Back in the 1980s, roadsters had all but disappeared from car manufacturers showroom floors. Long gone was the heyday of British drop-top two-seaters and even the Italian marques – producers of the most gorgeous roadsters in history – had a sole representative in the ageing Alfa Romeo Spider. The end of the roadster was nigh…
All that changed 25 years ago today – 10th of February 1989 – when Mazda unveiled the MX-5 at the Chicago Auto Show. Here was a back to basics and inexpensive roadster weighing in at just 940kg with perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Its performance wasn’t earth shattering but Mazda had built something in to its deoxyribonucleic acid which guaranteed driver enjoyment and has been the key element in the MX-5’s success.
The central philosophical thought in the development of Mazda Experiment Project Number 5 was the concept of ‘Jinba ittai’, the unity of horse and rider. That feeling of being connected to the car we drive was already on its way out the door in the late 1980s and has all but been removed from modern motoring. The little Mazda was, and still is, a breath of fresh air and an antidote to the ongoing cocooning and removal of the driver equation.
The success of the Mazda MX-5 can easily be measured in sales figures. At just shy of one million units built and sold – of all three generations – the MX-5 is the best-selling roadster in history. However, sales popularity is rarely a good gauge of worthiness as demonstrated by the 13 million album sales by a certain Justin Bieber. The real judge of this roadster’s worth is that more Mazdas are raced every week than any other car brand. And that is mainly due to the MX-5.
It was on track at the Dubai Autodrome during a round of the evolve Fun Speed Run series that we first caught site of Ahmed in his bright red, first generation (NA) MX-5. In a town where bigger is always better it is no surprise that – despite those near million sales – the MX-5 is a rare spot. What was a surprise was that Ahmed completely annihilated the competition and took top spot in the rear-wheel drive category against all-comers including the Bavarian M-badged brigade.
This was definitely a case of Jinba ittai in action and Ahmed had the MX-5 hooked-up. As a driver, Ahmed has considerable skill and regularly takes part in autocross and track day events but there was something unusual about this Mazda. The MX-5’s agility is its forte and, around the tighter cone sections, Ahmed took advantage. On the straights, however, the pace was noticeably faster than any NA has a right to be and was accompanied by a familiar, high-revving twin-cam howl.
The car was purchased as a non-runner and Ahmed had locally sourced a replacement BP-ZE engine. After only a few months of running the unit is was clear that, if he wanted to be competitive, he was going to have to highly tune or replace the engine with something a little more potent. The decision was made to replace, but he needed something that would not upset the balance of the MX-5 or add unnecessary weight.
A Toyota 4A-GE 20-valve Black Top has found a new home in this little hero from Hiroshima and what a difference it makes. The – admittedly very slight – increase in weight has been more than compensated elsewhere by a healthy weight saving regime and, despite the addition of a roll cage, Ahmed’s MX-5 is now under the 900kg mark. With only a few choice tuning modifications carried out that probably still equates to – a conservative estimate – 170bhp/ton.
In a world where cars are getting bigger, heavier, more powerful and continuing to remove us from the experience of driving, the 25 year old Mazda MX-5 is still as entertaining – with or without additive 4A-GE – as it was back in 1989. Ahmed and his MX-5 continue to embarrass performance heavyweights at every event he enters and always with a smile on his face. Which must be something to do with the Jinba ittai effect. Albeit a modified horse.