Thursday, November 06, 2008

M-Day

I once went to a new car show and, happening upon a Mazda Miata display and noting it surrounded by middle-aged men, remarked loudly, "Look! It's the Mazda Mid-Life Crisis!" For years I told the story, chortling at my own wittiness, laughing at their embarassment.

Oh, the callousness of youth! Never once did I stop to think that perhaps there was something more to it than an attempt to recapture some lost spark of vitality in their middle-aged lives. But lo, I have since repented of my ways, and tomorrow I am flying from Texas to Florida to pick up a Miata of my very own.

An Australian friend of mine once said, "Leave it to the Japanese to perfect the British roadster." How right he was!

There is nothing quite like the British roadster. The driving experience is unparalleled: the wind whips through your hair as the car roars down narrow country lanes, its exhaust note rising above the breeze while the little car takes the curves with remarkable poise and precision. Ask anyone who has ever spent time in an MG, or a Triumph, or a Sunbeam, or an Austin-Healey, or a Lotus - all will tell you of the experience in terms that are positively glowing.

If only the headlights were too.

For the mechanical experience is also unparalleled. Let us start, if we can, with the electrical systems, supplied by Lucas, Prince of Darkness. The jokes are innumerable (why do the British drink warm beer? Because Lucas makes the refrigerators), and let us not forget the Lucas three-position switch (Dim, Flicker, and Short.) But of course those were far from the only problems; the cars often enjoyed all the build quality one might expect from British Leyland, a government-owned auto industry plagued with labor unrest. Their owners, however, did not enjoy it one bit. As Jeremy Clarkson has said, British Leyland products suffered from "hopeless design, shoddy workmanship, and Biblical unreliability."

Yes, there is nothing quite like the British roadster - and for that we should all give thanks.

But then along came Mazda. Actually, along came an American automotive journalist named Bob Hall, who, when asked by Mazda managing director Kenichi Yamamoto in 1979 what kind of cars Mazda should be building, answered that an affordable open sports car would be just the thing. Two years later, Hall was working for Mazda, and in 1989 the first Miata went on sale: an affordable open sports car whose driving experience is said to be based on the concept of Jinbai Ittai - "horse and rider as one" - and whose mechanical experience is based on the concept of working on both even- and odd-numbered days. It is a formula which blends the best of both worlds - the British driving experience, the Japanese mechanical experience - and it has been a stunning success: to date, Mazda has sold more than 800,000 Miatas.

And tomorrow, I will buy one of them. It is a white 1997 base model with power nothing: the locks, windows, and steering are all manual. The car does have air conditioning, a $900 option that year. It is as elemental as a car can be, and in an era when cars are loaded with every luxury imaginable - from DVD-based navigation systems to heads-up displays, from heated steering wheels to massaging seats - it is a breath of fresh air. It is a simple car, asking little, offering much. I can't wait.