Car enthusiasts around the world recognize the first-generation Mazda Miata as an icon. Its shape, a smoothed-over ‘90s rendition of classic ‘60s British roadsters, remains one of the most friend-shaped cars ever built. Sadly, the man who brought us that shape, Shunji Tanaka, passed away earlier this month at the age of 75.
The origins of the Miata’s design are well-known. The car was the result of a design competition between Tokyo and California, with the Californian team’s design eventually seeing production. That concept, however, still had to be translated into a roadworthy vehicle design — that’s where Tanaka came in.
Tanaka was Chief Designer on the production Miata, tasked with transforming the American concept into a drivable Japanese car. He called the final design “dynamic and original, yet distinctly Japanese in its origin” when asked in an interview with Brian Long for the book Mazda MX-5 Miata. Tanaka likened the design process to that of a Noh mask, saying:
“Every time I take up a chisel to create a Noh mask, I always respect the traditional simplicity and perfect curves which have been handed down over the centuries. Many different feelings and wishes are held within the mask, their appearance depending on the light and changing shadows. It is very characteristic of the Japanese, and completely different from the Western notion of expressing perfection concretely.
“I also wanted to enclose the rhythms - peace, motion, and silence which exist in the Japanese heart, into the form of the sports car. For peace, looked towards a statue of the Goddess of Mercy for inspiration, a truly graceful symbol. For motion, I thought of a wild animal when it’s hunting, running fast and accurate, and for silence, the tranquility of nature. I wanted the car to melt into the scenery, reflecting the light over its curved surfaces.
Tanaka’s passing was announced in a simple Facebook post, according to CarBuzz. His creation, the Miata, lives on.