Long before I reached the age of limits imposed by clock and calendar, I voluntarily decided to limit my own exposure to traffic court by contemplating the racer’s life. Instead of terrorizing the unsuspecting streets like some teenage headless horseman, I gelded my hot-rod Monte Carlo and transformed it into a dray horse for towing a ratty, road-racing Triumph TR-4A. In singularly unimpressive sorties during the seasons of ’77 and ’78, I made an especially delible mark upon the southeastern road-racing scene. Just the same, what I failed to achieve at the finish line was compensated by an awareness I accumulated behind the wheel: Eventually, I learned how to go fast.
It has been precisely 20 years since those days when hours of grease-stained thrashing under the hood were redeemed by mere flashes of speed around the race course. Since then, the idea of going fast behind the wheel has devolved into a daily dash to make appointments; to deliver and retrieve children at appropriate times and places; and to negotiate between too many errands at too many different locations. I was unprepared, therefore, for my reaction when Mazda’s latest Miata roadster rolled into town.
The British racing green makeup should have alerted me, but it was the perfume that jerked me backwith a Proustian éclatto my days of Triumph. I no sooner opened the Miata’s mere slip of door than a waft of buttery, leathery musk ushered me back in time to an age (of mine and of a certain type of automobile) when driving was the point of it all, not just a means to an end. This tiny little carin effect a motorcycle with four wheelsmay indeed have been designed in the U.S. and assembled in Japan. But it dreams in English (British, actually), and sitting in it now, I was suddenly a part of that dream once again.
You have to be old enough to remember Paul McCartney’s original band if the names Triumph, Morris Garage (MG), Austin-Healey, and Lotus are going to mean anything to you. These were once the bright lights of the roadster scene upon which the sun of the British Empire has definitely set. I say definitely but not inexplicably, because for all of the wind-in-your-hair pleasures these cars could bestow upon their owners, they were equally capable of fomenting tear-out-your-hair tantrums. They rattled and leaked on good days; it was only on those special occasions when you were miles from any vestige of human habitation that they preferred to crap out entirely.
But you persisted in your pursuit of the loneliest back roads, because, if the baling wire held and a gasket didn’t blow, there was never such a sensation of driving’s sinuous, lyrical, rhythmic pleasures as experienced in one of these cars.
Like the Zoroastrian genie its name resembles, Mazda has put all of these innocent pleasures back into the bottle, so to speak. The Miata debuted in ’89 as a self-conscious derivative of the famed Lotus Elana rear-drive, front-engined, two-seater soft-top with near-perfect balance in handling and near-perfect pitch in its exhaust note. With two clicks and a clack, either the driver or the passenger can retract or raise the top while remaining seated.
In premium trimreferred to as the M-Editionstandard leather covers the Miata’s seats, and real walnut (fashioned by Italian auto couturier Nardi) adorns the five-speed shifter and the brake handle. A special sound system automatically re-equalizes the audio when the top is raised or lowered, and twin speakers perch within the headrests to provide ample private sound without inflicting personal musical tastes on the public at-large.
But these are the frills, if truth be told. Granted, it’s nice that the soft-top keeps every last drop of a downpour outside the cockpit while gaskets keep every last drop of oil inside the engine. Yet aside from these strategic departures from the “British experience” of 20 years ago, the Miata excels most of all at the classic driving technique I’ll call momentum driving. It’s a technique born of necessity, given the Miata’s unexceptional output of 133 horsepower. But it’s also a technique the under-powered but extra-nimble Brit cars claimed as their famous trademark during the ’60s.
Make no mistake, you can go very fast in a Miata, and doing so gives the lie to all of those voices that besmirch the car’s reputation with aspersions like “anemic acceleration” and “sluggish performance.” If you know how to driveif you’re familiar with the “M” thingthen you understand that the secret of speed is the preservation of momentum. A quick dab of the disk brakes, a flick of the wheel to turn in, then downshift heel-and-toe two times and back on the gas, holding the wheel firm to let the rear tires feather out in a slight oversteer: That’s just your first corner. Every next one is even more fun.
In essence, momentum is your capital, and spending out of capital is anathema to building speed. Driving fast in a Miata calls uponand developsa driver’s best instincts; before long, there’s no need for monster horsepower to mask and make up for precious lost speed. The Miata engages the driver in a special hand-and-eye, foot-and-brain partnership that has been missing from the highways since the last of the British ragtops roamed the roads.
The appeal for this style of driving clearly outweighs its practical sacrifices. Despite a trunk the size of a handbag and no rear seats or even a cubby, the Miata has topped 400,000 sales in its eight-year reign.
Now status-laden rivals are cropping up everywhere to challenge: BMW’s Z3, the Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes’ SLK. Their luxury-level prices perhaps explain another kind of momentum that has pushed the Miata M-Edition’s sticker beyond $25,000. Certainly no Brit car could ever have gotten away with that. Then again, only the Miata dared snatch Britain’s classic driving experience out of the jaws of oblivion to stand steadfast and solitary as the once and future roadster.
Off the floor
The voice of Gus
The next time you’re browsing after hours at the car lot, don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a disembodied voice “watching” your every move. According to Trickett Olds-Honda president Reed Trickett, the ElectroGuard company of Norcross, Ga., is touting a Big Brother-style surveillance system that actually allows live, two-way conversations with intruders at any hour of day or night. “Their promotional tape looks like Candid Camera,” says Trickett. “It even shows this drunk guy talking back to some voice from out of the blue. It’s hilarious.”
Dennis Hansen, owner of Hansen Chrysler-Plymouth, wasn’t as easily amused at first. ElectroGuard installed its system at Hansen’s dealership on Dec. 23, 1994, but accidentally crossed a voice line with a fax line. “We had a car stolen that very night while the fax tone blared overhead,” he says. Since then, Hansen credits the system with preventing any further thefts for the next 16 months. Who knows...maybe the voice of God really does sound like Gus, the ubiquitous used car salesman.
What to do, what to do...
In a special annual supplement to the enthusiast magazine AutoWeek, Nashville rates several mentions as a prime summer destination for the nation’s auto-turistas, but you get the feeling the writer “weren’t fum these here parts.” Nashville Speedway USA makes the list, of course, but the ’58 Le Mans-winning Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa that illustrates the blurb ishow to say this tactfully?just a little out of place. Meanwhile, there’s no mention at all of the Elvis and Hank Williams Jr. Cadillacs at Car Collectors Hall of Fame on Demonbreun or the combo Car-and-Wax Museum out on McGavock Pike. On the other hand, John Andretti’s Car-B-Que on nearby Music Valley Drive does manage to lend its allure to the prevailing Opryland ambience.
Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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