An interview with:

Bob Hall

Miata.netter Dean Rinehart recently had an opportunity to ask a few questions of Bob Hall, Product Planner of the original Mazda Miata design team. Bob is currently living and working in Australia as editor of Wheels magazine.

What got you interested in Mazda as an automaker?

I always liked the cars. When I went to High School in Japan, my Japanese family had a Luce Rotary Coupe Super Deluxe, the only front-drive rotary Mazda ever built. It was pretty damn impressive. In the 70s, I had a lowered RX-3 wagon to go with my flares and sideburns. Mazda's Mr. Yamamoto was an awfully strong influence on me, too. Every time I talked with him it sort of 'recharged' me.

What helped Irvine's P-729 win out over the design from Tokyo?

Styling wise or conceptually? Well, as regards the later, I suspect the rear-drive had a certain appeal to Mazda (remember, when the ball got rolling the first-generation RX-7 was still going strong). The convertible was a double-edged sword, as Mazda's sales people in Japan were really nervous about the lack of a fixed-head version. That uneasiness lasted till very near launch time with some folks, too. But the fact that Mazda hadn't built such a car at the time might have been an enticement of sorts. Appearance of the MR2 was another plus, too, as Toyota showed the 'concept' version of the first MR2 (actually a very mildly disguised version of the production car) at the Tokyo show shortly after the three models were displayed to top Management. That probably made 'em sleep better, even though the project hadn't been approved for production at that time.

Why was Mazda so willing to do a ground-up design rather than using 323 parts as a base for the car?

I'm not altogether convinced that was the idea at the start. the first proposals were designed around the parts bin, with an eye at selling the program. The earliest concepts tossed out used the rear axle and basic suspension geometry from the original GLC - the rear drive one - with RX-7 gearboxes and a 323 turbo single-cam (a Japanese domestic power unit that pre-dated the twin cams) engine. As the project moved ahead (but still before it received production study approval) more and more of the bits from the parts bin fell off and were replaced by purpose-developed ones. Not all, mind you; the gearbox came from a 929, the differential had lineage to the 4wd 323 GTX turbo and the engine was based on the block from the 323 GTX.

What were people's reactions to the car during its 1985 Santa Barbara test drive, and how close was this prototype to the '89 debut?

Santa Barbara was interesting, if only if reinforced what I had been expecting, namely that people would go tapioca over the car. Other than the exterior design theme (the interior was appallingly bad, done by IAD in the UK and looking like a reject from the 1954 General Motors Motorama at the Waldorf Astoria), the Santa Barbara car - semi-officially the V701 proof of concept vehicle - had damn little in common with the production car. First off, it was HUGE. Track was identical to the first-generation RX-7, no surprise since the package dimensions were, in part, set by the fact it used a first-generation RX-7 rear axle. With a 1.4 litre carbureted GLC engine, performance was nothing to get hot and bothered about, either.

What was it like having your dream car come to life underneath you?

Huh? My dream car? I never worked on the Skoda 120L. No, it was a lot of people's dream car. And despite what some folks might tell you, in Japan as well as at MRA it had the same status. If the folks in Japan who developed the original and current cars weren't passionate about what they were doing, it would be apparent in the car. After all, the front end job - the ideas and the styling - is no more important than the nuts and bolts work of taking paper, clay and plastic and turning into a real car that you can drive. It's certainly the showier and more glamourous part of the business, but it's also the fluffiest part. My input especially.

Were there any features or concepts that Mazda dropped to meet price, weight, etc. that you would have liked to have seen put in the car?

You mean other than the MORONIC mechanical oil pressure lamp. That one really peeves me, and whoever came up with the idea of eliminating the real oil pressure gauge ought to be given a barbed-wire enema with a Tabasco chaser, Then neutered with a couple of bricks. What irritates me most of all is that the drone who came up with that one didn't even have the courage to take the thing out altogether. I wouldn't have liked that, but it'd be a helluva lot more honest.

Okeh, now that tirade is over. Well, I was never a big fan of the pop-up headlamps. I would have liked to have seen them out from the start (particularly the damn big 'air brakes', even if they did allow for fitting really excellent headlamps), a point that Hayashi-san - chief designer of the new car - reminded me when I chatted with him a while back. I always thought that the 1.8 was a silly idea, and that keeping the 1.6 (the real 115hp version) while adding a 2.0 litre made a lot more sense. Four piston brakes to suit would be nice, but with all this in, we'd probably be talking close to 20kilodollars base. No, the one feature that I really thought they should have left on the car were the front and rear valance extensions. Thank God for MMA, however, since they offered the things as an accessory. May still do so, too. They got pulled from the car to make shipping easier and to ensure that the front ramp angle would be reasonably friendly to deep driveways. No, that's the only thing I wish they'd left on the car.

