Retro ride: 1991 Mazda MX-5 provides simple pleasures

Eunos, Miata, MX-5. Call it what you will, there is simply no mistaking one of the most famous and most successful sports cars of the last 50 years.

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Inspired by compact British and Italian roadsters, the MX-5 is an absolute icon, beloved all over the globe and has sold more than one million examples since its launch 31 years ago.

The car is held in such high regard that on some online motoring forums its low cost, light weight and famed driving experience make it the default suggestion, no matter what someone is actually looking for.

It could have been very different. Having decided to broaden its range in the mid-80s with a small lightweight sports car to slot beneath the RX-7, Mazda bosses launched an internal competition to design this new model. Three options emerged: two coupes with either a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive or front-engine, front-drive setup or a front-engine, rear-drive convertible.

1991 Mazda MX-5

  • Price when new: £14,249
  • Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
  • Power 114bhp
  • Torque: 100lb ft
  • Transmission: Five-speed manual
  • Top speed: 121mph
  • 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds

Thanks to campaigning by ex-journalist and Mazda consultant Bob Hall, who first proposed the configuration, plus positive focus group feedback the latter concept was given the nod and in 1989 the very first Mazda MX-5 made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show.

The format was simple - a compact, lightweight car with a folding fabric roof, two seats, and modest power directed from front to back via a manual transmission. Driver enjoyment and engagement were to be set above high performance.

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Over the years the MX-5 has changed shape a bit, put on some weight then lost it again, but the fundamentals set out by that 1989 NA model haven’t changed. I’ve rarely driven modern versions due to being the wrong size and shape for a compact sports car but the opportunity to sample where it all began was too good to ignore, so I sucked in my gut, folded up my legs and crammed myself into the bright red 1991 model you see in the pictures.

At less than 4m long, 1.6m wide and 1.3cm tall, the MX-5 really is tiny and tips the scales at a featherweight 955kg. You feel more like you’re wearing it than sitting in it, with the steering wheel in your lap, the high transmission tunnel tucked under your elbow and your seat pressed against the rear bulkhead. The cabin is simple and unadorned, just like the cheap British roadsters that inspired it.

Fire up the naturally aspirated 1.6-litre engine, slide the minuscule gear lever into first and pull away and you immediately feel connected to the car.

114bhp sounds like a ridiculously small amount for a sports car but, true to the design brief, it’s plenty to have fun with. It’s definitely not the quickest from a standstill but wind the twin-cam unit up and let it run all the way up to the red line and it buzzes along with a fantastically natural engine note. There’s none of the faked “sporty” noise modern cars all seem to feature, and with the hood down you can enjoy the rorty buzz from the exhaust up close and personal while the wind whips your hair. You need to keep the revs up to get the best from the little Mazda and the shift from the stubby gear lever is a touch notchy but it’s short and positive and a pleasure to flick through the ratios.

It’s not straight line speed that’s made the Mazda such an icon anyway, it’s what you can do once you get moving. Everything about it from the 50:50 weight distribution and unassisted steering to the all-round double wishbone suspension is designed to make this as lively and manoeuvrable as possible. Small inputs result in a deft change of direction and you feel everything going on beneath you - through the steering wheel and the seat around which it feels like the whole car pivots.

Car makers today would have you believe you need 20-inch alloys with foot-wide, ultra-low profile tyres to get good grip but the MX-5’s tall, skinny 14-inchers prove all you need is a lightness of touch and decent chassis setup. It leans, for sure, but in a gentle, benign kind of way and it sticks to the road unwaveringly the whole time. The MX-5 skips along a good road with an ease that other companies have been trying to replicate for 30 years and constantly encourages you to thrill in and exploit its agility.

At every turn that engagement makes the original MX-5 feel like the antithesis and antidote to modern cars. While they are overburdened with power and technology that makes them fast but robs them of involvement, the MX-5 is small, light and, most importantly, all about the interaction between you and it. It's an absolute joy to drive and more than lives up to the hype that surrounds it.