Classic Sports Cars

Mazda MX-5 1st gen. (1989-1998)

June 25, 2012

Mazda Eunos Roadster 1989_01Mazda MX-5 is known as Miata in United States and Eunos Roadster in Japan. The history of this compact sports car dates back to the early 1980s, when Mazda’s engineers started to build up a design for a new, lightweight, two-seater sports car. Many different ideas were submitted in the planning phase. Layout proposals included front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD) and even a mid-engine setup. In order to minimize development and production costs, the best approach would have been to replace the body of a compact FWD car with a new sports car body, or perhaps reposition the engine and drivetrain for a mid-engine layout. However, the agile handling and a linear driving feel would be almost impossible to achieve without a RWD layout. For Mazda, this meant an entirely new powertrain would have to be developed, which would require a sizeable investment. In the end, despite the added cost, the engineers agreed that they had no choice but to pursue the ideals of a lightweight sports car.

Once the combination of RWD layout and an open-top body had been agreed on, the engineers coined the development concept, “Jinba Ittai” (which means “rider and horse as one”) to express the type of fun-to-drive roadster they intended to build. The development team focused on stripping off everything that was not necessary while maximizing the character of the vehicle. Examples of this include the aluminum hood, which lowers the center of gravity and improves steering stability and accuracy. Also, a standard cast iron exhaust pipe was rejected in favour of a stainless steel version in order to achieve an ideal exhaust gas flow. It was clear from the start that this sports car was going to be different.

As Japan has a rainy season each year, there are relatively few convertibles on the roads. Mazda’s development team chose to remain faithful to the “Jinba Ittai” concept and purposefully picked a manually operated soft top. They also rejected proposals for a 2+2 seat layout in order to concentrate on a pure two-seat roadster. These and other difficult decisions ensured the MX-5 would be as light as possible.

The team narrowed down the possible engine choices to a 4-cylinder 16-valve 1.6-litre inline DOHC engine. While keeping mechanical losses and engine resistance as low as possible, the development team achieved a smooth engine power curve and linear acceleration up to the rev limit. In order to ensure adequate feedback when changing gears, engineers created a “powerplant frame” to rigidly connect the transmission and differential. It significantly enhanced the performance feel and became an essential technical element in the evolution of the MX-5. For the suspension system, the development team chose a double wishbone setup for all four wheels, due to its superior dynamic characteristics.

The design of the MX-5 was initiated at Mazda North America (MANA), a development center located in California. In January 1986, it was decided that the R&D team in Japan would take over, and that summer the design base moved to Hiroshima with an almost-finished clay model. Even at this stage, there were still doubts that the MX-5 would ever reach production. Some people still questioned the market potential of a lightweight sports car. To test this, a full-scale plastic body prototype was made from one of the design proposals and brought to the US in April 1987. Members of the public with an interest in cars were invited to preview the design. Of the 220 participants, 57 responded that they “would definitely buy it if it hit the market. Having successfully survived this early crisis, development continued and the design was finalized five months later.

Finally, in February 1989, Mazda introduced the MX-5 Miata sports car as a 1990 model at the Chicago auto show. The car went on sale in the US in the spring 1989, and in Japan a little later that same year. In 1990 the sales began in Europe. In the US market, the original Mazda MX-5 featured a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine with 120 horsepower and 100 lb.-ft. of torque. A five-speed manual transmission was standard. In 1990 the MX-5 was also offered with an automatic transmission. The car had disc brakes front and rear and the front discs were ventilated.

For the 1994 model year, the MX-5 was freshened with a new 1.8-litre engine. The new engine produced 130 hp. On some markets, MX-5 was available with an optional Torsen Limited Slip Differential, which was far more durable than the previous viscous differential. For the 1996 model year, engine’s output was increased to 133 hp. Many different special editions of the Mazda MX-5 were offered, like the R Package, which was introduced with Bilstein shocks and front and rear underbody spoilers. The first generation Mazda MX-5 was replaced by the second generation in 1998.

Specifications Mazda Eunos Roadster 1989


  • 1597cc
  • 4-cylinder


  • 120 hp / 6500rpm


  • 137 Nm / 5500rpm


  • 5-speed manual gearbox
  • RWD


  • 940 kg

Mazda Eunos Roadster 1989_02