Mazda MX-5 turns 30 : The story of history's greatest roadster

There are very few things still going strong at 30. Humans start to grey around the edges. Fridges hum worryingly. Jumpers lose all shape. But not the Mazda MX-5.

Over three decades and four generations, Mazda’s plucky roadster has become the bestselling two-seater convertible of all time. And for good reason. Compact in stature, modest in performance and truly sublime to drive, the Mazda MX-5 was never meant to win drag races. It was designed to make drivers smile.

Yet Mazda bosses weren’t sure about the concept when it was pitched in the mid-Eighties. It faced, in the company's own words, “significant resistance from some of Mazda’s senior executives”. A simple front-engine, rear-drive roadster like the best British sports cars of the Fifties and Sixties? Didn’t that whole industry go a bit pear-shaped in the Seventies?

Well, yes. Killed off by the Eighties by more stringent safety and emissions regulations, the compact two-seater wouldn't have been touched by the old guard with a crash test dummy – let alone a bargepole.

Instead, the Italians were pursuing outright performance with the F40, the Brits were going big and brutish with GT luxury (see: Aston Martin Virage) and the rest of Europe was squabbling over saloon supremacy. Which left a pocket-sized opportunity for an uncomplicated sports car in the mid-century mould.

And it was Bob Hall who saw the potential. Asked in the late-Seventies by engineer Kenichi Yamamoto what car he’d have Mazda build, the American journalist and Japanese car enthusiast was unequivocal in his answer: a reimagined roadster

Rather than laugh him out of the room while cackling “Triumph TR7”, Yamamoto was apparently taken with the idea – even if he didn’t show it. When Hall joined the marque as a product planner in 1981, Yamamoto gave him the nudge to look into it.

Working tirelessly out of the firm’s California office, the committed Hall tasked designer Mark Jordan with sketching out his idea for a featherweight sports car free from complexity, inspired by the likes of the Lotus Elan – arguably the ultimate driver's car of the Sixties.

Then, just as things were looking good for Duo 101, Mazda decided to make the new concept a competition between three rival offices. Hall had to pitch his front-engine, rear-drive roadster against the more traditional proposals of two Japanese departments – Tokyo going for mid-engine, rear-drive and Hiroshima fancying front-engine, front-drive.

Initially it seemed one of the Japanese offerings would win out. Fitting a sports car shell to an existing front-wheel drive model would be cheaper and easier to build and would probably sell well enough to justify production. But it wouldn’t be a proper roadster – and the engineers knew it.

The result? Hall’s brainchild won out and history’s greatest two-seater convertible was born.

Designer Tom Matano was brought in to create the production design, sketching an appealing shell that was timeless in its clean simplicity, while Mazda’s engineers – led by Toshihiko Hirai – got busy crafting a lightweight machine that could drive like nothing else.

Through it all, they were steered by the concept of jinba ittai – or “rider and horse as one”. Marketing guff? Not a chance: with the MX-5's fizzy engine, perfect balance, expressive handling, impeccable suspension and lovely exhaust note, the Japanese marque had succeeded where it’s British counterparts had failed – creating a roadster that could stay relevant for decades.

Launched at the Chicago Motor Show in February 1989, it was an instant hit, garnering acclaim from journalists, a shelf-load of awards and huge sales to boot. Four generations later and Mazda’s sold well over a million.

Marketed variously as the MX-5, Miata and Eunos Roadster, the two-seater proved that horsepower wasn’t the only route to a good time. While hot hatches such as the Golf GTI and Renault 5 GT Turbo competed for supremacy in the car park, the ostensibly pokey MX-5 didn’t trouble itself with such hooligan behaviour.

Instead, in the words of Hall himself, it delivered the “most smiles-per-gallon”. Cheesy, yes, but true: whether you drive a Mk1 with its quirky popup lamps and zippy 1.6-litre motor or the latest 155bhp model, the MX-5 remains pretty much the most fun you can have with the roof down.

Accessible, enjoyable and forgiving, it’s everything a sports car should be – and, at a time when electronic aids do most of the driving for us, we need it more than ever. So we say cheers to the MX-5, doing better at 30 than almost anything else.