PROFILES: 1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club Racer

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It’s highly unorthodox, at the debut of a new model, to also display a hot rod version painted in a yellow so loud it threatens to eclipse the supposed star of your show. This is especially true when the debut in question is for as important and high-profile a model as the Mazda MX-5 Miata. It’s like throwing a bikini-clad Kate Upton into the middle of a Mother of the Year ceremony.

But in fact, that is exactly what Mazda did 25 years ago with the 1989 Club Racer, an ur-Miata to give showgoers a peek at what trick mods were possible for their new sportster. However, the Club Racer is more than just a pretty face; it’s one of the only surviving pre-production NA Miatas, and a close look reveals a host of design details that never made it into production. 

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I first saw the Club Racer when it made the auto show rounds after its Chicago debut. As a certified Miata nut, I noticed several quirks that set it apart from the standard version, leading me to believe it was actually a pre-production prototype.

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I saw it again in 1995 at a Sacramento Miata event, and while its minders had their heads turned I took it upon myself to pop the hood and do a little snooping. My suspicions were confirmed as quickly as I was told to step away from the vehicle.

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Mazda never mentioned anything about the car. They just showed a bunch of publicity photos. It wasn’t until this year, when we were at Mazda R&D headquarters documenting the three ultra-low-VIN production cars, that I was finally able to get my grubby paws all over it.

Clues to its production status were visible right there in the cockpit to anyone with a keen eye. And now, we finally have the opportunity to compare it, side by side, with not just a stock Miata, but one of the most stock NAs in the entire country, serial number 00015. Brace yourselves as we get into super otaku mode.

The most glaring difference shows up in the door panels. Originally, Mazda intended them to be much fancier, with heat stamp pattern called the “paperclip” internally. The window cranks also receives its own pattern, and the door handle is in an entirely different location.

Slipping behind the wheel, you’ll notice that the gauge clusters are subtly different. The production car adds a “headlight on” indicator, a cleaner oil pressure gauge, better kerning and a additional assorted markings.

Here’s an interesting aside: The steering wheel is a period late 80s MOMO Monte Carlo with red stitching, at a time when you could order them in myriad  colors and stitch patterns. A few years later Honda tuning house Spoon would commission another run of these as the very famous and equally pricey Spoon Sports MOMO steering wheel.

The Center console and coin holder are also slimmer in the production car. In fact, all the plastics in the Club Racer are smoother, with less molded grain, as is typical of prototype cars.

The cowl on the Club Racer has more vents that were removed when the car went to production.

The production Miata’s differential cover has more defined forms. Ignore the blue paint though; certain parts were colored at some point, likely as part of a display highlighting the Miata’s suspension.

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The real evidence, however, is beneath the hood that I peeked under almost 20 years ago. Most notably, there is no VIN stamped on the firewall. The VIN plate itself is screwed on and blank, and what’s more, the pre-production car began life in red!

What’s more, the front engine cover is from that of a Mazda 323 GTX of that era. In fact, as I recall even the valve cover was the GTX’s ribbed one, but it must have gotten swapped somewhere along the way.

Looking at number 15 and the Club Racer side by side, you can see the evolution taking place. Each pre-pro part had a sticker declaring “SAMPLE” on it. Everything in the engine bay is just a bit cruder, from hoses to housings to its primitive exhaust shield. To hold its fixed headlights in place, there is — and this is an official term used in advanced automotive engineering — a block of wood.

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In our scrutiny of the Club Racer’s ever detail, we noticed one more thing that has probably never been discovered. Before it was yellow, it was blue. Perhaps it was used as a color test, or maybe the original spec for the show car was an intense azure rather than solar flare. There are a few more secrets we discovered but we’d have to kill you if we told you.

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In the end, we feel that the final guise was appropriate. Japanese tuning styles had not yet been accepted in mainstream America yet, so what you see is a very American interpretation of what a Miata street machine would be. Rod Millen later built one very similar to this, sans flares but just as yellow, to serve as his turbo Miata demo car.

