Recently I read it again somewhere, probably because the MX5 has arrived in it’s fourth iteration which is once again a great car collecting accolade everywhere. But however brilliant it may be it is no Elan and never will be.
Before too many run out to buy a new (or used, for that matter) MX5 let’s keep the references to Lotus Elan to a minimum, shall we? They always come up, and I think the reason is that the original Miata from 1989 to a great extent and with great explicity was strongly inspired by the Lotus Elan when it comes to the exterior design.
It was even rather well executed and actually stretched beyond the visual impression of the exterior to the important stuff that lay beneath. This was especially the case under the bonnet as the Mazda twin-cam is visually very similar to the Lotus Elan twin-cam.
This is of course neither an incident nor a bad move. On the contrary it was a stroke of genius (if that is possible to achieve by copying) by Mazda and hundreds of thousands of Miatas were sold, and the car deservedly became an instant success worldwide.
This was not the case with the Lotus Elan. It arrived in 1962 and almost ten years later the total production number had reached only 12,000 cars. However, it was then lauded as one of the world’s best sportscars, was famously more expensive than the E-type, but better on a track too.
That doesn’t sound much like a Miata, does it? Of course it doesn’t as the Elan came out of something totally different: Lotus at the time mainly built racing cars and the enterprise hadn’t even existed for ten years when they put all their knowledge and experience into a road car. Which in the end turned out rather race-minded as well, because that was their outset. As well as being expensive, seeing it was practically hand-built.
But the design objective for Mazda was very different when they started the project in the early eighties. They wanted to build a cheap sportscar. From the very beginning the engineers focused on the match between car and driver which led to the famous handling of the car. And they ARE good and stand out surprisingly well when compared to an Elan.
None the less, here is a fact that says it all: A 1989 Miata is no quicker than a Lotus Elan from 1962. That is very unusual considering the 27 year span between the two, but the explanation is simple: The Miata is not a modern day Elan. Not because Mazda couldn’t build one – as they probably could – but It would have cost at least two or three times as much. And they probably knew that price tag wouldn’t have lead to the instant worldwide success that the MX5 proved to be.
So what is the Miata then?
The answer is rather simple: It is a modern day MGB. If you compare the two and take in to account their contemporary societies and the competition, most of the numbers fit the bill. More or less. The more subjective parallels seem to fit too: The MGB became an instant success worldwide, like the MX5, because it had finely balanced handling in a stylish body and at the same time was practical, robust, well-built and reliable.
The first Miatas will soon be entitled to classic status in terms of insurance (according to Danish rules) and the car itself is rapidly gaining recognition as a youngtimer and soon-to-be classic. Understandably, because they drive as well as they always have, which has always been way better than the MGB anyway. Which is natural and understandable, considering that the car is an MGB with 27 years of car-building experience built in.
Which doesn’t make it a Lotus though, does it?
ViaRETRO bonus information: The Lotus Elan got it’s spiritual successor eventually – five years after the debut of the MX5. It was called Elise and was built by…Lotus.