I think maybe the reason I keep trying to push my terrible ideas onto car companies is that there was once a time when a journalist's crazy idea actually became reality. The journalist was Motor Trend's Bob Hall, and the car was the Miata. But it wasn't always sure what that Miata would be.
The genesis for the Miata seems to have come from a few casual remarks Hall made to some of Mazda's R&D guys. Hall was fluent in Japanese, so he was able to say the following without resorting to crude pantomime or scribbled sculptures made out of mashed potatoes:
I babbled [...] how the [...] simple, bugs-in-the-teeth, wind-in-the-hair, classically-British sports car doesn't exist any more. I told Mr. Yamamoto that somebody should build one [...] inexpensive roadster.
There was even a chalkboard sketch involved, too, which makes any story better:
Years later, in 1982, Hall ended up working for Mazda, and was eventually told he could pursue his bonkers old-school roadster idea after-hours. The "light-weight sports" concept eventually grew into a competition between Tokyo and California design teams.
And that's what I want to focus on here: the three concepts that the two design teams proposed. They're interesting because they really represent every major approach to sporty car design at the time: the traditional front-engine/rear-drive, the front engine/front drive formula that would likely have been the cheapest and easiest for Mazda to actually make, and the more exotic mid-rear/rear drive design.
The California team worked on the front engine/rear drive concept, while the Tokyo team worked up the mid and FWD ones. All, of course, were red. Let's look at these three Ur-Miatas:
Here's the front engine/front driver. It reminds me a bit of the Buick Reatta, which, honestly, isn't a bad thing. It would have made a handsome little sporty coupe, and Mazda was already used to making FWD drivetrains by the boatload, so the development would have been pretty cheap.
Still, it's hard not to see this and think that, if this was the way they'd gone, we'd all now be trying to remember if it was a Miata or a Paseo that our hot 9th-grade Spanish teacher drove. And we wouldn't have seen one in years.
The mid-engine design has more than a little Fiero about it, and maybe even a little bit of the Karmann Cheetah concept, too. I'm sure this thing would have been a blast, handled great, as you'd expect a mid-engine car to be, but it also would have hit the same usability and maintenance challenges of a mid-engine car.
This Miata would have ended up an awful lot like another Japanese little mid-gutted fun car, the MR2. I like this concept a lot, though I'm not really surprised it wasn't picked.
So while the Toyko teams seem to have opted for the extremes of difficulty and ease, exotic and common, the American team neatly rode right down the middle by selecting the front engine/rear drive layout. This layout was the one most commonly used by the cars that inspired the Miata in the first place — the Bugeye Sprite, Triumph Spitfire, MGB, all those wonderful and temperamental old Brits.
The layout allowed for better handling than the FWD car while giving room for a usable trunk, unlike the mid-engine car. The longitudinal engine could be placed front-mid, for close to 50/50 weight distribution. There's all kinds of good reasons for why the FR Miata one.
But Travis told me he always heard it came down to one big detail. The California concept (called Duo 101) could do this:
Go topless. The other concepts had fixed hardtops. The decision was made.
In hindsight, it seems like the right one. But I'd still kind of like one of those mid-engined ones, too.