That award-winning synergy between tight, beautifully balanced engineering and emotional connectivity was orchestrated by Japanese-born, American-educated designer Tom Matano.

Born in Nagasaki and raised in Tokyo, Matano says he’s got gasoline in his blood, spending summers at his grandfather’s petrol station, marvelling at the technology in his uncle’s 1957 Cadillac and the minimal splendour of his neighbour’s Citroen 2CV. At university in Tokyo, Matano studied Analysis Engineering, made architectural models on the side and worked nights driving unreleased cars under the cover of darkness from Tokyo studios to scenic mountain locations.

When his ad agency boss told him to get a design education, Matano looked to LA’s Art Center and a possible career in Environmental Design, but was bluntly knocked back, as he was told his English score, as well as his artwork, were below their standard.

Undeterred, he set out for the USA on his uncle’s container ship, landed in Seattle and bought a $99 Discover America ticket on a Greyhound bus, which took him first to Los Angeles, then to New York City. A semester of language school and a fat folio of car sketches resulted in him being accepted into Transportation Design. His planned switch transfer to Environmental Design never transpired and on graduating in 1974 he headed to Detroit with General Motors.

“I thought it was an interview, but when I arrived in Detroit I had a job! It was the middle of the oil crisis. They didn’t hire before, or after – I was lucky!” But as the oil crisis hit the Big Three harder, Ford laid off 50 per cent of their designers, Chrysler 80 per cent; General Motors couldn’t justify Matano’s work visa to US authorities. So they moved him to Australia – and Holden.

In 1976, at 29 years old, Matano was working on the graphics for Peter Brock’s racing team, the new Commodore and other V8 staples like the Torana. Australia’s small population meant that although the Holden design team was dreaming up timely concepts, limited production volumes meant the rollout was too slow for the cars to be truly relevant. Seeking a non-American design sensibility and a wind tunnel in which he could refine his thoughts on aerodynamics, Matano headed to Europe. At BMW he worked on the initial development of the 3 Series. Then he headed to Mazda.

Matano founded Mazda’s North American design studio and designed their R&D Center Building. His design highlights during those next 21 years included masterminding the rotary engined RX7, a car that he suggests says, “I just went to the gym and toned my muscles”, and the MX-5, the vehicular version of “a good-looking jogging shoe – not a track shoe with spikes”.

The MX-5 is most admired for its balanced synthesis of engineering and emotional communication, for what Matano calls its “magical emotional connection”. 
Matano has observed that, until the creation of the RX7 and MX-5, the Japanese generally considered cars to be just another industrial product. Matano’s philosophy of empathetic design, which requires the designer getting ‘inside’ an object, makes it so much more.

“You need to become a doorknob to understand a door knob,” he explains. “Watch as the hand approaches. The moment the hand turns the handle properly, your communication is successful.” In the case of the lightweight, affordable and accessible MX-5, Matano designed and detailed an object that is saying, “Hey, come and hug me … just use a sponge and rub me down,” he says.

Matano also identified the sound of the car as an essential part of its communication and suggested to Mazda engineers that they visit a historic racing meet to “hear the engines, feel the vibrations and smell the tyres burning”. The engineers declined and instead tuned the MX-5 by analysing various frequencies and testing the alternatives on pilot groups. Although the process of tuning the MX-5 was exhaustive, Matano notes that the chief engineer for the MX-5 project always emphasised their weight reduction achievements and never discussed the success of the precisely tuned engine note.

At least tonnage was a common passion on the MX-5 production team. Matano’s penchant for neat, svelte, lightweight sports cars is reflected in his personal drive choices as well as models he covets. The Lotus Élan is commonly cited as a primary influence for the design of the MX-5, but the designer suggests that the Lotus was an effort to help Mazda’s managing directors understand the concept of a true, lightweight sports car, rather than a proposed form.

Similarly, the design team was given a Triumph Spitfire to use daily, and to give them an understanding of everyday life with a convertible sports car. The styling of the original MX-5 is closer to the rare and curvaceous DeTomaso Vallelunga that Matano drove until 2005. DeTomaso’s first road car, designed from a racing heritage and with a fiberglass body by Ghia, the Vallelunga weighs a mere 726 kilograms and was exhibited at NYC’s MOMA as “an example of technical progress and outstanding design”.

Matano’s all-time favourite car is another tiny racing machine, the Zagato Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ 1, in round tail form, weighing in at just 770 kg. The headlights and body lines of the Vallelunga, the cheeky character of the SZ1 and the renowned responsiveness of both cars are clearly present in Matano’s MX-5.

In a candid moment, Matano admits he didn’t think he’d live long enough to see a fourth generation of his multi-award-winning sports car. While the MX-5’s physical and emotional engagement is undisputed, a large part of its continued patronage is due to Matano and Mazda consciously tapping social networks decades before that became mainstream.

“From the very beginning of the Miata project (Miata is the name used for the MX-5 in North America) the Miata club (was) an integral part of the Miata culture,” Matano explains. “Without healthy club activities, the Miata (MX-5) would have been just an another car. But with a strong club body, it put us in the class of other legendary cars.”

To maintain a culture of racing and ownership around the car, design continuity was key. Matano’s dictates for the first and second-generation cars were precise. The second generation MX-5 was designed so that “from 100 yards (91 metres) away you know it’s a Miata, from 50 yards (45 metres) you don’t know if it’s Generation 1 or 2. From 10 yards (9 metres) you know it is a 2,” and for the third generation car, “from 100 yards it still has to be recognisable as a Miata, but from 50 yards you know it’s a 3,” he says.

This last generation has been described as a less emotionally appealing version and Matano agrees, but suggests it’s a strategy for longevity. “It’s a little less emotional, a bit plain, a true Japanese car: kill all the germs and everything is clinical.” This version is about engineering achievements. The next generation will be something entirely different: collaboration between Alfa Romeo and Mazda.

This time, however, Matano will be an interested onlooker, because he has redirected his creative career to education. After 21 years at Mazda, Matano left to direct the School of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. In the corridor he keeps a Wall of Shame for students to post their worst first-year sketches around a teen Matano car rendering. In the studios technically adept clay studies, tape drawings and innumerous renderings show how Matano is keeping the design dream alive for new generations of designers lucky enough to be under his tutorage.

On the side, Matano was involved with designing a car he describes as “made like IKEA” and destined to be sold in shopping malls, for new US startup V-Vehicle. He was able to conjure up a design and full-sized mockup for investors in four months, and the model demonstrated a paintless, plastic composite body that would help the car achieve a retail price of around US$8000.

Matano liked the business model of tapping into the huge used-car market with a budget-priced, locally made vehicle, but when V-Vehicle were refused a Federal Department of Energy loan (the same loan that galvanised the Tesla Model S into production) the project faltered. Matano is philosophical about the result, as he says the price was low, but not low enough for proper impact and the design was too radical.

Matano signs off on everything: car bonnets, books, letters and emails, with his simple motto “Always inspired”. These two words succinctly suggest the persistent optimism, whimsy and creativity of one of our greatest living vehicle designers.

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