INTERVIEW: Bob Hall talks Japanese nostalgics, the Miata, and how the Lotus Elan fits in

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In light of the 25th anniversary of the Mazda Miata and the fact that the fourth-gen is just hours away from unveiling, here is an interview with Bob Hall.

It was probably appropriate that we met with Bob Hall at the Fair Oaks Pharmacy in Pasadena, California. A sign in the window of the 1950s soda fountain-turned-cafe advertises “Nostalgic Toys,” and we were sitting down with a man who conceived the most nostalgic toy in the automotive kingdom, the Mazda Miata. Not only that, he may have very well been the first American to do the whole JDM thing. Here’s what he had to say about the Miata, why the Lotus Elan is not as influential as everyone thinks, and his favorite JNCs.

You can tell Hall has a brilliant mind just by the way he orders lunch. While we foolishly picked items actually listed on the menu, Bob somehow convinced the staff to build him a completely custom meal from scratch — a waffle covered in chili, upon which sat a hamburger patty topped by a slice of cheese.

At an age most men would be looking to retire, Bob is still more active and has more effusive energy, a sharper wit and keener memory than most 22 year olds. He can remember the most obscure detail about something that happened 30 years ago with less hesitation than it would take you to recall your mother’s name, making him the perfect person to interview about the world’s most iconic roadster.

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BACKGROUND

By the late 1970s, Hall had already landed what many would consider a dream job, a journalist at a major US automotive magazine with loads of insider access. He got to know quite well Kenichi Yamamoto, the genius Mazda engineer who had brought the rotary engine to fruition.

During an interview, Yamamoto tossed out the question of what car Mazda Hall would like to see the company build next, and the seed was planted. Keep in mind that this isn’t the sort of question heads of R&D typically ask journalists. Yamamoto saw something in Hall’s ebullient spirit and outside-the-box thinking. Several years later, Hall landed his true dream job — in the planning department of Mazda North America’s R&D headquarters.

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CARS OWNED

Like many, Hall’s enthusiasm for cars began with his father, who was a huge fan of British sports cars. Hall remembers going to races and concours type events in his dad’s Austin Healey, as long as, say, the fuel pump didn’t die en route. By the time Yamamoto asked Hall about his ideal car, most such roadsters had gone extinct.

Though he’s owned everything from a modified Renault 8 Gordini to a ‘Cuda 340 convertible, Hall has a soft spot for Japanese cars. He first caught the bug from some friends who owned Datsun 510s and soon Hall was in his own 510 sedan that he raced up and down Mulholland Drive.

In 1971, Hall went to Nagoya as an exchange student. On each trip back to the US, he’d bring a whatever JDM 510 parts he could fit in his luggage — a rear garnish here, a 6-gauge instrument panel there. Eventually, he built what is quite possibly one of the first Americans to do a Japan-spec conversion, slammed on Datsun Racing struts that set 10mm lower than the BRE ones prevalent in the US.

After the 510, Hall owned an Isuzu Gemini, sold in the US as an Opel through Buick dealerships in the post-Oil Embargo Seventies. Again, Hall couldn’t leave well enough alone and soon added JDM bumpers, lights, and Irmscher rear spoiler, Australian “Gemini” script badges, and Giugiaro Scacchiera (chessboard) wheels similar to the stock rims from a Piazza/Impulse.

During his time with Motor Trend, he took their long term Mazda RX-3 wagon, lowered it on Cromodora wheels and installed a low-restriction intake.

After joining Mazda in 1981 and during the days when it was tied up with Ford, Hall took a Mercury Tracer 5-door hatchback — essentially a Mazda 323 — and swapped its nose with that of an Australian Ford Laser TX3’s. Of course, the TX3 was a 3-door only model, but Hall never left well enough alone.

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BEST CARS

As Hall says, there are no best cars. There are only best cars for specific purposes, and so his favorites are rather eclectic and span a great number of styles. In no particular order, these “favorites” popped up throughout our conversation: From Toyota, Hall admires the Corona 1600GT5, Carina GT 4-door, spindle Crown, and ST165 Toyota Celica. He also has a liking for the Honda Integra sedan, TSX Accord, Isuzu’s 117 and Bellett GT-R, and the Subaru FF-1. From Nissan, Hall approves of the Bluebird 510 SSS Coupe, B210 Sunny Excellent, Violet SSS 2-door hardtop, first-gen Cefiro, and the Cherry X-1R sedan, which he says is a better FF car than the Mini. He also has a soft spot for Skylines of the C10, C110 and C210 generations, but in particular the R32 GTS HT (moreso than the GT-R!). On the other hand, Hall absolutely hates the R31 4DR HT, a car he accuses Nissan of turning the Skyline nameplate into a Laurel.

Hall also has fond memories of 1965 Nissan Silvia shown at the New York World’s Fair, a 1959 Prince ALSID Skyline that he saw in Glendale, California, and the Brock Hino Samurai from the 1967 LA Auto Expo. He had already like the Contessa, and seeing that Hino spurred his desires of becoming a car designer.

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AT MAZDA

Hall became a full-time employee at Mazda in 1981. At the time, as is now, Toyota was the number one juggernaut of the Japanese auto industry. Mazda, a relatively tiny player, had to sail in waters stirred by the giant. It was the only way to compete. Product cycles matched those of Toyota’s, and the Corolla’s price would determine the 323’s price.

Hall’s first assignment was working on the B-Series, Mazda’s competitor to the Toyota Hilux. It wasn’t glamorous, but he was just jazzed to be working at a major car company. One day on a visit to Mazda North America’s R&D offices in California, Yamamoto spotted Hall toiling away on the pickup and in so many words, instructed him to get cracking on the roadster idea he’d pitched years ago.

