When it went into production at the end of the 1980s, the NA Mazda MX-5 was effectively a modern reinvention of a long-dead automotive genre: the lightweight British sports car. A brand new, up-to-date Lotus Elan/Triumph Spitfire/MG Midget but with Japanese reliability, enormous sales success was always going to follow.
The beginnings of the Mazda ‘MX’ car, however, looked firmly to the future. Nearly a decade prior to the MX-5’s launch, Mazda showed the world its first-ever MX - the MX-81 Aria. Although it was based on the humble 323, the Aria was positively alien elsewhere, featuring huge glass panels down the sides plus smooth and slippery body panels.
It was stranger still on the inside, with a conventional steering wheel eschewed for an odd rectangle with a tracked belt going around the edge and a TV screen stuffed in the middle. Oh, and some very 80s brown and beige interior trim. We’re particularly digging that diamond pattern on the swivelling seats.
Concept cars aren’t always preserved - Mazda’s much later 626 MPS show car, for instance, was broken up for parts years ago, we learned a few weeks back. The Aria thankfully survived, and we have ex-ND MX-5 programme manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto to thank for its rediscovery. He stumbled upon the MX-81 in 2019, where it was gathering dust but otherwise intact in a warehouse in Fuchizaki district.
Since Italian styling house Bertone was responsible for the original design, Mazda decided to send the Aria ‘home’ to Italy, where Mazda Italy had it thoroughly restored to its original condition by SuperStile. The MX-81 has been revealed in its refreshed state for the first time outside Milan Cathedral, recreating the original press pack images nearly 40 years after the car’s debut.
Although the MX sub-brand took a very different route once the MX-3, MX-5 and MX-6 came along, the 81 still went on to have some production relevance. Mazda lists high-mounted taillights and pop-up headlights as two design elements that’d eventually reach the showroom. Thankfully, that bonkers steering wheel concept was left alone.
The MX-81’s follow-ups came with plenty of radical touches too. 1983’s MX-02 had rear-wheel steering and a head-up display, the MX-03 of 1985 had a triple-rotor engine and a streamlined 0.25Cd body, and finally, the 1987 MX-04 had removable panels in case you wanted to turn the thing into a beach buggy for some reason.
And then, of course, came the production MX-5, which seems utterly ordinary compared to its concept predecessors. If anything, the old Aria shares a lot more in common with the newest MX - the MX-30. With quirky details including RX-8-like suicide doors and an optional rotary engine range extender, it’s another car that showcases Mazda’s insistence on thinking a little differently.