Miata Paradox

In 1989 the automotive world experienced a major paradigm shift in the form of a diminutive sports car called the MX-5 Miata (Eunos Roadster). It would shatter the contemporary definition of the usable sports car and people’s relationships with them. Back then, no one could predict the impact this vehicle would have upon the world. It was a car that was engineered brilliantly and offered the owner affordability, economy and reliability without compromising its true, sporting nature. However, close to thirty years after the MX-5’s debut, the car remains controversial beneath the hushed whispers of enthusiasts worldwide. With over one million units sold, what could possibly be controversial about this vehicle?

There are still automotive enthusiasts who consider the MX-5 Miata to be a lesser vehicle than other sports cars for a multitude of emasculating, degrading and/or otherwise nonsensical reasons. The reasons range from its compact size, to the fact that it’s a convertible…and nearly always focuses on a stereotyped demographic of owners. Of course, this illogical stigma attached to the vehicle is invalid considering that there aren’t a million (insert stereotyped demographic here) that own Miatas. Yet, under a blanket of generalizations, many automotive enthusiasts have been blinded to the virtues of one of the best production sports cars ever created.

The MX-5 was designed to evoke the finest roadsters of the past. The car was most notably influenced by offerings from Britain like the MG MGA and Lotus Elan. In fact, it was Lotus founder Colin Chapman who emphasized the importance of a light weight sports car with his phrase “simplify, then add lightness”. By reducing vehicle weight, all driving dynamics are simultaneously enhanced. The MX-5 extolled all the virtues of history’s greatest roadsters, but was economical, affordable and most notably reliable.

However, the MX-5 offered more than light weight and usability. Its rear wheel drive chassis was equipped with four-wheel independent suspension and disc brakes. It was also available with a manual transmission, limited slip differential and benefited from the balance offered by a remarkable 50:50 weight distribution. So why isn’t the MX-5 the most beloved sports car in the automotive industry?

The answer is machismo. Machismo is defined as: an attitude, quality, or way of behaving that agrees with traditional ideas about men being very strong and aggressive. It would be natural to deny the notion that machismo could rival statistics, specification sheets, performance data, sales figures…and countless evaluations from automotive journalists.
However, the sentiment of nearly all derogatory claims about the MX-5 stem from this unfavorable interpretation of masculinity. It’s a paradox because the very people who denigrate the MX-5 often profess to be car enthusiasts.

Any analysis of the Miata paradox must be observed within the social context in respect to popular interpretations of masculinity. The MX-5 arrived at a time when popular male figures in the media were overwhelmingly macho. This was a time, in North America, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme commanded millions at box offices across the country. Rival domestic and imported cars were available with large displacement V8s as well as turbo four, six cylinder and rotary options. Seemingly, this would be a difficult market to breach with a minimalist, adequately-powered, naturally aspirated, compact roadster. Yet, in that potentially unwelcoming environment, the MX-5 was delivered to over 35,000 customers globally in 1990. Also note that initial demand for the MX-5 meant that cars likely left showrooms for significantly more than the $14,000 USD base MSRP. In spite of this, the MX-5 would go on to sell 400,000 units in eight years with a majority being sold in the United States.

For the sake of comparison: the media of 1965 was also filled with irrefutably masculine figures and a mainstream culture that fully catered to the ideals of machismo. The pop culture icons of America were John Wayne, Marlon Brando and the “king of cool” himself Steve McQueen.
During this time, high performance vehicles reigned the streets. After all, this was the era of ground-scorching, pavement quaking muscle cars and the lithe, razor sharp handling roadsters that the MX-5 would later channel.
Popular and relatively cheap muscle cars would sell by the thousands (and in some cases hundreds of thousands). Meanwhile, imported roadsters like the Lotus Elan would sell merely hundreds of units per year. This result could be expected considering the social climate and the unspoken correlation between machismo and performance cars.

This was also the era which marked automakers directly marketing vehicles to youths. Vehicle marketing and design reflected the concept of a vehicle becoming a representation of its owner’s identity. Oftentimes, these owners were young and highly motivated to distinguish their own unique image amongst their peers. An image of power and independence resonated with most performance car buyers of the time. Along with the manufacturer’s efforts, cinema would prove to be effective at romanticizing the automobile. Of course, this trend would be continued for decades to come.

America’s automotive golden-era did provide an exception to consumer’s polarized automotive views. In 1965, an extreme iteration of an existing performance car debuted…the Shelby AC Cobra 427. The Shelby AC Cobra started its life as a small, nimble roadster just like the MX-5. Each chassis was imported from AC Cars in England and bestowed with the large displacement Ford 427 V8 installed by Carroll Shelby‘s team. This car was the embodiment of performance and epitomized the value of a formidable power-to-weight ratio. In spite of this, the $7,000 USD Shelby AC Cobra 427 Cobra was a complete financial failure and was discontinued by Shelby in 1967 with less than 300 cars making it to public roads. It would be easy to speculate that the Cobra’s price had made it prohibitive to most buyers. However, the $4,300 USD Lotus Elan took twelve years to sell approximately 9,000 units. Clearly, it was unpopular to divert from the status-quo no matter how tempting the offerings were at the time.

The MX-5s staggering, million-unit global sales figures are impressive by any measure. Ironically, the roadster would even outperform and outsell the cars which inspired its development. It would even parallel the great AC Cobra with engine swaps that would rival or humble the old snake.

In spite of all of this, arguably the greatest lightweight roadster of our time is weighed down with the burden of insecurities from a vocal minority of people. These insecurities aren’t based on performance, specification or any other quantifiable value related to the vehicle. They are based on machismo: a shameful construct that hides the truth and misleads the uninformed.

The MX-5 and other sports cars developed in a similar vein (like the Lotus Elise and even Ariel’s Atom) are precursors to the future of automotive performance vehicles. The sports cars of the future will utilize lighter weight materials and construction methods to provide enthusiasts with unparalleled levels of agility and accuracy. The MX-5 carried the most intelligent design ethos from the past combined with contemporary build quality into this millennium. Thanks to the MX-5, the future looks bright…and light.

© Photo by: Matt Midori

2 Comments

  1. Absolutely Great article and I concur with Henk on how well articulated this piece of writing is. Made me subscribe to your site....congrats.

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