1994 Mazda MX-5 1.8 NA

1994 Mazda MX-5 1.8 NA

Recession, war and punitive emissions legislation rarely make for decent sports cars. But ironically that’s precisely what happened in the Nineties. Car-wise, the Eighties came to an end some time between August 1990 and September 1992.

The first date saw an oil-supply crisis as a result of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and the latter saw the introduction of the EU’s first round of emissions regulations, mandating catalytic converters. Amid an economic recession that swept the Western world, skyrocketing insurance premiums and the ditching of the old Group A legislation that generated so many great touring-car homologation specials, affordable performance cars were rapidly dropped from price lists.

But over in Hiroshima, Mazda had seen the future, and it lay in the past. The simple, lightweight MX-5 didn’t need much oomph to get decent performance, and it was good-looking and glamorous to boot. It deliberately recalled a kind of car that had previously felt lost to the Sixties – the small roadster. And within a couple of years of its 1989 launch, a host of rivals released their own ripostes. It’s the Mazda’s sense of emotionality that sets it apart from its 1989 contemporaries. Launched at a time when most performance cars looked like an aggressive explosion of wings and spoilers, engineered for lap times, the MX-5 is engineered to tug at the heartstrings. It’s a Sixties sports-car ‘greatest hits’ compilation – the finger-pull doorhandle is Alfa Romeo Spider, the overall shape is Lotus Elan, as is the wrist-flick gearshift action and the engine’s cam-cover styling. Get in, fire it up and the exhaust note is tuned to snort at the same pitch as an MGB’s. The black plasticky three-spoke wheel and the steering’s heft – unassisted, unusual for 1989 – is late Triumph Spitfire. The whole car is a deliberately tactile delight, devised partly by IAD in Worthing to remind a po-faced Cosworth world of the carefree joy it had been missing. But the engineering is resolutely modern, unlike the long-toothed ‘heritage’ roadsters of the era like the Alfa Romeo Spider S3, Morgan +4 and TVR S.

Purists won’t want to hear this, but the classic British sports car which the MX-5 is most similar to drive is actually the Triumph TR7, albeit with the 16-valve engine it should always have had. The MX-5’s relatively hefty steel hull robs it of Lotus-style flyweight acceleration, and the unassisted steering gives just enough feedback to respond to the road rather than intimidating drivers new to sports cars, brought up on front-drive and power steering. Push it hard into a tight bend and it clings on for dear life rather than offering an instant hint of oversteer and inviting you to play.

And yet, it’s the emotional factors that make it so much fun, and such a market revolution. Who cares about how fast you’re going when its 130bhp peak power is delivered at a yowling 6500rpm, the exhaust note evolving from MGB burble to Formula Junior howl en route. As I drive, my peripheral vision picks up regular cues that speak of a bygone classic era. A barrel-sided British Racing Green curve here, a glint of chrome there, the way the hood sits, recalling no end of great classic roadsters, ones which now carry vast price tags and demand mechanical knowledge and sympathy in extremis. Not so with the MX-5 – you can jump in it and drive away as you might your commuter hatchback.

Thankfully, although launch-year examples are fetching sums the other side of £5k, this tactile joy can be found for a lot less. Japanese-market Eunos-badged cars, typically lacking early service history, usually go for around £3500, but can be found for much smaller sums; we spotted one in Lincolnshire for £1700. At the other end of the scale, KGF is selling a mint UK special-edition Berkeley model with just 1900 miles on the clock for £21,795. An outlier, but also indicative of the interest a nice MkI generates. It’s a fundamentally tough, reliable car but it’s dreadfully rotprone.

Eunos models in particular weren’t undersealed when new, so make sure this has been done since. Sills are rot-prone, and a torn hood or leaking door seals will cause water to collect in the doors, ultimately rusting the bottoms out. Sorting out a pair of rotten sills will run to £600 per side, while replacing the hood – possibly the root cause – is £300. Thankfully, everything is available to restore one – just ask the man who drove this car here today…

‘The simple, lightweight MX-5 didn’t need much oomph to get decent performance’

Owning a Mazda MX-5 1.8

Former Le Mans Prototype racing driver turned Mazda UK PR manager Owen Mildenhall presides over the firm’s heritage fleet. ‘We have four MkI MX-5s,’ he says. ‘This 1.8 is nicely original – unmodified ones are getting extremely difficult to find now, because people like buying them for club motor sport and the first thing they do is alter the suspension setup.

‘It’s effectively stepped into the shoes of the MGB as the classic world’s go-to roadster, and Mazda is replicating that MGB ownership experience to a degree by ensuring almost all parts for them are readily available through our dealer network, so you won’t run into that sense of worry that you find with some classics, where some things are just unobtainable. Anything we don’t make is provided by aftermarket suppliers who we can point you towards, such as MX5 Parts.

‘They’re reliable too – it may be a rear-wheel drive roadster, but all the parts were adapted from the 323 hatchback, and they go on forever so long as they’re properly serviced.’

Roadster Revivalists The Big Test

1994 Mazda MX-5 1.8

  • Engine 1840cc four-cylinder, dohc, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection
  • Max Power 130bhp @ 6500rpm
  • Max Torque 112lb ft @ 5000rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Rack-and-pinion
  • Suspension Front and rear: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Brakes Servo-assisted discs front and rear
  • Weight 990kg
  • Performance 0-60mph: 8.2sec
  • Top speed: 122mph
  • Fuel cons. 32mpg
  • Cost new £15,410
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £1200-£4750

A tremendous machine for the money, if you can beat the rust.

130bhp goes a long way in such a well-engineered little roadster.

A tactile driving experience, with plenty of classic design cues.

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