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Finished in a bright pearl yellow emblematic of the early 90s, it’s a snapshot of tuning styles the time. It still rides on the same 15-inch Panasports (painted yellow to match, of course) and Yokohama AVS tires (205/50 R15 front, 255/45 R15 rear) from 25 years ago. An aero-fied body with flared fenders, integrated skirts, Vitaloni Sebring mirrors and ridiculously heavy fiberglass spoiler give it that smoothed out look that was so popular at the time.

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In any case, Mazda made a bold move to put the show stealer next to its production car. Except, it didn’t really steal the show. A quarter century on, it is the original production car that’s revered throughout the auto-verse while the outrageous street machine is largely forgotten. Perhaps it’s because the Club Racer was too “of its moment” and, like all trends, looks dated after 25 years. Or perhaps the explanation is simpler. Mazda’s zoomy little sports car, unadorned and basic as it was, is just that damn good.

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12 Responses to PROFILES: 1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club Racer

  1. Dave said:

    Wow, this is awesome!!! I had no idea the provenance of this car, very interesting. I love its door panel, especially the circle around the window crank. A bit stylized, but I love it! By contrast, I’m glad the production version ended up the way it was. Simple, functional, classic. And I hadn’t noticed until now how the inside door handle’s shape echoes the outside one. Looks like it does have a VIN from the key tag? I ran it thru a decoder, and the 0 at the 12th digit is another clue that it was a pre-production car.

  2. vincenzol said:

    I had always wondered if there was some kind of Racing Beat connection with this car since the Miata aero parts they offered during that time period looked almost identical. Especially that front end and those mirrors. I lusted for those aero mirrors big time when I finally got my Miata back in 1998. It was an early 1990 model and I finally learned how to counter steer while in a slide in that car. I was 22 at the time and in the three previous FC’s I owned I hadn’t mastered a drift but somehow in the Miata I could pull it off. Must have been the slower speed I was carrying and the fact that I would hydroplane (I had the car quite low on GAB struts and Ground Control coilovers) over the slightest bit of standing water. Plus it was around the winter of El Nino. Wish I would have kept that car. Maybe I would have if I only had a set of those aero mirrors!

  3. Lupus said:

    The Club Miata is awsome. Even through i’m not a Mazdafarian i really apriciate it’s period style. Those where the times…
    When we are around MX-5, can You guys mąkę a article about the Spec Miatas? If it weren’t the Gran Turismo 2 i wouldn’t be even aware of the existance of A-, B- and C-Spec. I know something about the A-Spec ver of FD – the so called “Touring Kit”. What was the purpose of these versions and the production volume? It’s damn hard to dig any info about them.

    • Dave said:

      “Touring Kit” was simply the name Mazdaspeed marketed its line of accessories under, mostly in Japan, and most prominently seen on the body kits. The A-, B-, C-, etc. Spec kits referred to different designs. Sometimes they’re fairly mild upgrades, other times with more drastic changes in looks. For instance, the original A-Spec kit for the FD had a totally different nose with big driving lights reminiscent of Mazda’s early Le Mans prototype racers. The *complete* kit can also entail upgrades in the drivetrain, suspension, etc. (e.g. the phone dial MS-02 rims is part of the FD A-Spec package), but all can be bought piecemeal. Occasionally the letters actually mean something; the late type FD had an R-Spec kit that was meant to incorporate things learned from the JGTC race car, and I think “A” stood for “Advanced.” Mazdaspeed made a full line of such accessories for all Mazda vehicles, from MPV to RX-7. Little of it made it to the US officially, mostly notable exception being pieces for RX-8. Genuine pieces of these kits are becoming harder to find, especially for older models.

      This is not to be confused with “Spec Miata,” which is the one-model racing series in which everyone drives the same model of car. Also not to be confused with the SCCA B-spec racing, which is a series for cars like the Mazda2, Honda Fit, etc.

