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Small Perfection: Mazda MX-5 Miata 1991

When sophomore summer rolled around in 1977, as per usual old English sports cars appeared on the streets of Hanover. The pared-down British convertibles — Triumph Spitfires, MGs, Autin-Healeys — might leave oil stains in your driveway, but they had an excitement that even Detroit’s muscle cars of that time could not deliver. By now those roadsters are all long gone in a cloud of rust, but this year, once again, the modern equivalent of the English cars is out in force: first-generation Mazda Miatas. I paid the list price of $14,499 for my one-size-fits-all 1991 model, and it is still running perfectly:

Miata 2017.jpg

Just between us, at 100mph on the interstate the Miata hunches down and gets serious. It seems to become subdued when going fast — and having run it for many years in Europe, I can tell you that at that speed it gets about 26mpg.

Mazda has sold over a million Miatas — the best-selling sports car in history — since the first ones appeared in 1989. They were simpler then: only 116 hp, weighing barely a ton, no air conditioning, manual steering and charming roll-up windows (I have to explain those to younger passengers). And, of course, the short-throw, five-speed gearshift that makes you feel at one with the engine, along with a perfect 50:50 weight distribution front to back that renders handling silky smooth. And don’t forget the tuned-exhaust growl.

Miata Comp1.jpgDe gustibus non disputandum est, n’est-ce pas? So we shouldn’t argue about which of the Miata’s four generations is the prettiest, but to my mind, only the third comes close to the first’s clean, trim look. The most recent edition has a pompousness far from the playful spirit of the original.

We’ll leave the last word about the Miata to Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson:

The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.

Addendum: The primary inspiration for the joint American-Japanese design effort that gave us the Miata was the Lotus Elan (1962-1975), pop-up headlights and all:

Lotus Elan.jpg

For older readers, recall that the dishy Mrs. Emma Peel drove an Elan in the 1960’s TV series The Avengers. She was played by noted Royal Shakespeare Company actress Diana Rigg, wife of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who modern viewers will know as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.

Addendum: My erstwhile Dartmouth roommate, a Harvard-educated architect, informs me that all cars go through the design process in only one color. Needless to say, just like Ferraris, the Miata was conceived in arrest-me red.

Addendum: Let’s classify my feelings towards the Miata as “affection.” That I rate an adjective no more forceful than that will become apparent when you review Sidney Goldman ‘60’s erstwhile “passion” for his Jaguar:

In 1957 my roommate’s physics professor, Bob Christy, who lived across the river on a farm in Norwich, drove around in the most elegant of all the Brit cars, a Jaguar XK120 Roadster. It was black but did have “catch me” red interior.

Years later in the early 70’s, a patient/friend and I began looking for a Jag to fix up. We drove at least five of them over a two year period and found them trucks to steer despite their fine lines. Finally we adjusted our sights to the next model, XK140 Drophead Convertible whose improvements included rack and pinion steering, a one piece bumper and an overhead cam engine.

I found mine sans wheels and top for sale in a field and towed it home for $500. Chuck found his for $1200. We labored side by side in his aunt’s garage with parts hung on walls until both were running.

I’m not sure what mileage I achieved at 110 mph, and I only tried that on one occasion. Alas, had to part with her in 2004 during permanent move to Key West where she would have rusted out. Take a look. I’ve included our first meeting.

Sydney Goldman Jaguar1.jpg

I now drive a 2007 VW EOS purchased new and currently with 130,000 miles on it.

Sidney Goldman reports that the Class of ‘60 will be holding a birthday party — its 80th — in Key West from February 6-8 — an event that is celebrated every half decade. So far seventy members of the class have signaled their intention to attend. Past birthday gigs have been held in Chicago, NYC, and Seattle. The 60’s were known as “Chamberlain’s Mistake” because the intended class size was exceeded; it totaled about 800. The Dean of Admissions at the time was Eddie Chamberlain.


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