Could any other carmaker have produced the Miata successfully?

Well, I guess if it cost a few thousand more, sounded like a regular economy hatchback and wasn't too much fun to drive, sure. No problem. Why even Hyundai could do that. But I guess it would hardly be a Miata then, right?

Now that BMW, Porsche, and Mercedes (we won't talk about the Capri...) have put out fine contenders for the two-seater convertible market, where do you see the Miata in automotive history? Fore-runner? Re-inventor?

In the giant scheme of things, I suspect the Miata sits in the same place as, say, a Benz Patentwagen, Ford Model T, VW Beetle, BMC Mini or Ford Mustang. Not as an 'icon', mind you, but rather as a car that was fortunate enough to come along at just the right time and be exactly what a reasonably large slice of the public wanted. Timing, and therefore luck, is an essential part of the automotive or any business, and the Miata was blessed by timing almost as good as the people who developed it. If you have to attribute some major descriptor to the Miata as regards what it did in/to the marketplace, I suspect you could call it a 'wake-up call' to the auto industry. Less to build new sports cars (though that's obviously how some companies saw it) than how to develop new product. But that part's been lost on most car makers, as they continue to bumble their way from platform to platform. Even Mazda's slipping into that pit again. Cars have changed radically in the last fifty years, but the manner in which cars are developed hasn't kept up with the changes. A lot of people think that shortening development times and investing in some heavy-duty simultaneous engineering is the way of the future, but that's only part of the picture - the cost control side. But when all makers have similar costs and quality (the way the industry is converging) cost control is not the all-important item it once was. To differentiate your product from a competitors, you need product that will create the basic appeal that the Miata has and all cars will need in the next century. And that can't come from 'brand management'.

Hey, and why not talk about the Capri? Some folks may think of me as a traitor, but I like the Capri, particularly in the last version. I think the poor Capri's taken a lot of lumps for no reason. Miata owners shouldn't look down their collective noses at it since it's no more a sports car than a red 1991 Nissan Sentra 2-door sedan is. If anything, it's a Nissan Sentra/Toyota Corolla alternative that has the benefit of being a convertible. To me the Capri and the Miata were complementary, not competitive vehicles. And don't forget that most Capri owners are potential Miata owners, particularly of used Miatas. Of course there are a few owners who think their Capri is a sports car. Such hapless individuals are obviously diseased. Almost as much as owners of four-cylinder Z3s.

I hear you don't currently own a Miata. What year and color would you buy if you were to purchase one today? What do you think you would name it?

Well, regardless of whether it was a new one or a 116hp 1.6, it'd be Mariner Blue. If I could get a new car in Mariner Blue, it'd be in the garage in however long it would take to build the thing and get it here from Hiroshima. I like the original car (a 1991 would probably be my first choice if I could find a tidy one), but Kijima-san's 1999 effort is awfully special. I think it'd be the '99. As for naming, that's the reserve of WifeKaren. She usually favors things like 'Heathcliffe'...

What are your impressions of the Miata aftermarket (turbos, bodykits, etc.)?

My mother told me that I should never use that kind of language in public. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of forced induction for Otto cycle engines, be it from a turbo or a positive-displacement supercharger. If I lived at more than 2500m altitude, I suspect I'd have another opinion, but with the sea-level existence I and most potential Miata owners live at, just say 'no' to blowers. First off, I think the car really starts to go off the boil with more than about 170hp. Michael Jordan of Automobile Magazine summed it up so well when he said "If you can't go fast on 90hp, 900 won't help you". There are some people who want the fastest Miata they can have, and are even willing to drop a bent eight under the hood. That's fine with me. But what they want isn't a Miata, but rather a Cobra with wind-up windows that just happens to looks like a Miata.

Body kits? Well, I think that less is more. The previously mentioned valence/fascia extension and some 16inch wheels are about as far as I think you need to go. Or maybe I should say as far as I'd need to go. And nobody (repeat, NOBODY) has done a nice rear deck spoiler for the original or new car. Not a X#!*&?!# wing, but a nice, subtle lip spoiler.

What sports car of the past do you believe the Miata most closely recreates? Or does it set its own standard?

I honestly don't think the Miata 'recreates' any previously built car. It was (and in latest form continues to be) a distillation of basic sports car virtues, updated into a package that works in the 1990s. Has anyone sitting in an MGB ever wondered if it wasn't just an updating of the philosophy behind, say, a 1926 Salmson Model D? I suspect not, even though that's arguably what it is. All cars have been influenced by those which have come before, since the automobile business doesn't exist in a vacuum for anyone. As for setting it's own standard, I don't think so. Rather the Miata fits the standards of nearly half a million hopefully happy owners. That's why it works.

Copyright 1998, Eunos Communications

08 March, 1998