Back To The Future

Bob Hall sniffs the sulfurous tang of modeler’s clay as he signs in at his alma mater, the studio where he fought, cajoled and finally convinced the doubters the world needed a new sports car.

He won that argument.

Mazda called it the Miata and it sold just like he said it would.

Decades later, Hall is back at Mazda’s Design Centre in downtown Irvine, California where the jets roar over the back fence on final approach at John Wayne Airport.

Nobody recognizes the conceptual father of the Miata except Derek Jenkins, the design director at Mazda North America. He’s a bit awestruck. After all he was still a kid when Hall’s smash hit roadster debuted in 1989, with attendant media profiles in Time, Newsweek, People and every buff book on the planet, winning awards in dozens of countries.

Now, a million plus cars later it’s time to whip the covers off the next generation Miata in the quiet of a high security studio. We’ve been invited. Hall because of his eminence. Me because I was the guy who hired him away from Mazda to work on a magazine in far off Australia in 1994. A reunion was overdue.

“I never kept copies of People, Time and Newsweek anyway…” Hall says as he lays eyes on the fourth generation Miata for the first time, weeks before the rest of the world.

He’s too polite to say it but successive generations of the Miata got fat.

Like 350 lbs. of added lard between 1989 and 2014.

By the third generation, it had moved a long way from his original featherweight, less-is-more template.

It didn’t stop the Miata becoming the world’s favorite sports car, seeing off the Honda S2000, Pontiac Solstice, Toyota MR2, Ford Capri and so many other wannabes.
But all those added pounds weren’t what Hall and the founding fathers had in mind.

So he’s delighted to learn the new fourth-gen remake has gone back to the future. It’s shed Biggest Loser style weight, around 170lbs, and tips the scales much closer to the original, allowing better acceleration, braking and handling.

International versions with a higher-revving 1.5-liter engine cut the flab still further, achieving almost perfect front to rear weight distribution. The bigger US 2.0 liter Miata engine means a 53:47 number.

A welcome reset then, of the lightweight concept?

“Yeah, very much so” says Hall, clearly excited.

“You know what this car will be?” he chirps, “ the antidote to autonomous driving!”

The first all-new Miata in well over a decade, it doesn’t have insane acceleration, there’s no enormous engine, no bristling turbochargers or sneezing waste gate.

It’s a Sopwith Camel in an age where makers like BMW and Mercedes are churning out supersonic F35 Strike Fighters. But see, that’s the point.

The Miata is simplicity on a stick, a pure joy of driving experience underpinned by smart physics, killer style and a starting price tag of $25,000 (and up, of course).

Way back when, Hall pitched a simple line drawing and one slide at Mazda’s boss of the day, Mr. Yamamoto. The drawing was of rear drive, two-seat roadster of the type the Brits once made, with in-built oil, water and wind leaks.

The slide was devastating in it’s simplicity. Translated: less equals more.

So the original Miata was a featherweight with a lively 1.6-liter engine, raspy Lotus Elan exhaust note and go-kart sharp steering and handling. The whole philosophy was maximum fun at minimum speeds. It didn’t have much power but it didn’t carry much weight either.

All of which meant the driver didn’t need to be shattering speed limits to feel like a fighter pilot – of the stick and rudder school.

And it sold like there was no tomorrow.

“When I quit (Mazda Chairman) Yamamoto said ‘Bob-san sometimes I think you are a stupid guy; you should have asked me for $1 royalty for every roadster built!”

He laughs at that.

“He’d never have agreed… but he wanted me to ask.”

Safety regulations and the demands for more comfort and convenience features bloated the Miata by something close to 20pc of its original weight by 2014.

The new model has now dumped a lot of baggage, getting it closer to its original fighting weight, a remarkable feat considering all the extra crash safety and on board equipment demanded of a 2016 model.

At 154 inches long it’s four shorter than the outgoing model and a close match to the 1989 original.

Weight saving is called Gram Theory at Mazda and became an obsession.

Aluminum body panels saved 44 lbs., cast alloy transmission casings 15, exotic metals in the suspension a further 26. Even the seats, which are more like Aeron office chairs with a layer of stretch fabric attached to a lightweight alloy frame, save precious pounds. There’s no glove box or steering column reach adjustment, no seat height adjustment and the soft top is strictly DIY. Wheels are restricted to 16-inch diameter on the base model (because they weigh less than 17s or 18s) and are attached with four bolts instead of five. Gram Theory again.

Under the low sloping nose is a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine producing 155 horsepower, decent throttle response and a respectable 6600-rpm max. It’s lively and loads of fun matched to the snickety-snick short throw six-speed stick. Auto optional.

Designed mostly in its spiritual birthplace in California the latest version is lower, more planted, sucked to the ground. It’s voluptuously hippy with cat’s eye cute LED headlamps giving it a feline touch.

The car has a longer wheelbase and shorter overhangs, the building blocks of roadster proportions.

The driver has been moved back and down, the front wheels have been pushed forward, the rear overhang shortened and the engine dropped closer to the ground for a better center of gravity.

New on board is a load of safety and screen based on board connectivity. Proximity key, USB ports and 7-inch tablet screen are included but the trunk is barely big enough for an overnighter. Forget the golf clubs.

Pared down and purist it might be but he Miata is the best example yet of the difference between a technical product developed to a rigid set of numbers and a consumer product that just feels right.

The interior, the work of Julien Mountousse in the California studio, is a radical update that respects the past but adds the sort of on board connectivity missing in the current car.

It feels bigger in the cockpit, a visual trick, with the trademark high tunnel and hunkered down driving position with the gearbox shifted well back to assist weight distribution and thus chassis balance.

The old hard plastics are gone, replaced by higher quality soft touch materials, more stitching, and no faux fiber anywhere.

It’s a package that pleases Bob Hall.

This eccentric Californian, an early P.J. O’Rourke mentor on the subject of cars, has infectious enthusiasm, encyclopedic knowledge, and a vast appetite for Diet Pepsi.

He can riff like Robin Williams (in any accent you want) and loves the ‘60s Brit series Thunderbirds, with its goofy marionettes. Despite all that Mazda hired him because the engineering boss saw in Halls’ idea what others didn’t – a huge gap for a modern, purist sports car presented by the former exchange student who taught himself Japanese by reading comic books.

“If I separate myself from the original” Hall says, all these years later, ” this is a much better car for today, a much better Miata. Period. And that’s independent of time and place.”

Translated: it’s merely the most fun you can buy for $25K.

Bob Hall these days works in new car product development for Chinese maker Geely, based in California. Phil Scott has retired to his farm in rural Australia after a long career as an auto writer, editor and publisher.