The Mazda MX-5 Miata is a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive convertible that is designed to be as fun and affordable as possible.
The Miata is Mazda’s homage to the British roadsters of the past that focused on the raw driving experience.
The vehicle has been in production since 1989 and has won over the hearts and minds of many car enthusiasts since then.
When we think of the Miata, it’s hard not to think of the classic first-generation NA design. Who could forget those pop-up headlights?
You might be wondering why Mazda chose to drop the hidden headlamp design on the Miata’s later models. Let’s figure out why!
Which MX-5 Miata had pop-up headlights?
The only MX-5 Miata to feature pop-up headlights was the NA (first-generation). The NA Miata was manufactured from 1989 to 1997. According to Hemmings, 228,961 NA MX-5 Miatas were sold in the US.
The first MX-5 Miata produced by Mazda Motor Corporation immediately won the hearts and minds of car enthusiasts across the world.
It became instantly recognisable for its forward-thinking design and its unforgettable pop-up headlight units.
Why did the Miata lose its pop-up headlights?
The second-generation Miata (NB) dropped the pop-up headlight design due to European pedestrian safety regulations. Mazda and other manufacturers could no longer feasibly produce pop-up headlights that satisfied these new regulations.
The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) found that pedestrian safety benefitted from cars with front ends that could contort or flex in a collision.
This meant that rigid front ends were no longer deemed safe. This included pop-up headlights, which were rigid fixtures that could seriously harm pedestrians in an accident.
Pop-up headlights were originally designed to provide significant aerodynamic advantages to road cars.
Allowing the headlights to retract into the car’s body reduced the drag coefficient of a vehicle, allowing it to move faster with less resistance.
Ultimately, it was safety that killed the Miata’s distinctive pop-up headlight design.
When did the MX-5 Miata drop the pop-up headlights?
The Miata’s hidden headlamp design was dropped with the arrival of the NB (2nd Generation) Miata, introduced in 1998. Mazda replaced the pop-up design with a safer and more cost-effective fixed headlamp design.
The NB Miata’s new headlight design debuted to a mixed reception amongst consumers.
The new ‘bug-eye’ look left Miata fans wondering if the NB was a design downgrade from the NA.
Regardless, the NB eventually won fans over with a reduced drag coefficient of 0.36 and a more sporty and aggressive demeanour.
The NB borrowed all of the best bits from the NA and made great strides in enhanced reliability and maximum fun. Mazda even developed a factory-turbocharged model, the Mazdaspeed MX-5.
Each subsequent generation of the MX-5 Miata has built more and more on the idea of Jinba Ittai – oneness between car and driver.
Thus, in the grand scheme of things, pop-up headlights are not that important to the Miata’s purpose.
Is it illegal to drive an MX-5 Miata with pop-up headlights?
It is perfectly legal to drive an NA Miata with pop-up headlights. There are no current laws or regulations stopping you from doing so.
For example, you can purchase a used 1995 NA Miata with pop-up headlights and drive it with no restrictions or limitations.
As long as your Miata passes the relevant safety inspections (e.g your headlamp bulbs and motors are working properly), you’re good to go for many miles.
Unless there are significant safety concerns with a vehicle, it is rare that regulations are introduced posthumously for cars that have already been manufactured.
Sometimes there are manufacturer safety recalls for vehicles with safety concerns. The NA Miata has had no manufacturer recalls for its pop-up headlights.
So if you own an NA Miata, don’t worry! There is nothing inherently unsafe about the Miata’s hidden headlamps when they are maintained properly.
Will pop-up headlights ever return to the Miata?
It is highly unlikely that pop-up headlights will ever return to the Miata. Designing hidden headlamps that would satisfy modern pedestrian safety regulations would prove too difficult and expensive for Mazda.
Yes, we know. It won’t get any easier no matter how many times you read it. There is almost a 0% chance that the Miata will feature pop-up headlights ever again.
For starters, hidden headlamp designs are considered outdated by modern car designers and manufacturers.
Sure, they look awesome on older cars. But would pop-up headlights really pop on a 2022 Mercedes-Benz SL? Probably not.
There are also safety concerns. Mazda decided almost 25 years ago that engineering hidden headlamps that could satisfy pedestrian safety regulations did not make financial sense.
This was the final straw for the Miata and its beloved pop-ups.
But there’s no shame in leaving pop-ups where they belong: in the past. That’s not such a bad thing.
Pop-up headlights represent a golden, bygone era of modern-classic car design.
There is nothing more satisfying than purchasing an older project car and flicking that pop-up switch on and off again.
Read on to find out why we think pop-up headlights are fantastic.
Why the Miata’s pop-up headlights are so great
It’s a simple mechanism – a motor that forces a headlamp unit to emerge from the body of a Miata and shine a headlight onto the road.
Pop-up headlights made sense for many car manufacturers in the 20th century, including Mazda. They possessed advantages when it came to meeting headlight height requirements.
They also promised reasonable gains for aerodynamics when the headlamp unit was retracted into the body.
But above all, it’s the design that gets us going. It’s the perfect example of a simple yet beautiful design choice that represents something more. It’s even the preferred method of greeting between NA Miata drivers (the ‘Miata Wave‘).
Pop-up headlights are hardly a marvel of modern engineering. They rely on a simple motor mechanism hooked up to a switch on the dashboard.
And for many drivers, it’s just another thing that can go wrong with their vehicle.
But so many iconic vehicles feature hidden headlamps. Alongside the MX-5 Miata, think about the Mazda RX-7 FD, the Toyota AE86 and the Lotus Elan.
Above all, they are a simple pleasure for car enthusiasts young and old. And there’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures!
So, there you have it. A definitive guide on why the MX-5 (or Miata) dropped the iconic pop-up headlight design from the NA model.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata continues to be a huge hit with drivers across the globe. It’s sporty. It’s exciting. It breaks the norm. And best of all, the MX-5 Miata is reliable.
But we would be lying if we said that a part of us doesn’t yearn for those illustrious pop-up headlights.
If you’re inconsolable with grief for the fate of pop-ups, consider purchasing a used NA Miata. It’s a fantastic car to learn with. Just be sure to look out for Miata rust!
Do you miss the iconic pop-up headlights from the NA Miata? Let us know below!