The Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster is one of the most iconic sports cars of the past 30 years, known for its engaging driving dynamics, lightweight rear-wheel drive platform, and fun-to-drive personality. But one signature styling feature that arguably defines the first generation NA Miata is its pop-up headlights.
So why did Mazda discontinue the pop-up headlights after the first generation, and what was the impact on the Miata’s design?
When the pop-up headlights were removed from the second generation NB Miata in 1998, it marked the end of an era for the small Mazda roadster. Strict new safety regulations, changing priorities around styling and aerodynamics, and the evolution of the Miata itself over time all contributed to Mazda’s decision to switch to fixed headlights.
In this deep dive, we’ll explore the origins of the pop-up headlights on the first-gen Miata, why Mazda made the change, and the lasting impact on the overall design of this iconic sports car. We’ll also look at whether pop-up headlights could ever make a comeback.
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A Brief History of Pop-Up Headlights on Sports Cars
The pop-up or flip-up headlight was a popular styling trend that emerged in the 1980s andearly 1990s, especially on affordable sports cars. With concealed lamps that could flip up to reveal the actual headlights, they conveyed a sense of speed and gave cars a sleeker, lower profile look while not in use.
Several iconic sports cars incorporated pop-up headlights during this period, like the Ferrari 308, Lamborghini Countach, Lotus Esprit, and Corvette C4. So when Mazda was developing its lightweight roadster to recapture the classic British sports car experience, pop-up headlights were an obvious choice to consider.
This design allowed the first generation Miata (known as the NA) to have a very low nose and sloped front end while still passing safety regulations and providing effective forward illumination at night. The concealed headlights aligned perfectly with the rest of the Miata’s minimalist, lightweight design.
When the headlights popped up, they gave the small roadster an eager, almost anthropomorphic look, like eyes coming open. It perfectly captured the playful, energetic spirit of driving the first generation Miata.
When Did Pop-Up Headlights First Appear on the Mazda Miata?
The pop-up headlights made their debut when the first NA generation Miata was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1989 as a 1990 model year vehicle.
Thiscore styling feature helped cement pop-up headlights as a signature component of the NA Miata’s design. They perfectly complemented the car’s low and wide stance with short overhangs.
For the entire first generation spanning model years 1990 to 1997, pop-up headlights were an essential part of the NA Miata’s charm and character. Over this period, enthusiasts came to closely associate exposed pop-up headlights with the image of the diminutive Miata.
Why Were Pop-Up Headlights Removed from the Miata After 1997?
So why did Mazda discontinue the popular pop-up headlights starting with the second generation NB Miata in 1998? There were a few key factors:
Safety Regulations – In the late 1990s, regulations around pedestrian safety started to tighten, especially in the European market. Exposed rigid headlights were increasingly frowned upon. Flip-up headlight designs like the Miata NA’s didn’t provide any impact cushioning for pedestrians. So most automakers began phasing out pop-up headlights around this time.
Aerodynamics & Styling – The pop-up headlights required long hood slopes to accommodate. As Mazda improved performance with each Miata generation, priorities shifted more toward weight distribution, aerodynamic efficiency, and accommodating larger engines. The low sloping hoods limited front downforce and engine access. New headlight shapes were also needed to update styling.
Miata Evolution – Over four generations, the Miata gradually evolved from a lightweight back-to-basics roadster to a more well-rounded sports car. The pop-up lights suited the initial purist ethos but became limiting. As the Miata matured and performance increased, other design aspects took priority.
While pop-up headlights suited the first-gen Miata, they ultimately conflicted with priorities around safety, aerodynamics, styling, and performance as the car continued to evolve. So Mazda made the difficult decision to switch to fixed headlights, starting with the NB generation.
What Impact Did Losing Pop-Up Headlights Have on the Miata’s Design?
The switch to fixed headlights for the second generation NB Miata in 1998 represented the most dramatic change to the car’s design since its debut. It significantly altered the Miata’s character and proportions.
Here are some of the impacts of the new fixed headlight design:
- More Aggressive Look – With exposed lamps and no need for long sloping hoods, the front fascia took on a more aggressive, angry expression compared to the friendly pop-ups. This gave later Miatas a leaner, meaner look.
- Higher Hood Lines – The headlights could now sit higher in the front fascia, allowing the hood profile to raise up. This improved engine access and front downforce. But it meant the low, sweeping hood lines were gone.
- New Headlight Shapes – The fixed lights allowed for projector beams and more modern lamp shapes versus the NA’s circular lights. This enabled updated styling but also meant non-round headlights for the first time.
- Impacts to Weight and Balance – Raising the hoodline increased the Miata’s overall center of gravity, altering weight distribution slightly. But eliminating the motors for the pop-ups also reduced complexity and weight.
Overall, while fixed headlights enabled crucial progress for the Miata in terms of performance and modernization, the loss of pop-up headlights was felt by enthusiasts who missed this beloved signature feature.
Will Pop-Up Headlights Ever Return to the Mazda Miata?
Given the ongoing pedestrian impact regulations, it’s unlikely pop-up headlights will ever return to the current generation ND Miata or future models. However, that doesn’t stop nostalgia for the original pop-ups among NA Miata collectors and customizers.
Many first-gen Miata owners install aftermarket pop-up headlight kits to restore the iconic look on their cars. This involves retrofitting fixed lights and adding motors to recreate the flip-up function. Some include both pop-ups and fixed lamps for flexibility.
However, modifying the front fascia and adding pop-ups affects the Miata’s modern aerodynamic profile. For those seeking a period-correct restoration, the kits satisfy the nostalgic appeal. But most ND Miata fans appreciate the sleeker front-end enabled by fixed lights.
The Future of the MX-5 Miata Remains Bright
While the pop-up headlights are forever cemented as a beloved and defining feature of the first generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, their removal allowed the car to evolve.
The second, third, and current fourth generations improved performance and handling dramatically while preserving the Miata’s pure driving joy and energetic spirit. Ongoing innovations with weight reduction, chassis rigidity, aerodynamics, and interior features ensure the Miata remains the world’s favorite roadster.
The loss of pop-up headlights was just one step in the journey that has kept the MX-5 Miata relevant, competitive, and fun to drive for over 30 years. As long as Mazda stays true to the car’s core philosophy of “Jinba Ittai” – horse and rider as one – the future looks bright for Miata fans.
While we may fondly look back on the NA Miata’s pop-up headlights, the headlight revolution that started in 1998 enabled exciting progress in design, safety, and performance. The spirit of pop-up headlights lives on in every eager new generation of this beloved roadster.
In summary, the original 1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata’s pop-up headlights were an iconic styling feature that embodied the pure driving spirit of this lightweight sports car. But stricter safety standards, the priorities of improving aerodynamics and performance, and the Miata’s own evolution rendered the pop-up lights obsolete after the first generation NA.
This necessitated a full redesign of the front fascia for subsequent generations, with higher hood lines and new fixed headlight shapes. While this changed the personality and proportions of the Miata, it enabled valuable progress. Ongoing innovations with each generation have ensured the Miata remains lightweight, engaging, and fun to drive even without its signature pop-up headlights.
So while the pop-ups will always hold nostalgic appeal for NA Miata purists, the Miata’s future remains bright thanks to Mazda’s commitment to the car’s core driving philosophy. The spirit of the pop-ups lives on in every new generation of this agile, eager sports car that brings a smile to any driving enthusiast.