The Chicago Auto Show isn’t one renowned for monumental global debuts, but on this day 35 years ago (there is some debate about the actual day, but we're nailing our colours to February 10th, 1989 - because it was a Friday) that’s exactly what it got. Media day ahead of the first paying customers saw the global reveal of the Light Weight Sports Mazda had spent the '80s developing: the MX-5.
Showgoers back then couldn’t have known quite how significant the small red sports cars would be. Cars like the MX-5 didn’t really exist at the time; both Toyota MR2 and Honda CRX were very different prospects as mid-engined and front-drive respectively, so the closest front-engined, rear-drive rival as the '90s loomed was the Alfa Spider, which had been around for a quarter of a century. The Mazda that the development team were told there was no market for was a phenomenon: it outsold the entire Alfa production run in just a couple of years. Half a million had sold by the middle of 2000; it’s now well into seven figures and still going strong. In the US, sales were up 45 per cent in 2023 compared to 2022.
All this for a car that nearly didn’t happen. There isn’t the time here to do the full deep dive history, but it’s impossible to conceive of the MX-5 legend without Bob Hall. Originally a car journalist, he began consulting for Mazda in the '80s; his fondness for classic British sports cars, his ability to speak Japanese and his awareness of Mazda’s willingness to take risks (see the rotary engine) is what got the Light Weight Sports project off the ground. Tom Matano was responsible for the lovely Elan-aping design in California (Mazda’s design studio in Japan penned mid-engined and front-drive concepts that were dismissed) and Shunji Tanaka was the chief engineer. He ensured the MX-5 faithfully updated the classic front-engined, rear-drive sports car recipe that Hall insisted it would depart from: accordingly, it weighed just a tonne, there were double wishbones and disc brakes at each corner, then a revvy twin cam up front, mounted as far back as possible. This is still the MX-5 formula today, barely any bigger, not an awful lot heavier, and probably more relevant than ever as every other car balloons. Not bad for a 35-year-old.
That original NA remains the icon, of course - and for good reason. It’s a model of purity and simplicity, the old Brit school reimagined in some style. In the UK, we bought them by the boatload. Alternatives like the Lotus Elan and MG F never quite captured the buying public’s imagination in the same way. There were innumerable special editions and minor updates along the way like the 1.8-litre engine (along with some spicier variants kept for Japan), though none deviated far from the MX-5’s core appeal. Which is why they were all so fondly thought of. Just like the classics it aimed to evoke, NAs soon reached second and third owners who would use them for competition, the original MX-5 becoming a darling of the sprint, hillclimb and track day scene thanks to its combination of affordability, rear-wheel drive and vibrant aftermarket scene.
Which means that, just like those old Lotuses and Alfas, numbers have dwindled. Authentic old-school rust didn’t help, either. What were cheap and cheerful and plentiful are now scarce and prized. As with almost every Japanese car that responded well to modifying, it’s now the standard, unmolested examples that collectors are after. This means that the best ones are now, three and a half decades later, for sale at about what they cost new (just a shame that money is now worth so much less.) This one could have just rolled off the showroom floor, from the very first batch of UK cars and still with fewer than 40,000 miles. From long-term ownership, it’s for sale at £12,990. There are cheaper NAs on PH though, tellingly, none at less than £10k - it’s that calibre of car now. There’s even a run-out Berkeley with fewer than two thousand miles for more than £20k…
All of which serves to make the NB look like even better value. It’ll never have the cachet of being the original - and some people simply must have pop-up lights - but the second MX-5 was a car fondly received in period, hugely popular thereafter and still widely available. Launched in 1998, the early cars are now bonafide 25-year-old classics, and because Mazda never meddled too deeply the appeal is clear: the look may be less iconic, but anyone keen on light, compact, rear-drive roadsters is going to find a lot to like. It still used naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines, still weighed about a tonne, and still had a great manual gearbox… sometimes that gets a bit lost in the reverie around the NA. Rust remains an issue, of course - yet the bargains are there to be had. The ideal place from which to build a Rocketeer V6, perhaps. This very late 2005 Arctic has just 44,000 miles and is £4,500; spend a couple of grand more and there are NB MX-5s around still with four-figure mileages…
It wouldn’t be fair to say Mazda dropped the ball with the NC MX-5, but it certainly didn’t meet with the same rapturous reception as its predecessors. Weight was up, the ride was jittery and the electric steering numb. The fundamentals were there, but the details weren’t quite right. For those willing to invest a bit in bringing the best from the platform, early NCs now look like great value - there are Shed money MX-5s around. Spend £4k and there are sub-60k 2.0-litres available, which feels hard to ignore given the additional performance and modernity over a 1.8 NB. If you prefer one that presents like new, there's an ultra-low-mile Icon due to go under the PH hammer next week. The Roadster Coupe, launched in 2006, enhanced usability even further.
