Bob Hall felt like the proud father of a newborn baby last February when the first Miata sports car was rolled out in Nashville for inspection by U.S. Mazda dealers. As the founding member of a three-man team that conceived Mazda's two-seater throwback to the days of tweed caps and road rallies, Hall had to fight back tears when the ragtop roadster brought the skeptical audience to its feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. It was a moment he would love to have shared with his twin brother, Jim. But Jim, who works for rival General Motors as an assistant product engineering manager, was having no part of it "That sleazeball!" fumes Jim. "Now I have to worry about a wife who wants to buy a Miata. Hell will freeze over before she gets one of his cars."

Not since the Beach Boys' 1963 paean, "Little Deuce Coupe," has an automobile prompted so much unabashed adulation. Motor Trend has called the Miata "the best sports-car buy in America." Road & Track has ranked it one of the five best cars in the world, even though Miata's base price of $13,800 is a third that of the next cheapest pick. Mazda dealers say they are fielding as many as 100 calls for every Miata they can deliver, and some of those who do get their hands on one of the 20,000 cars being produced this year have been willing to pay as much as $4,000 over the sticker price. Miata owners tell of envious drivers stopping them on the street and offering cash for a test spin.

For Hall, 36, a former automotive journalist, the spectacle of a Miata-mad America is a lifelong dream come true. A self-described "California autoholic," he grew up in Los Angeles and inherited a passion for British Austin-Healy and Triumph two-seaters from his father, Bert, an airline executive. At the same time, he witnessed the invasion of Japanese imports, and in college he began to envision a roadster that would be both easy to service and fun to drive. "I used to think that if you could take all the best parts of those nice, simple sports cars and combine them with the durability and workmanship of Japanese cars, you'd have something great," he recalls. When Mazda hired him in 1981 to do product planning and research at the company's North American headquarters in Irvine, Calif., he had a chance to pitch his idea. "I became an evangelist for the affordable sports car," he says. "It was like [the search for] the Holy Grail, something that had to be done."

Mazda designers Tom Matano, 41, and Mark Jordan, 35, eagerly joined Hall's crusade, and together they battled company skeptics who believed that the small sports car had disappeared because of a lack of consumer interest. In March 1984, when top executives from Japan paid a visit to Irvine, the trio sent their bosses off on day trips up the California coast in three racy roadsters—a Lotus Elan, a Triumph Spitfire and a custom-made Honda convertible. That taste of top-down motoring, plus the threesome's enthusiasm, persuaded Mazda to proceed with research on the Miata. "We had never shown our managing directors such passion for a car," says Matano. "Once you've had a two-seater convertible in your life, you want to have one again."

Like Hall, Jordan scored a family coup as well as a professional one by assisting in the Miata's creation: His father, Chuck, is head of design for General Motors. But the elder Jordan insists that he felt nothing but pride when he first saw the Miata in February at an auto show. "I had been wondering why I paid all that tuition for Mark to go through school," he says. "Now I know." Recently he test-drove a Miata in Detroit. "I'm a sports-car nut, and I love it," he says.

Thanks to the pervasiveness of that sentiment, the Miata is so scarce at the moment that even Hall is on the waiting list. "They're so popular I haven't been able to get one," he says. "I have to get in line at the dealer like everybody else." But he has already picked out the vanity license plate he plans to put on his new car when it arrives. It reads IKIGAI. "That's Japanese," Hall explains, "for the thing in life that justifies your existence."

—David Grogan, Jack Kelley in Irvine