the public may have started to wane. ‘It seemed like every­one who had wanted one had now got hold of one,’ Mark ob­serves. ‘But MCL no­ticed that many cus­tomers weren’t afraid to spend con­sid­er­able amounts on op­tions, which is where the idea for an up­mar­ket special edi­tion sprang from.

‘The first special we cre­ated was the LE – for Lim­ited Edi­tion – and os­ten­si­bly it was to cel­e­brate the first year of MX-5 sales in Bri­tain. It was very well equipped. We fit­ted 15-inch BBS al­loy wheels, re­uphol­stered the seats in leather, in­stalled a wood-rimmed steer­ing wheel, gear­knob and hand­brake lever, and even fit­ted a pair of speak­ers be­hind the seats. It took ages to work out how to in­stall those speak­ers and we never did them again.’

If it seems slightly odd to you that MCL should fit all this ex­tra kit in Sheer­ness rather than or­der­ing it straight out of the fac­tory, lis­ten to Mark’s ex­pla­na­tion. ‘Back then, the strength of the Yen against Ster­ling was such that had we sourced all our parts di­rectly from the fac­tory then our MX-5 spe­cials would have cost dou­ble

the stan­dard car. And the stan­dard car was al­ready a bit pricey com­pared with some of its ri­vals.

‘So when it came to special edi­tions, MCL would or­der in the most ba­sic car it could – steel wheels, cloth up­hol­stery, plas­tic steer­ing wheel. Once those MX-5S landed in Sheer­ness, the cheap bits would be taken off and scrapped, and we’d re­place them with what­ever was ap­pro­pri­ate for the special edi­tion we were creat­ing. That first LE special was ‘lim­ited’ to just 250 ex­am­ples – the truth of the mat­ter was that 250 was the min­i­mum or­der you could make for a par­tic­u­lar colour from the fac­tory in Ja­pan. When you see that a special edi­tion will be avail­able as a run of 250 in each colour, that’s the rea­son why.

‘Al­though we would gen­er­ally ask the fac­tory to mix up special paint colours for us, on one oc­ca­sion we did re­paint a batch of MX-5S our­selves, for the Jasper Con­ran special edi­tion in 2000, based on the mk2. Con­ran came down to see us and was very par­tic­u­lar about what he wanted for the car. The stan­dard sil­ver wasn’t to his taste, so we com­pletely stripped out and re­painted 100 cars in a sil­ver that was two shades darker. That cost so much to do that the re­main­der of 500 run were in a black straight from the fac­tory. The black cars cost £21,000 while the Plat­inum was £24,000! That was prob­a­bly too much for an MX-5, but the leather was from Con­nolly, the in­te­ri­ors were re­trimmed in Ger­many, and the unique al­loy wheels were sourced from Aus­tria.

‘There were a few other times that we got out the spray guns. For the mk1 Cal­i­for­nia, for in­stance. MCL wanted to dis­play it at the mo­tor show but our cars hadn’t ar­rived from Ja­pan. So we took 10 white MX-5S and sprayed them Sun­burst Yel­low so that they could rep­re­sent the Cal­i­for­nia and peo­ple could get a feel for what the colour would look like on the car.

‘And, of course, there was the Le Mans, an ex­am­ple of which I bought for my­self about a year ago. As many peo­ple are aware, it was launched in 1991 to cel­e­brate Mazda be­com­ing the first Ja­panese car maker to win the Le Mans 24-hour race: it was based on the BBR Turbo and the plan was to pro­duce just 24 cars. Again, we used base model donors, all of them orig­i­nally red, then sprayed orange all over and with the green pan­els painted over the top. The first car we com­pleted had to be re­painted in more

vivid shades – the pho­to­graph we’d been work­ing from had ap­par­ently printed badly and wasn’t bright enough.

‘Al­though the Le Mans is highly sought-af­ter these days, when it was new the orange and green colour scheme wasn’t very pop­u­lar and the cars were hard to sell. In fact, the deal­ers be­came so des­per­ate to be rid of them that the last two cars of the 24 were re-sprayed in a non-con­tro­ver­sial black.

‘We did a very thor­ough job with the Le Mans over in Sheer­ness. The cars were com­pletely stripped of en­gine, gear­box, in­te­rior and even wiring loom, be­fore be­ing painted. The tur­bocharg­ing parts were supplied as a kit from BBR, and fit­ted all 24 of them. MCL’S man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, John Ebenezer, had al­ready had the turbo kit in­stalled on his mk1 LE which was then used as a test bed to en­sure ev­ery­thing worked as it should.

