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September 9, 2019

The Universality of Design

The day before its global reveal, the fourth-generation MX-5’s chief designer, Masashi Nakayama was nervous. While he was confident that his design will be well-received by the public, it had to pass muster with who could be his biggest critic: Tom “Tsutomu” Matano.

Once Mazda’s chief designer, Matano is one of fathers of the MX-5 sportscar. When the first-generation roadster was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989, he admits that at the time, they were all sailing in uncharted waters. Yet, similar to how the rotary-engined Cosmos 110S guaranteed Mazda’s independence in the 1960s, the company knew they had to build the MX-5—only this time, they didn’t know if it would sell.

No one knew if the world would be receptive to the idea of a lightweight, two-seater open-top sportscar once again. After all, it’s been close to 30 years since its heyday in the 1960s. Yet, Matano understood its appeal.

“Everyone in the team had a roadster—a Lotus, MG, Alfa Romeo, or what have you” he recalls. “Mine always leaked so I never bothered to put the top up. But for all its troubles, it was enjoyable. I always liked how the winter chill hits your face when you drive off, or how the sun hits your skin on a bright day. It was better at waking me up than a cup of coffee.”

It’s this sense of pure, unadulterated driving fun that Matano imbued the MX-5 with, and it’s for this reason why he says its appeal is universal.

“One thing I realized going around the world all these years is that no one sees the MX-5 as merely a ‘Japanese sportscar’,” says Matano. “It’s embraced the world over, whether you’re in America, Asia, or Europe. It has become part of their culture.”

The MX-5’s universality is the greatest reason why Mazda refuses to mess with the formula—a formula that consists of four basic ingredients: a car that’s light and compact as possible; a cockpit that seats two with no wasted space; a front-engine, rear-wheel drive platform with a 50/50 weight distribution; and independent suspension all around.

True enough, as the world took in the MX-5 on show stand, Matano already worked on a road map that covered the next 20 years. With that, he insisted on a carefully-evolved design that centered on form rather than graphics.

“The typical Japanese way was to show design through details like grille and headlights,” explains Matano. “What I wanted was to communicate it with form. Even when it was covered up, you know exactly that it’s an MX-5. And this is something that transcends every generation from the first to the third-generation.”

When Matano was told that Mazda was pursuing a fourth-generation MX-5 in 2016, it was the first time the carmaker was going to write a chapter outside his carefully crafted plan.

“They could have done something modern, or they could have gone retro,” says Matano. “Either way, I told Nakayama that I wanted to see the car. I told them I don’t have a good poker face, and the last thing you want people to see is my enthused reaction. So, he obliged and shows me the car. My first reaction then was: Mazda has gotten it right.”

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