AUTOLUST | 1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata Racer #17

If you were going to name the best decade for cars, you wouldn’t call out the 1980s. The era didn’t produce a long list of great machines, and even fewer of the era’s iconic rides survived the decade. (Think Back to the Future, for an example.)

Sure, the Germans did some nice work with the Volkswagen Golf, the Porsche 944 or the Audi Quattro – but what decade can’t say Deutschland didn’t do its part? Toyota offered up the MR2, and the Trans Am got some TV time with Michael Knight, but both soon faded into classic auto shows. 

However, there is one model that not only made a splash when it debuted at the decade’s zero hour, but remains in production as its maker’s top seller. Strangely enough, it’s also one of the tiniest cars you can find in most showrooms — a true David amongst Goliaths. 

When the Mazda Miata debuted in 1989, it was met with a mixed reaction. Some hailed it as the return of the proper, two-seater roadster. Others found the styling to be a little feminine — like Barbie’s Malibu Dream Car. In fairness, this was the 1980s. What didn’t look feminine?

It took less than a model year for the MX-5 to generate a loyal following amongst driver’s car enthusiasts and a solid spot in popular culture. While other roadsters came and went over the years, the MX-5 remains in production to this day, including the 2016 MX-5 redesign currently arriving in showrooms.

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The march of extinct cars the MX-5 outsold to become the most popular roadster of all time would take a while to pass the observation stand. The Toyota MR2 ran its course. Same goes for the Honda S2000. The more expensive BMW Z3 couldn’t stay in the chase. The Porsche Boxter is still around, but it doesn’t do Miata sales numbers. You get the idea.

With so much gearhead enthusiasm enduring for the MX-5, it’s only natural that the first models off the Mazda line became museum pieces and (in the case of one special edition) racing legends.

The Miata enjoys its own racing class these days on tracks across America, but the first track spec MX-5 was Number 17. Even though it wore #6 during much of its racing history, it’s designated 17 because it was literally the 17th MX-5 in existence. The first 20 cars out of Miata construction assembly in 1989 were designated by the order of their birth right down to their VIN numbers.

So, with the name and legal ID o#17, the car took to the auto show circuit in 1989, appearing alongside blue and red versions (VIN numbers 14 and 15, respectively) before interested automotive writers in Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York. Once #17 completed its 1989 auto show rounds, it headed out into world as the first racing Miata.

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The car ended up in the hands of driver Dan Edmunds. He brought the car to the Sports Car Club of America, entering it as the first MX-5 to run in any race anywhere. Edmunds started with the 1991 Showroom Stock class race at Willow Springs in February of 1991. It had to wait a year after its auto show stardom because SCCA rules wouldn’t let a brand new make and model race until the car was at least a year old — making sure all the bugs were worked out by the automaker. That shut #17 down for the 1990 racing season.

Willow Springs stood in as the third race of 1991 in SCCA, and Edmunds’ #17 had yet to record a win. He’d break through and take the checkered flag that day in Showroom Stock C, beating the track record by two seconds. That year, Edmunds and #17 would go on to set track records across SCCA, including a new mark at the now Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. 

Following Edmunds’ early success, a growing number of MX5’s would appear at SCCA races year to year until the car would earn its own racing class and serve as the training vehicles for such instructional facilities as the Skip Barber Racing School.

Barely nicked up with only about 8,000 miles on its odometer, old #17 now resides in Mazda’s fleet — happily out to stud amidst the automaker’s Le Mans vehicles and other racing machines. It’s never set a wheel on a public road and still pops up whenever Mazda wants to salute the MX5’s fledgling heritage.

Photos by Mazda and John Scott Lewinski