The third-gen came good in the end, thankfully, the 2009 ‘Mk3.5’ facelift tweaking the steering and suspension, plus improving the engine sound. A ‘Mk3.75’ update came in 2012, and it’s these are now the most highly prized NCs as the best of the bunch. The ideal thing for a BBR turbo conversion, you might say. All 1.8-litre 3.75s are soft top and all 2.0s are the Roadster Coupe; the Sport Graphite and 25th Anniversary are desirable limited editions from the period. And if you can find a Jota GT, complete with 205 throttle-bodied horsepower, a centre-exit exhaust and Bilstein suspension, buy it immediately.
Next year will mark 10 years of the fourth-generation MX-5, and it shows no signs of going anywhere just yet. Which is a testament, really, to how right Mazda got it back in 2015. Lighter, smaller and more stylish than the NC that went before it, the ND was the MX-5 back at its best in both soft top and Retractable Fastback forms. Though tweaked over the years - including one very recently - it’s notable that this era still looks broadly how it did all those years ago and none the worse for it. Not since the original has an MX-5 been so smartly designed. Fiat’s 124 Spider on the same underpinnings only proved the point further.
Underneath was all-new as well, with a brace of SkyActiv engines and another brilliant manual; the 1.5 was great from the get-go, though the 2.0-litre only really came good with the 2018 facelift that raised the rev limit and boosted power from 160hp to 184hp. The MX-5 gained telescopic steering adjustment for the first time at this juncture, too, so is doubly worth seeking out.
The temptation of a used ND is understandable; a car that looks the same will cost at least £25k new in a showroom. There are early 1.5s for £9k and 2.0-litres for £10,000, which looks like a lot of modern Mazda fun for the money. Especially with a whole raft of tweaks possible to properly bring them to life. Spending something like £13k will get the very best, lowest mileage ND1s, as well as early ND2 1.5s (though they only gained a horsepower in the update, so are less essential to seek out than the 2.0). Once £15k has been breached you’re into 184hp 2.0-litres, and honestly it’s hard to think of many better places to spend the money on something fun. They really are as good as you’ve heard. Again an Anniversary car is worth seeking out, the 30th boasting Racing Orange paint, Recaro seats, Rays wheels and Brembo calipers.
What the long-term future holds for the MX-5 isn’t quite clear, now being a tougher time than ever to soldier on with naturally aspirated sports cars. But think about what it’s survived over the past 35 years: recessions, pandemics, the return of the hot hatch, the congestion charge, ULEZ and a global hike in costs. Despite all that, the desire to embrace the joy of driving that only the MX-5 offers has endured. So many other sports cars have come and gone in that time that it’s hard to list them: Audi TT, the Nissan Zeds, the Toyota 86s and Subaru BRZ, Honda S2000, Mercedes SLK, the MGs, the MR2, the Lotus Elise, VW Scirocco and more. Yet by keeping the MX-5 light, simple, affordable and, most importantly, fun, Mazda has kept it relevant. Long may that continue.
1 / 20