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Back to the Future - MK1 Mazda MX-5 REVIEW

Updated: 2 days ago

MK1 Mazda MX-5

With the thrill of driving under greater scrutiny than ever, John Bee tackles the average speed-monitored Cat & Fiddle pass in a mk1 MX-5 and ponders what the future holds for the car enthusiast. Photography by Andrew Ambrose

Around 7,000 speed cameras are watching over us here in the UK. That’s approximately 900 more than the entire United States. Just let that sink in for a second - a country with a mere 262,000 miles of road has more than a country with 4,100,000.

In the coming years that number is only going to increase. Profits from tactically placed cameras are hard to ignore for cash-strapped councils and quite often, it’s irrelevant whether or not they actually reduce accidents. Speed cameras are just another tug of the ever-tightening noose around the neck of people who drive for enjoyment. We’re vilified by the health and safety conscious for speeding, public enemy number one for the environmentalists and an easy target for exploitation by governments looking for extra income.

Where does this leave the petrol head? In a world where you can buy a hot hatchback with over 400 bhp, you start to think, what’s the point? How can one still enjoy the beauty of the British countryside and a favourite back road if Big Brother is standing over you like a vulture? Should you dare depress the throttle for any longer than six seconds, you’ll have points on your licence and a fine.

MK1 Mazda MX-5

The answer lies in finding a car with solid fundamentals. A car that feels alive at double-digit speeds, not triple figures. One that makes use of the elements, with tight gearing and a sweet, rev-happy naturally aspirated engine. Get the basics right and waking up early to catch the sunrise along your favourite B road doesn’t have to be a thing of the past.

It’s why we’ve come to the cat and fiddle pass in the Peak District, a once famous driving road now lined with the yellow pylons of doom, armed with an early Mazda MX-5 to challenge the naysayers proclaiming the end is nigh. We're looking to strip away the excess and lean on the fundamentals of the physical act of driving.

When I talk about fundamentals, I’ll give you this analogy. In boxing, the sweet science, you’re first taught footwork. The ability to close in on an opponent and get yourself out of trouble when needed is a skill you must master before you’ve even thrown a punch.

Only when you’ve conquered keeping your balance do you move on to throwing your first and most important punch, the jab. The jab serves as a rangefinder, a stinging snapshot or a distraction. It’s your closest weapon to the fighter standing in front of you. Without learning these basic fundamentals, your style will be flawed.

A natural ability of power, speed or reflexes can mask a lack of basic skills to a degree but you’ll be found out eventually. What use is power if you can’t land a shot? What use is speed if your opponent is timing you coming in? And what use are those reflexes if you’re off balance?

MK1 Mazda MX-5

The same fundamental rules govern building a sports car. Mazda took the blueprint of the Lotus Elan and applied the Japanese philosophy of Jinba Ittai, “reflecting the feeling that the sense of oneness between a rider and his beloved horse is the ultimate bond.”

It translates to the universal sports car language of an engine at the front, driven wheels at the rear for balance, a raspy twin-cam engine for power and fully independent suspension at each corner for handling. Not only did they use the Elan recipe, but they also made it reliable.

This made the MX-5 a formidable rival for any manufacturer looking to move in and take a slice of its profits. Many came to the fight already at a disadvantage using an adapted platform from a mundane hatchback and scraps from the manufacturer's parts bin.

Today, the MX-5 is part of the motoring landscape, but wind the clock back to 1989 and the roadster market was dead on its knees. In Japan, your only option was the Alfa Romeo Series 3 Spider, carrying typical reliability shortcomings and a platform that could trace its roots back three decades, complete with a live rear axle.

It was a massacre - the Mazda breathed new life into the division and suddenly manufacturers were pulling their heads out of the sand. By 1995 challengers were lining up for their shot at the title, but all entered the ring with one hand tied behind their back. Fiat returned with the pretty Barchetta, but it was now front-wheel drive, as was the next-generation Alfa Spider. Just like that the Italians - long the custodian of the small roadster - effectively threw in the towel.

Even the Germans got in on the act with the trailing arm BMW Z3, force-fed to us by an utterly underwhelmed James Bond. Mercedes introduced its SLK sporting a unique folding metal roof - both the cars’ USP and Achilles heel as the weight hampered dynamics. MG had dusted off the cobwebs in 1993 with a revived B from the 1970’s. The British firm took their ‘95 effort seriously with the F, a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive arrangement complete with fizzy K-series engines and Hydragas suspension.

Sadly, the MG still couldn’t quite take the fight to the Mazda, but the one car that did from behind the wheel - the MKIII Toyota MR2 - finally arrived in 1999. It’s not hard to see why the MX-5 set production records for a two-seater car - it took the industry a decade to come up with a genuine title challenger.