  4. Fantastic article. Thanks JNC!

    Other differences I noticed:
    The opening in the prototype tombstone for the HVAC control is square vs rounded/square on the production model.

    The HVAC slider and fan panel have small differences. Easiest to see is the fan control. Factory reads 1-4. The prototype has little dots to indicate fan speed, growing from small to large.

    The prototype dash seems to be… fluffier. Like the dash top is fully covered in vinyl or leather. See the shine and rounded corner above the side window defroster vents? The dash seems softer than the factory plastic NA6 one. And check out the crash pad to the left of the gauges – seems extra fluffy to match the candy coating on the dash top.

    The handbrake on the prototype car seems coated in… something? Leather? That might be a “tuner option” like the radio delete gauge pack, but I’m not sure. I’ve not seen an aftermarket brake boot ever fit like that.

    Do the gauges on the prototype have a FRONT LIGHT in the top of the cluster bezel? Some cars of the late 80s had that. Both a small front light in the top and standard back lighting on the gauges.

    (also, different redline styles, red ticks on fuel and coolant, presence of FUEL, OIL-P, and TEMP on the small gauges, and of course the “headlight motor active” indicator light.)

    • Ricky Silverio said:

      Thanks Adam! Those detail pics were 25 years in the making lol… There are a lot of handbuilt and crude components as this particular car had led a hard life evaluating and testing various components as well as driving dynamics which contributed to the reliability and fun factor that our roadsters possess.
      There are a lot of other aspects of the car I cannot show (still top secret) as well as to keep the Club Racer’s “mystique” intact. For an engineering and testing mule with thousands of hard miles I will say it runs and drives like a low mileage production Miata which is a testament to the engineers and Mazda.
      Very sharp eye adam! A lot of the parts were still being finalized, with some parts being handmade such as the airbox and cowl vent panel. All the plastics especially in the interior are all smooth as they were still deciding on what grain textures to use. Some plastics were molded in white and simply painted black. Bracketry was also being refined as well. For show duty
      The whole top of the dash, clamshell and tombstone were covered in leather hence the “puffiness”. The seats were also unique and made more svelte when they recovered it in leather. The Shift Knob /boot and handbrake Knob / boot were done in black leather with red stitching with the shift knob originally being a momo piece which was swapped for a factory one as the original piece went awol…
      Ah! If you are inclined to create club racer inspired gauge faces i’ll be first in line Adam!!
      Regards,
      Ricky

      • I actually let out a loud “HA!!!!!!!!” when I read confirmation that the dash had a leather top. :) Very cool. They did an amazing job around the front defrost vents. I guess that’s easy when you’re a factory.

        The wheel is very interesting to me and I replied just to type about it. M2 used the same wheel (without the red) in their 1001 (polished center) and 1028 (black center) interiors. It’s a nice wheel, but I always wondered why they chose the Monte Carlo as their flagship wheel. I can’t help but think THIS car was the main inspiration for that choice. And that’s some awesome, esoteric Roadster trivia.

        Lastly, there are some photos on the MazdaRoadster forum showing the creation of this car and the original blue paint. I geeked out seeing them this morning. I hope posting a link isn’t against rules. If so, please delete.

        LOVING these Miata articles!

        Adam

        ps, Club Racer gauges eh? Hmmm.

  5. dickie said:

    you guys like oddball miatas?

    check this one out:

    http://clubroadster.net/vb_forum/89-roadster-projects/66827-stevensons-hayashi-roadster.html

    a super-rare hayashi roadster.

  6. Dave said:

    Check out this photo!

  7. dickie said:

    mariner blue is and has always been the ultimate miata hue. it really evokes the classic single-stage jobs that the car’s ancestral british roadsters wore and imbues it with a truly nostalgic look that the later metallic shades fall just short of.

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