MX-5: 20 years of Mazda success

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Two seats, soft top and rear-wheel drive – three ingredients that form the basis of a recipe for success. Add in a dash of affordability, a pinch of cute styling and lashings of handling and you're well on your way to a Michelin Star winning banquet of a car!

When Mazda designed its MX-5 it kept things simple. The concept was to recreate a classic British sportscar of days gone by – a modern interpretation of a Lotus Elan or MGB – and boy did they crack it. As only the Japanese can, they took the idea we had and made it even better.

The little Mazda has been a sales phenomenon, shifting more than 860,000 units since it arrived here in 1990. Yes, the MX-5 really is nearly 20 years old, but time hasn't satisfied the appetite of buyers. Even now, four generations on, the MX-5 is a steady sales winner.

See the MX-5 gallery

But where did the idea to create such a car come from? Well, quite unbelievably, that was all down to one humble journalist's conversation with the head of research and development for the car manufacturer back in 1976.

Motor Trend magazine scribe Bob Hall was lamenting the dwindling numbers of 'classic British sportscars' on the roads and suggested a carmaker should try and recreate an inexpensive roadster for the masses. The conversation planted a seed in the mind of then R&D head honcho Kenichi Yamamoto.

Five years later, Hall was offered a job at Mazda in a product planning role and met the same man he'd spoken – but by then Yamamoto-san had moved up in the world...to chairman of Mazda Corporation. The chief remembered their chat and tasked Hall with turning the idea into reality.

Hall immediately set about putting his great plan for an affordable sportscar into place but it was some years before the MX-5 we know and love today reached production. Mazda commissioned a British company – International Automotive Design – based in Worthing, West Sussex, to build a prototype and after positive reaction from the public, top brass finally signed the car off in 1986.

Three years later the car was unveiled at the California Motor Show with a name that became legendary, MX-5; the M stands for Mazda, the X came from 'eXperimental' and the five was the project number.

But the real key to the MX-5's success has been just how good each model is on the road. Rear wheel drive, like all good sportscars should be, with sprightly engines that weren't too powerful, the Mazda was a delight to pilot.

It's won thousands of fans the world over – including a host of celebrity followers.Car nut and American chat show host Jay Leno believes it will be the car that future generations will want to collect, saying: 'What the Mustang is for today, the MX-5 will be of the future.'

And even Jeremy Clarkson loves the baby Mazda calling it 'basic, honest and wonderful'. 'It's still a bacon sandwich made with good bread and good butter and good meat. Only now it has a splash of HP sauce,' says the Top Gear host.

Read more on the MX-5 models