Interestingly, there was almost a point where the MX-5 suffered a similar fate at the hands of the bean counters. The MX-5 as we know it was one of three initial design concepts - a front-engine, front-wheel drive version by one design studio in Japan, a second Japanese design that was mid-engined, rear-wheel drive and a front-engine, rear-wheel drive by Mazda’s Californian studio. It was in August 1984 when the three models were built in clay that “Duo 101” the Californian code name, won the competition. Final approval was granted at the start of 1986 and it moved into the production phase with test mules being created.

MK1 Mazda MX-5

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Rumours have circulated that the initial design didn’t have independent rear suspension but after making some calculations, the car proved cheaper than expected to produce. Mazda decided to use that budget and go all out with double wishbones on all four wheels, showing confidence and commitment to the project that many other companies would not have made. Can you imagine what British Leyland would have done? Pocketed that extra cash for the director's Christmas party most likely!

This particular JDM Eunos Roadster belongs to Anthony Gibbons. His car is a fine example of the breed, a Japanese import with a light and free-revving 1.6 DOHC engine, mated to a short-throw manual box, arguably the best combination in an NA. Some tasteful RS Watanabe F8 wheels give it a more purposeful look but it’s kept pretty much standard and all the better for it. The original MX-5 is a truly timeless and iconic design. The simple, no-nonsense interior is a far cry from the screen-covered dashboards of today. There’s no distraction from what you’re here to do, drive.

MK1 Mazda MX-5

Like with boxing, huge power is pointless if it can’t be put to the tarmac. By increasing the power you’re raising the speed required for the driver to find a car's limit, great on track but on the beautiful but average-speed camera-laden road around the Cat and Fiddle Inn, not ideal. This is where all 115 bhp of the Mazda’s sweet, revvy engine came into its own. I was able to wring its neck, taking in the noise and vibration of a car working with you to deliver a pure driving experience at speeds less likely to trouble the old bill.

Why is it “pure?” Simply because that lack of torque means you need to keep a flowing pace, your mistakes aren’t masked by a shove of your right foot making up time on corner exit or where you went wrong on entry. You need to read the road ahead, get into a zone and plan your braking points carefully. Getting back on the power early and letting the supple suspension compress, you feel the outside rear tyre take the load and glide you around the corner.

MK1 Mazda MX-5

It’s this inherent chassis balance coming from the fully independent suspension and near-perfect weight distribution that means you’re never fighting the car, there’s no scrabbling for grip or sudden, snap oversteer. It teaches you to become a better driver, more attentive, more focused and more at one with the machine but in a calming way. If the car could talk to you, its voice would be that of a soothing-sounding woman, making you feel at ease while you got on with the job at hand. The mechanical interaction extends to the gearbox, a beautiful short throw with a positive action. The only thing that ages the driving experience is the subpar braking power.

And when you back off from the spirited driving, the MX5 shows another side. A relaxing tourer, harking back to the old open-top British and Italian sports cars it was modelled after. With the no-nonsense manual soft top down you’ve got the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding area right in there with you. It becomes a car where everything slows down, where you can imagine drinking in some spectacular mountain roads with your partner or best friend beside you, just enjoying the experience of being out in the open.

MK1 Mazda MX-5

This is the result of a car with solid fundamentals, you can take advantage of its balance and perfectly weighted controls or settle in for a relaxing ride. On the right road, in the right conditions, you start doubting you need anything more. Those who find their thrills bouncing off the limiter and searching for the limits of adhesion on every corner may need convincing but you should at least try an MX-5, as the Americans say - 'Miata Is Always The Answer'.

What made Mazda’s special little car the bestselling sports car in the world back in 1989, is probably more relevant today than it ever has been and indisputable proof you don’t need big power to have fun. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re heading towards an automotive dystopia, with speed cameras on every road, black boxes fitted to govern speed and who knows what else? Tax per mile? A cap on annual usage?

We came to the flowing roads around the Cat and Fiddle in the Peak District with the deliberate purpose of finding out if you can still have fun within the speed limit. My answer is an emphatic yes but it takes a look back to a car of the past to get that answer. Huge power, massive grip and cosseting refinement will leave you cold and frustrated. For some of us, newer is always better but when new cars don’t play by the same rules as they did back in 1993, sometimes you need to look back to the future.

MK1 Mazda MX-5



Engine - 1,598 cc naturally aspirated inline four-cylinder, DOHC 16v, max 6,900 rpm

Output - 112 bhp @ 6,500 rpm, 99 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm

Weight - 995 kg, bhp/tonne 113, lb-ft/tonne 100

Transmission - RWD, 5sp manual, optional/spec-dependant LSD

Performance - 0-60 mph 9.4s, top speed 121 mph

Value - from £2,500


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