‘In 2001 MCL was given no­tice that Mazda Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion was tak­ing over, and for the next two years while the han­dover took place, no-one’s hearts were with Mazda any more. In my opin­ion MCL was a very for­ward-think­ing com­pany and with­out its cre­ativ­ity I don’t believe we would have had any special edi­tions: MCL proved their com­mer­cial worth and helped make Bri­tain Europe’s big­gest market for the MX-5, big­ger even than Ger­many.’

Lewis Beale, Mazda Mo­tors UK’S Brand Man­ager, was also around for the lat­ter days of MCL and be­gan work­ing with special edi­tion MX-5S at the time of the (mk2) 10th An­niver­sary model. That car was some­thing of a land­mark; it was the first global special edi­tion di­rect from the fac­tory (and it’s also one of two mk2s that Lewis owns). And its success en­sured that the fac­tory paid much closer in­ter­est in special edi­tions in the fu­ture.

‘We try to launch one, if not two, MX-5 special edi­tions per year,’ re­veals Lewis. ‘And it can take up to 18 months be­tween the ini­tial idea and cars in the show­room. We have to make a strong case to Ja­pan to en­sure that the special edi­tion is vi­able, and we also have to report to Mazda’s Euro­pean De­sign Cen­tre in Ger­many – de­sign di­rec­tor Kevin Rice and his team check through the colours we’re propos­ing and the type and style of equip­ment, to make sure it all fits in with the MX-5’S de­sign val­ues. Then, if we’ve cho­sen a colour out­side Mazda’s usual pal­ette, the paint has to be tested on ev­ery sur­face of the car. We’ll also need to or­der a spe­cific min­i­mum num­ber of cars to jus­tify the com­pany mix­ing up a vat of a non-stan­dard colour.

‘Be­fore any of that hap­pens, though, we’ll have a se­ries of plan­ning meet­ings to es­tab­lish whether there’s a need for a special edi­tion and what form it should take. As well as our in­ter­nal thoughts on the mat­ter, we’ll con­sult deal­ers, ex­ist­ing own­ers, and the MX-5 Own­ers Club; we also need to think

about gen­eral market trends, what our com­peti­tors may be do­ing, and where the car is within its model cy­cle.

‘It’s some­times as­sumed that special edi­tions are purely for re­viv­ing the for­tunes of a car that’s near­ing the end of its life – we in­tro­duced the mk4 MX-5 RF with a special, the Launch Edi­tion, in part to show our cus­tomers the level of per­son­al­i­sa­tion it’s pos­si­ble to achieve with the new car.

‘Special edi­tions are also use­ful for shining a spot­light on a car that has just been re­vised, say with new en­gines or trans­mis­sions. Spe­cials work best when they have a unique­ness or they’re backed up by a strong story – for ex­am­ple, the var­i­ous an­niver­sary models.’

And what of the special edi­tion names? ‘In re­cent times they have re­flected the spec,’ says Lewis. ‘The Sport Re­caro, for in­stance. But with the mk3 we ran through a se­ries of Ja­panese names, and prior to that there was a lot of use of US states.’

If that seems a touch ran­dom, MCL’S nam­ing pro­to­col was per­haps even more hap­haz­ard, as Mark Fryer re­calls: ‘The MX-5 Gle­nea­gles was a di­rect re­sult of MCL’S man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, John Ebenezer, rat­ing the Gle­nea­gles golf club as one of his favourites, and him wish­ing to pay trib­ute.

‘As for some of the other names, we reg­u­larly were all in­vited to sub­mit sug­ges­tions, the best of which would be cho­sen. One of the lads from the prepa­ra­tion cen­tre in Sheer­ness had been abroad to watch the Ital­ian Grand Prix – his ex­pe­ri­ence there be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for the Monza!’

Jasper Con­ran: Con­ran was very par­tic­u­lar about what he wanted from a special bear­ing his name

Cal­i­for­nia: ar­rived in the UK as a base car, as this pic­ture re­veals

Sheer­ness Prepa­ra­tion Cen­tre: MX-5S ar­rived in ba­sic form, later to emerge as special edi­tions

John Ebenezer’s mk1 LE: the MCL Group’s boss owned this LE, also used for test­ing BBR’S turbo con­ver­sion

Mark Fryer with his Le Mans: Mark worked on many special edi­tion MX-5S, in­clud­ing his very own

Kendo: Ja­panese names were pop­u­lar for UK special edi­tions

Sport Re­caro: a special named af­ter the equip­ment it came with, in this in­stance a pair of ex­cel­lent Re­caro sports seats

25th An­niver­sary: by the time of this model, special edi­tions were be­ing made by the fac­tory for global sale

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