On April 13, we received news that Toshihiko Hirai, the chief developer of the first-generation NA Roadster, which was introduced to the market in 1989, passed away on April 11, and that his family and relatives had already held a funeral service. He was 87 years old, and we pray for his soulful rest in peace.
Born in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1935, Hirai joined Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) in 1961 and was an engineer engaged in the basic design of passenger cars. However, in the late 1970s, when the company’s performance rapidly deteriorated, he was transferred to a sales company in the Hokuriku region to take the lead as an engineer on the front lines of sales. At that time, I witnessed a price war with a major brand in the field of sales, and I thought to myself, “If we continue to do this, we will only become exhausted.” He felt that if we were making the same kind of cars as the major brands, there would be no reason to choose Mazda. In the mid-1980s, Mazda was able to maintain its independence thanks to the huge success of the FF Familia, and completed its core model lineup with the Familia, Capella, Luce, RX-7, and Bongo. The idea of a two-seat open-top LWS (lightweight sports car) was raised as one of them. Mr. Hirai raised his hand in response. It is said that he was determined to bring this unique car, which no other company had, to the market, and that he was the only one who could make it a reality.
In the LWS project, under Mr. Hirai’s leadership, engineers brought uncompromising ideas to realize a car that is fun to drive, and the passion of the production engineers who focused their wisdom on responding to these ideas led to the “Jinba Ittai” (unity of rider and horse) philosophy that all generations of the Roadster, up to the current 4th generation ND model, continue to carry on. The “Jinba Ittai” philosophy has been fostered and has been inherited by all generations of the Roadster up to the current 4th generation ND model. The lightweight concept, low yaw moment of inertia and center of gravity, front-midship mounting of the engine, 50:50 front-rear weight balance, double wishbone suspension, power plant frame, and easy-opening soft top were all developed during this period. The first generation Roadster (MAZDA MX-5 miata), which had its world premiere at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1989, went on to record explosive sales, and by the time the baton was passed to the second generation NB model in 1998, approximately 430,000 units had been produced, making it a long-time favorite of owners worldwide. Later, Hirai led the development team for the “Autozam AZ-1” light sports car, and in 1993, at the age of 58, he left Mazda. He became a lecturer at the Department of Production Systems Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Oita University, where he focused on training younger engineers.
In 2000, the Roadster was recognized in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of two-seat compact open sports cars produced, followed by the third generation in August 2005 and the fourth generation in May 2015, and in April 2016, cumulative production exceeded 1 million units. To date, approximately 500,000 units have been sold in North America, 360,000 units in Europe, and 200,000 units in Japan, and the record continues to grow. The latest model, the 4th generation ND Roadster, is also a popular model with annual sales exceeding 10,000 units even in 2022, seven years after its launch. The “Jinba Ittai” philosophy that Mr. Hirai advocated is now linked to the “Driving Pleasure” concept that permeates all Mazda vehicles. In 2020, Mr. Hirai will be inducted into the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame’s selection committee gave the following reasons for his induction
It is no exaggeration to say that Mazda, as well as Japan, is proud of the fact that the Mazda Roadster has been well received in the global market for more than 30 years with a positive response, and the popularity of the Mazda Roadster has moved the world. The popularity of the Mazda Roadster has moved the world, and many LWSs were subsequently introduced by rival automakers. I would like to conclude by expressing my heartfelt respect to Mr. Toshihiko Hirai, who paved a thorny path to revive the lost LWS, and to all those who supported him.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Hirai.
Text by MZRacing, Photo by MAZDA