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Inside Mazda

Advanced Product Planner of the Original MX-5 Miata

Celebrating 30 Years of the MX-5 Miata begins with celebrating our fans and their stories. We asked owners and enthusiasts from around the country to submit their MX-5 stories to celebrate the debut of the 30th Anniversary MX-5 Miata at the Chicago Auto Show.

James Kilbourne still remembers how blown away he was when he saw the first early prototype of the MX-5 Miata.

“I was kind of speechless really,” Kilbourne, a 37-year veteran of Mazda’s Research and Development Center. “It was like ‘oh my god, this thing’s a home run.’”

Kilbourne, who joined Mazda in 1982, was a key member of the advanced product planning and market research team for more than 15 years at Mazda’s R&D Center. During the development phase of the MX-5 Miata in the early-to-mid ‘80s, Kilbourne worked daily with figures such as Bob Hall, Tom Matano and other champions of a two-seater, Mazda roadster. They spent countless hours gathering data to convince Mazda leadership to move forward on producing the MX-5.

“It took more than three or four years before Mazda leadership greenlighted budget for a clay model,” Kilbourne explained. “Then, globally, all the regions participated in a design competition in Hiroshima and each region brought their own concept of the MX-5. Everyone gravitated toward the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive version and that pretty much gave us the green light to move forward.”

Once the car neared production, Kilbourne and his team would work together to hold clinics and market research focus groups with consumers to gain valuable feedback on the car.

“We held a clinic in Pasadena and there were people there that were just blown away by the car and wanted to drive the car,” he explained. “I guess we did such a good job on this fiberglass model of the car that this one women thought it was a real car–that you could actually get in and drive it. We were telling her, ‘No, this is just a mock up.’ And she was like ready and willing to buy it on the spot and drive it home that day and I’ll just never forget it. She was adamant like, ‘I want this car today. I want to take it home.’”

Later on in the development, Kilbourne took an early production car up California Interstate 605 and remembers the chaos it created on the road. “People were veering into my lane,” he explained, “trying to get a better look at the car. It was really a great experience!”

Kilbourne’s role at Mazda would go on to evolve over his tenure. Kilbourne, now on his 37th year at Mazda, has spent the last 22 years working in accessory planning for vehicles but still reflects fondly on his memorable early years at Mazda.

“It was just an amazing experience all along,” he explained. “I was like a sponge–absorbing everything and trying to learn anything. You have these kind of mentors at the time that were just crazy-amazingly sharp and bright and very well-experienced. Obviously for me it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I was like a kid in the candy store to be hanging out with these people that were so talented. That was really cool.”

Something he’ll forever remember is a sketch that Shigenori Fukuda, Design Manager of MANA Mazda (North America), Inc., created to thank the great team that brought the MX-5 to market.

“Once upon a time (May 1983 ~ June 1986) there was a small group called PP&R.  Even though their working conditions were like this… one room studio with one clay oven and no paint booth.  And a viewing yard was surrounded by a green Vietnam Army type screen… but they had high spirit for creating their future automobiles.  I would like to express my appreciation to those people who worked together, drink together, joking together, enjoyed together, and cooperated together… this wooden seagull is a symbol of our high spirit.”

Even back then, Kilbourne had a feeling that the MX-5 would go on to be a successful vehicle for Mazda.

“During those times, I knew from the bottom of my heart that we had a hit product on our hands,” Kilbourne reminisced. “I’m thankful to have been a part of such a great experience.”