That was all the encouragement he needed. Hall turned his attention to an after hours team of Mazda whiz kids called Offline 55. In Japanese, the number five is pronounced “go” and its English meaning is not lost on Japanese employees. The number is important within Mazda and its connection to the Le Mans winning #55 Mazda 787B is also no coincidence.

However, the Offline 55 team wasn’t all fun with sports cars. One of their very first projects was a people carrier of the future that became the Mazda MPV. Another was a revival of the Carol kei car that never made to production. And in fact, early on in the Miata’s development there was a chance it might have become something quite different than what it is today.

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A ROADSTER IS BORN

Three designs were proposed for the idea of a two-seat roadster, each with a different layout — front-engined, front-drive; mid-engined, rear-drive; and the front-engined, rear-drive submitted by Hall and his co-conspirators. All three were developed independently at various Mazda studios around the world and brought to Japan so one could be chosen for production. When Hall’s FR proposal was unveiled everyone, even the head of the FF design, pointed to it and shouted, “Build that one!”

The LWS, or Light Weight Sports, project had begun, with veteran chief engineer Toshihiko Hirai at the helm. Affectionately known as “Pops” Hirai, he had headed up the Autozam AZ-1 and 323 as well. Early prototypes used an first-gen RX-7’s rear axle and everything else was built around it. However, it was determined that an independent rear suspension was a must.

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“What is the heart of a car?” asks Hall. “The engine? The body? For the Miata, it has always been the suspension.” Then Hall dispelled a long held belief about the MX-5. Though it’s been compared endlessly to the British roadsters of yore, particularly the Lotus Elan, that influence is much less than people think.

During the development of a car, every automaker will allocate a budget to conduct a competitive vehicle assessment. At the time of the Miata’s, Hall happened upon a smoking deal for an S3 Elan, painted in what he calls “Peel Blue” after The Avengers’ sexy heroine. It was a car Hall had always wanted and soon it became his company car on Mazda’s dime, wearing the license plate SJH4991 (one increment higher than Emma Peel’s).

It was determined that the Elan’s backbone frame couldn’t be done for the Miata due to side impact standards. Soon his bosses in Japan caught wind that there was a Elan in Mazda’s possession, much to Hall’s chagrin. It was whisked away from his possession to Mazda’s Miyoshi proving grounds, where it made only a couple of laps before it was parked for good. It was never analyzed in an effort to emulate. “It’s probably still there under layers of dust,” Hall muses.

Even the Miata’s grille was a styling cue — penned by Mark Jordan, son of famed GM design head Chuck Jordan and noted father-son Ferrari enthusiasts — to be more 250 GTO than Elan. However, bumper standards forced it to move downward, creating the Lotus-esque shape.

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HUMBLE ORIGINS

Lastly, despite the key role Hall played in convincing Yamamoto to build the Miata and the faact that he’s been christened “Father of the Miata” by American press, Hall remains humble about his role. Hall gives credit to Pops Hirai, who oversaw the project to its conclusion, battling numerous issues that threatened to derail the project along the way.

From the body to the exhaust note to the fact that the top had to be simple enough to be operated one-handed, Hirai made sure the vision of a fun-to-drive roadster remained undiluted. He fought to keep the “wants” list short in the face of committees, engineers and marketers.

The MX-5 was originally going to be on a four-year product cycle, but when it was realized that the first generation would have to at least double that, Hirai forbid any of what Hall calls “state of the moment” styling cues. Instead, they went for something timeless. “If it wasn’t for Hirai, there’d be no Miata,” says Hall.

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THE NEXT GENERATION

No one at Mazda could have predicted the sales success of the Miata. When focus groups were shown the final product, they thought for sure the car would sell for $20,000. Mazda sold it for $13,000 and singlehandedly revived the roadster as an art form. Open top two-seaters by every automaker from Porsche to Pontiac followed, but the Miata has remained an icon recognizable to enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. All from a causal chat between Hall and Yamamoto nearly 40 years ago.

Later today we will see the next iteration of the MX-5 Miata. From everything we know, it’ll be a return to a true driver’s car. The chassis is smaller and lighter than the current iteration. Reportedly, engineers have managed to shave off over 200 pounds from an already featherweight car while maintaining TARDIS-like packaging that will seat even 6-foot-plus occupants. It will be so pure, we hear, there’s not even a glove box.

The global unveiling that will take place simultaneously in Tokyo, Barcelona and Monterey at 6pm Pacific Time. You’ll be able to follow the unveiling on YouTube, and we’ll post photo as soon after here on JNC.

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12 Responses to INTERVIEW: Bob Hall talks Japanese nostalgics, the Miata, and how the Lotus Elan fits in

  1. torparts.com said:

    Fair Oaks Pharmacy is in South Pasadena, CA not Pasadena as mentioned. great article!

  2. Dave said:

    This is so awesome!!! I love the Integra sedan, too! And I almost bought an Elan once, a white fixed head coupe. However, I’m pretty glad I didn’t ‘cuz I wasn’t really in a position to keep alive an English car at the time. Instead, I bought a different English car… Bob Hall is a treasure. I wish there’re photos of his RX-3, Gemini, “323,” & 510.

  3. dankan said:

    The second picture, of the red NA next to the water, is gorgeous and really, really needs to be a JNC wallpaper. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!

  4. bwob said:

    I’ve heard that Hall guy is a real bozo.

  5. Carl B. said:

    Great Article – very interesting subject and nicely covered.
    Thanks!

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