The Mazda MX-5 Miata turns 25 this year. So does the car Road Test Editor Mike Schlee calls his daily driver. A few years back he purchased a first year Miata. Far from leading a pampered life, it’s lived a hard 25 years and seen more miles than any sports car should. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Miata’s introduction, here is Mike’s story of how we came across his car and what it’s like after all these years.
My dad was coming over one warm spring Saturday morning to help with our latest home improvement project. Having arrived in town a bit early, he decided to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, perusing yard sales.
As I walked outside to greet him after his shopping excursion, he casually mentions to me that a neighbor having a sale behind us has a car for sale. “Oh really?” I respond, “What kind is it?” Expecting the answer to inevitably be the ubiquitous “Corolla, Civic or Malibu”, his answer peaks my interest. “Oh, it is one of those little Miata convertibles”.
Normally the conversation would end here as I do not possess the funds or space to start my own Leno-esque vehicular fleet. But recently, I had been in the market for a daily driver/beater. I say “had” as one month prior I purchased a great condition 1997 Subaru SVX. The next words that came out of my mouth would change everything – “How much is it?”
Who Can Pass Up a Deal?
“$2,000” my dad responds. Wait, what? My home improvement project is suddenly put on hold as we wander around the block to see just what is for sale. That is when I first lay eyes on the crystal white, 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata that would soon be mine.
I didn’t expect much, but the car was shiny, body nearly rust free and the roof in great condition. Upon talking to the owner, I found out the car had a new roof installed five years ago, a new radiator just a year ago and a shiny new exhuast.
Ok, but I am sure it drives as well as a unicycle in a bathtub full of Crisco. Wrong, the engine fires up first crank and the gears engage trouble free. The clutch does not slip whatsoever and the synchros in gears 1, 3, 4 and 5 feel solid. Gear 2 is a little worn, but once the car warms up, it smooths out and engages without issue.
Five minutes behind the wheel and I’m already writing the SVX’s for sale ad in my head.
Not All is Well
Don’t get me wrong though, the car is far from perfect. The odometer reads a journeyman’s 194,500 miles and the interior is covered in a thick layer of filth. The steering wheel is slightly askew to the left when the car drives straight and the few electronics that are in the car, the interior lights, radio and cigarette lighter, work intermittently. Luckily, there isn’t much to this car that could have failed working. There are no airbags, no traction control, no anti-lock brakes and no power anything; even the top is manually operated, including unzipping the rear window before lowering it down. Oh, and it leaks small amounts of oil thanks to a tiny oil pan fracture.
And then there is the rust rot. The majority of the floorboards have not appreciated being subjected to road salt for what up until this point is 22 years and have begun to rot right through into the foot wells. Needing to address this for safety certification and podiatry dryness, I begin by cutting out all of the sections of floor board that have rusted beyond recognition. New pieces of sheet metal are riveted in, sealed by a combination of roofing tar, spray foam, liquid metal and bed liner.
Still Drives Like Something Resembling a Miata
In 1990, the Mazda Miata came with a 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine that generated 116 hp and I am happy to report that at least 85 to 90 of those horses have stuck around. Thanks to the car’s low weight of just over 2,000 lbs., even with this low power, the Miata still accelerates well enough to keep up with traffic. As mentioned before, I still do possess all five forward gears and reverse from the manual transmission. Even more impressive, the standard limited-slip differential in the rear end still performs flawlessly. Oh, did I mention these are all still the original components?
Most of the Miata’s bushings are dried out, the suspension has seen better days and the alignment is off. However, the car still tracks fairly straight on the highway and with the aftermarket 195/55R15 tires installed, has that great Miata steering feel and quick responses. The brakes work as expected and on warm summer days I’m tempted to take it to a track and test the old girl out. Then I remember my shade-tree mechanic floor repairs and fret the car will fold in half if cornered too hard.
Beaten But Not Dead
Despite the vast personality quirks, when it all comes down it, even when nearing the end of its life, the Miata still delivers smile after smile. I cannot think of another vehicle that I could have for $2,000 that would always fire right up whether the temperature is -20F or 110F, can be left for week, then driven 50 miles across the city without issue. In the summer, with the top down the Miata still offers a visceral driving experience many modern cars cannot match. In the winter, assuming there is 10 inches or less of snow on the ground, the Miata not only handles the situation flawlessly, but is ridiculous amounts of fun to slide around.
It has been two years now since I first bought this car and aside from the original floor board repairs, one reusable engine air filter, two oil changes and a set of winter tires, not a dime has been spent fixing this car. To say the gamble has paid off would be a bigger understatement than calling Bill Gates “living comfortably”.
Later this year the Miata will finally be pulled from the road after 25 years of hard service and nearly 200,000 miles. But this is not the end of the story for the little roadster as the plan is to install a roll cage before next winter and give the MX-5 a new life, as a grassroots ice track racer.
GALLERY: 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata
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