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
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