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Shunji Tanaka, The Man Behind The Mazda MX5 Miata, Has Died Aged 75


Shunji Tanaka, the design chief of the original (NA) Mazda MX-5 Miata, has died at the age of 75.

A close friend made the announcement on Facebook with a simple statement, “I’m sorry to inform you that Mr. Tanaka, the Chief Designer of NA MX-5, passed away on December 12th at the age of 75.” Mr. Tanaka’s last words were said to be, “I have no regret in my life,” according to the notice.

The reason behind Tanaka’s death is currently unknown, but we agree heavily that he should have no regrets. After all, he designed one of the greatest sports car of all time, the Mazda Miata. This car embraced the idea of lightweight motoring, and while it didn’t have a huge amount of power, 113 horsepower, it was and still is one of the most enjoyable and chuckable cars to drive.

The Miata still remains to be the world’s best selling sports car, and that’s partly down to how affordable it was. It allowed even those who couldn’t spend loads of money on cars (like me), to explore a whole new way of driving. And boy did it look good. Plus… popup headlights.

With future Miatas looking to be powered by a hybrid powertrain, these early cars will soon not only become a renowned part of motoring history, but will shoot up in price. They’re already becoming more expensive by the week.

Despite being the Miata’s head designer, Tanaka did not receive as much attention as the lead engineers, Toshihiko Hirai and Takao Kijima. Of course, the Miata’s success was due in large part to these two men who focussed on the mechanics behind the driving experience. Tanaka in comparison was solely responsible for the aesthetics of the interior and exterior.

The name “Miata” is derived from a phrase coined by Mazda’s chief designer Ryuho Harada, who called the car a “Swinging Time Machine.” To put it another way, the design was meant to evoke feelings of freedom and to bring the driver closer to nature.

The first iteration of the car was actually designed in California before Mazda approved it, and when it arrived in Japan to be looked over by Tanaka himself, he said the US team had “eaten too much steak and forgotten the delicacy of Japanese cuisine”. It’s safe to say that he wasn’t a fan.

His redesign of the car took influence from Japanese Noh masks, something his wife had a great love for. The special thing about these masks is that the expressions on their faces would change depending on the angle they’re being looked at. Again, it’s safe to say that he did a great job, with the MX5 Miata being one of the most recognisable cars in history. It’s pure brilliance.

We’ve lost a talented person.

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