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Miata, Born in the USA, Fulfills Dream For American Designers

August 21, 1989

IRVINE, Calif. (AP) _ Bob Hall was a rebel without a car.

Hall longed for a stylish, affordable convertible that would recapture the sheer driving fun offered by British sports cars of the past. One, he says, with a ″soul.″

But Britain wasn’t making them anymore. Detroit wouldn’t. It seemed unlikely that Hall’s bosses at Mazda, the Japanese automaker, would take a gamble on such a car.

Hall’s dream machine, however, came true: the Mazda MX5 Miata. The two-seat ragtop with smooth-flowing lines is drawing raves from car critics and eager customers willing to pay thousands over its list price.

″I am not suprised that it has gone over very well. I am surprised by the intensity of the reaction,″ Hall said.

He explains its impact in emotional terms: ″It’s a feeling car. It feels like it’s doing everything correctly. It works on your soul, maybe because it has a soul.″

Hall, 36, Mazda’s product planning manager here, and assistant chief designer Mark Jordan, 35, have both been pulled over by police while taking early spins in the peppy Miata - but only for reviews.

″How do you like the car?″ an officer shouted to Jordan after drawing alongside. ″I’ve got one on order.″

Hall credits similar enthusiasm among his Mazda colleagues in Japan and America with helping to persuade company management to build the car.

It was in the late 1970s, while Hall was working as a writer for an auto publication, that he first suggested to a Mazda executive that the firm consider making an affordable sports car similar to a Triumph or an Austin- Healy.

″I was raised in these quality bits of British workmanship. My father owned a bunch of sports cars, and he would throw us in the back seat. I remember the wind blasting through my hair,″ said Hall.

He was hired in 1981 at Mazda’s North American research and development facility in Irvine, 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, and started lobbying from within.

″Anytime anyone would come from Japan, I would get on the soapbox and talk to them about it,″ said Hall.

Mazda executives gradually came around, Hall said. Backing the decision was research material compiled by colleague Jim Kilbourne showing that an American and international market existed for a two-seater.

Hall and Jordan say they wanted to produce a car that combined British style and driving allure with Japanese reliability and value.

But, they say, they knew there had to to be something more intangible.

″It’s not just a car people are buying. They’re buying a philosophy, a little emotional statement,″ Hall said.

″The car has to be a kick-in-the-stomach car; a people-will-either-hate- it-o r-love-it car. You don’t make anything that’s really worthwhile if you make it so everybody likes it.″

Hall said he thinks that’s why the Miata, despite its instant appeal to Americans, didn’t roll off an American assembly line.

″Detroit is in Detroit, and therein lies the problem,″ he said. He recalled a conversation in which the chairman of one of the big three automakers, whom he wouldn’t identify, asked him, ″ ‘When are people in California going to wise up and stop buying funny little cars?’ ″

″A lot of decisionmakers have the feeling that if the market isn’t buying what they’re making, the market is wrong,″ Hall said.

He and Jordan, who both have relatives working as auto designers in Detroit, say they know the idea has been proposed there, thus far without success.

Those who worked on the Miata have high praise for what they view as Mazda’s adventurous spirit.

″The Miata, from the concept that a bunch of wild-eyed Americans had in ’83 to what you can buy today, there’s not a single compromise,″ said Norm Garrett, a layout engineer for the Miata project who now works for Volvo-GM Heavy Truck Corp. in Greensboro, N.C.

Jordan said the Miata offers the sports car classic formula: a front- engine, rear-wheel drive configuration and a convertible to get that ″sun in the face, wind in the hair feeling.″

Toshiko Hirai, the Miata project manager in Japan, ″made sure the car got through with the purity that we had on paper. And that’s so seldom how the auto industry works,″ Jordan said.

The designers and engineers in Japan even recorded and analyzed the sound of 200 sports car exhaust systems to get just the right pitch for the car, he said.

All that fervor, he says, has produced a treat for drivers - and for him.

″People appreciate it. That’s my payback; seeing all the gents and the cute-looking girls out for a spin.″

End adv for Sunday Aug. 20

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