Since its introduction in 1989, the Miata has shown the automotive world what a minimalistic sports car can truly be. More recently, the Miata has turned 25 years old, breaking the threshold of classic prestige as possibly one of the most important sports car to date.
The First Generation Miata
25 years ago, a Japanese compact two-seat convertible roadster made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show. It featured a front-mounted 116 horsepower, 1.6-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission, double-wishbone suspension at all four corners, front and rear sway bars, and four-wheel disk brakes. The headlights were retractable, it had a ragtop that could be pulled with one hand and a spartan interior. While the feature list was relatively barren, the introductory price was a reasonable $14,000 (about $27k in 2014 dollars), and the European "flavor" of the Miata was unmistakable.
This first-generation car was an instant hit, as it tapped into a market that many people loved (sporty and compact European roadsters) without all the accompanying reliability problems. The Miata was a driver's car - a lightweight and fun drop-top that begged to be pushed, yet affordable and accessible to the general public. By 1992, Mazda had sold 250,000 Miatas around the world, a staggering figure when you consider how small the market is for sports coupes.
The first-gen (code NA) Miata was (and is) the quintessential Miata. Fun and sporty, yet not so powerful as to get drivers into trouble, and not so expensive that the average person can't afford one. (Learn about Miata replacement parts here.)
The Second Generation - Evolution Or Loss Of Character?
The Miata was revamped in 1994, adding a 140 horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a limited-slip differential option for the U.S. and Japanese markets. This helped to address one of the earliest criticisms of the Miata (lack of power) without altering the NA's essential character.
The second-generation Miata, code NB, made its appearance at the Tokyo Auto Show in 1997 and was released in 1998. The newly designed Miata now had a more powerful 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that featured Mazda’s new Variable Intake Control System, bigger front and rear sway bars, and larger wheels and brakes while maintaining its independent double-wishbone suspension. It shared vague cosmetic characteristics of the third-generation RX-7, but one very notable difference made the most impact—the headlights were now fixed due to their failure to pass pedestrian safety tests.
While critics loved the NBs increased sportiness and overall abilities as a track car, these enhancements came at a price. The asking price of the second-gen car jumped to nearly $20k in 1998, or nearly $30k in 2014 dollars. This change was significant, as crossing the $20k price barrier had the symbolic effect of making the car less of a value.
While the 2nd generation car was without a doubt more capable on the track than the 1st gen car, it lost some of its fun and affordable character with all the upgrades. Not to mention, the decision to drop the pop-up headlights for an integrated headlamp design changed the car's look considerably.
The Third Generation - Refining The Brand
If the second-generation NB Miata was more capable, the third-generation NC was more refined. The independent double-wishbone suspension found on the first two generations was replaced with a front wishbone and rear multilink assembly, changing the car's ride for the better without dramatically impacting handling. The NC was available with a long list of refinements, from stability and traction control to a folding hardtop to a nicely improved interior. Boasting more power than ever with a new 170 horsepower 16-valve 2.0-liter engine, the NC Miata was the "grown-up" version of the MX-5.
Of course, like all sports coupes that survive for more than a few years, the third-gen Miata saw steadily declining sales in the face of increased competition and the commoditization of the Miata's brand and image. It wasn't "new" or "hot" any longer, and buyers haven't been as eager to get their hands on one. But the t-shirts are still popular.
The Most Collectible Miata Is...
Once all is said in done, it’s hard to resist the complete package of the first-generation Miata. While 2nd and 3rd gen models offered more power and/or refinement, the first generation Miata will always shine for its simplistic approach to driving that emphasized raw fun, as well as its classic lines and pop-up headlamps. Therefore, it seems likely that early examples of the NA Miata will definitely have value with collectors in the decades to come.
What's more, original R-Package Miatas from the mid-'90s (which featured a variety of performance upgrades) are likely to be quite popular with collectors, and it's hard to find an R-package that hasn't been modified and raced. Special editions of the 2nd and 3rd generation Miatas are likely to have more value than standard trim levels, but it's hard to know for sure. If history is any guide, "special edition" cars that mostly feature unique badging or trim aren't worth much of a premium.
Finally, it's important to note that the collector market for Miatas is likely to be global. The car is quite popular in Japan and Europe, so it's a very good idea to pay attention to currency shifts and the global economy. Don't be surprised if the US market for collectible Miatas is pushed by demand overseas in the years to come.
And the Miata isn't the only Mazda that some deem collectible. Check out this article on the MX-6.
NOTE: This article does not constitute financial advice or an investment recommendation. Do not invest in any vehicle without understanding the risks.