Spurred on by an idea that came from an American automotive journalist, Mazda spent the better part of the 1980s trying to cook up the perfect revival of the classic British roadster, the MX-5 Miata. But that road had a few interesting detours along the way.
This is the 1987 Mazda MX-04 Concept. It almost looks like a Miata, doesn't it? Like it's getting there? It's close, but it also does things very differently than the final version. Namely, modular body panels that made it three cars in one.
(Welcome to Long Lost Concept Cars, a new semi-regular series on Fridays where we highlight amazing concepts from years past that never made it to production — but maybe should have.)
As we celebrate the Miata's 25th birthday, now seems like an appropriate time to look back on one of the stranger cars that led to its genesis.
When I think of the MX-04, I like to think of some Mazda pitchman at an auto show hyping it up like a the host of a TV commercial for a hair removal cream or earwax vacuuming device on late-night cable television:
"That's right! Not one, not two, but three two-seat sports cars in one! A deal you'll only find from Mazda, and only if you call in the next 45 minutes! But wait — there's MORE! If you look under the hood of the MX-04 concept... you'll find a rotary engine, folks! It SPINS!"
At this point you're enthralled, rapt with attention at the wonderful thing the pitchman has shown you, positive this invention will change your life for the better. But you have a question: How does it turn into three different cars?
Modular body panels, that's how! The idea was that by adding or subtracting different body panels, you could turn the MX-04 into a open-top roadster, a roofed coupe, or a totally stripped-down sports car sort of like an Ariel Atom. Modular cars have existed (mostly in concept form) for decades, and this was one of the more interesting ones to come along.
Plus, it's an early, gonzo prototype take on the car that's the answer to everything. What's not to love?
What was it? A two-seat sports car concept that debuted at the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show. There had been MX-02 and MX-03 concepts before this one, but the MX-04 was most similar to the MX-5 Miata in development at the time. (Those other two cars look like they had at least some influence on later, other Mazda cars.) By removing and adding different panels, it could transform into other cars.
What were the specs? Front engine, rear-wheel drive, with fiberglass removable body panels. Under the hood, when there was one, sat a 150 horsepower rotary engine, likely pulled from the contemporary RX-7.
What else made it special? According to Brian Long's book Mazda MX-5 Miata: The Book of the World's Favourite Sportscar, the MX-04 concept shared suspension features later seen on the Miata like unequal length upper and lower arms, and the backbone chassis of both cars were developed by the same guy. Neat!
What did it look like on the inside? Most importantly, it had three pedals and a stick, like a proper Mazda should. The interior is pretty bare-bones compared to the rest of the car, but it had some neat features too. This Orlando Sentinel article said the MX-04 had a hands-free phone, "safety monitor for vital systems," and a tach that spun up to 12,000 RPM.
Did it actually run? Maybe? It had a real engine under the hood.
Was it ever planned for production? No clue. I'm guessing not, as the MX-5 was already in development at the time.
Should it have been produced? I love the idea of the modular body panels, and I really wish we would see that idea on more production cars. But for the MX-04 I'm kind of leaning toward no. It kind of goes against the spirit of the Miata, which is a simple, bare-bones, open-top sports car. You start making that more complex and you lose the plot.
Then again, as I have written before, bubble-era Mazda was batshit crazy, so maybe they could have made their neat modular rotary sports car in addition to the Miata and the RX-7.
Hey, if they could somehow justify production of a mid-engine gullwing kei car, why the hell couldn't they do it for this thing?