A Young Enthusiast Chooses A Modern Classic: The Original Mazda MX-5
Photography by Kyriakos Pishoftas
My father says that I’ve always been into cars, he even claims that the first question he remembers me asking was why some car had a bigger exhaust pipe than the first-gen 2.3L Audi A6 we had then.
As I grew older, my father started taking me to classic car rallies and shows, and he’d had the idea of buying a classic two-door coupe for us to work on, so soon he became the proud owner of a 1983 BMW E24 635CSi restoration project. As the years went by, with me dreaming of driving the E24, I wanted to buy a quick modern classic as a first car. In my head, I flirted with several BMWs, a first-generation RX-7 and the first-generation Mazda MX-5.
We went to look at an E30 first. It was a black 323i coupe in rough but acceptable condition, and after a bit of bargaining we settled on a fair price, but the owner sold it elsewhere a couple days later. The MX-5 was the only other car that I really wanted to buy, so we went out to take a look at the 1989 example I’d found.
From the first glance, as we drove by it parked outside the seller’s house, I knew I wanted it. The roof had holes big enough for my hands to fit through and it was sitting on a set of absolutely despicable set of skinny wheels that you would expect to see on a poorly-modified econohatch, and yet it was beautiful despite all this; I could see past the cracked dashboard, the torn seats, the missing mirror, the far-from-perfect paint, and all the other sins that the car carried on in its 27 years. What I saw instead of the flaws was a modern classic that I could bring back to life.
My father drove the car with me riding shotgun, and his first words were: “This car is falling apart.” Of course, he was right. It rattled like every panel was loosely held on with duct tape, even with the hardtop on, but I didn’t mind. I focused on the chrome ringed gauges, the long sweeping hood ahead of me, and the rasp of the engine. I looked at the cracked dash, and realized that the biggest impression that this car left on me was that it was old. Strange to say for many, but I think the first Miata, in terms of its impact and now its age, can be considered a classic. From that moment on, I didn’t want any other car.
After the test drive, we took a look under the hood. There were no major oil leaks, and not too much dirt despite the rest of the car’s condition. I scanned the engine bay looking for signs of neglect or replacement until my eyes wandered up to the VIN plate. 00016. That was the number of this little Australian-market gem. 00016. It couldn’t be that old. And yet there it was—in my search for an early MX-5 I’d found one of the earliest. After hours of calling, visiting and emailing Mazda dealerships and scanning through the plethora of MX-5 forums, I can confirm that this car is the 16th Australian market MX-5 made, and one of the earliest MX-5 still daily driven. Really driven.
We bought the car, and after spending a couple of weeks being serviced thoroughly with a new water pump, new brake pads, a new timing belt, and all the other miscellaneous parts, the car arrived in my driveway. And I immediately began working on it some more. The first thing I did was polish off the black spray paint from the front indicators, and within a week I replaced the ill-fitting front headlights for a pair of originals, I fixed the headlight mechanisms, I pulled out the busted driver’s side window mechanism (the window was held up with zip ties) and pulled out and cleaned the seats with a friend. And so, the summer went by, with various other details cleaned up that, one by one, transformed the car.
Soon enough, the new vinyl roof arrived, and I managed to track down some period-correct 15-inch BBS wheels too, which I had to spend hours sanding down and polishing with the same friend. As the leaves turned brown, my beloved roadster started turning into something to be proud of, and I enjoyed taking it out for drives in the neighborhood. The responsiveness of the steering and the eagerness of the motor could finally be fully appreciated now that the rest of the car was coming together, and I felt that the Mazda wanted to be driven as much as I wanted to drive it.
By the time that the brown leaves were done falling completely, I replaced the rear license plate panel, fitted the new license plates, fixed the passenger side mirror, replaced most of the center console, and most importantly, finally got my driver’s license!
And so, this 1989 Mazda MX-5 became my daily driver. Yes, the MX-5/Miata/Eunos is almost 30 years old now. At first, I was dumbfounded by the attention that people paid to my car. Kids would point and stare at the shiny convertible that passed by, and many older examples of the human species would enquire as to whether I wished to sell it. One guy asked even asked me if I’d trade it for his first-generation Audi TT. Day by day, mile by mile, I loved my Mx-5 more and more.
I would always skip the highway and take the scenic b-roads where the roadster would really come alive. In the narrow curvy tarmac, 115 horsepower feels like more than enough and the geometry of the suspension as well as the firmness of the brake pedal gave me the confidence to explore and push the limits of the car bit by bit. The double wishbone setup with the Bilstein shocks works like a charm on mountain roads, and every aspect of the car, from the rasp of the exhaust to the compliance of the suspension make the Mazda feel at home when diving into a demanding corner. To put it simply, the MX-5 demands to be driven the way it was meant to be driven.
But as I piled miles on the odometer, the car started to bring forward its weaknesses. At some point, the gearbox got stuck in reverse in my driveway and I had to jack it up and fix it on the spot. Another time I had to push-start the car with my cousin after taking him for a drive. For a while I struggled with a fuel shortage problem that refused to let me rev past the third quarter of the gauge in peace. Sometime later, the head gasket went and I was left stranded two miles from my house.
But every breakdown, every issue, was just another challenge, another step in the long journey of making this car perfect, and every step renewed my passion for this car rather than extinguish it.
As the months went by and these problems were sorted out as they cropped up, the car fulfilled its purpose. I drove to my first car meet where she was admired, and to several classic car events where the retro Mazda received positive attention from the Triumph and MGB driving veterans. But the most remarkable moment came on a Sunday morning when my aforementioned friend and I participated in our first classic car regularity rally.
We played by the rules for the early part of the event, but as we were approaching my now favorite stretch of tarmac—a 10km-long mountain pass that connects two villages—the driver of a silver Jaguar XK140 convertible that was behind me decided that he no longer wanted to do 45kph and growled by us and the Austin A40 that was ahead of me at full throttle. I followed suit and soon, I found myself chasing a legendary car up a twisty mountain road in my humble MX-5. With my right foot planted to the floor and the needle dancing between five and seven thousand, I could keep up with the Jaguar (and admire it up close!). We weaved into and through corners together, accelerated hard on the way out, and occasionally unbalanced the growly soundtrack with a chirp of the tires. The Jaguar couldn’t leave us behind. When we arrived at the restaurant that marked the rally’s finish, I spent some time sitting and staring at the grey Jaguar that I fell in love with, but even more staring at the car that could follow it with me behind the wheel. I felt that I’d rather drive the red one back home.
A few months later, my father and I were going to drive up that pass once again; me in my roadster, him in the E24. “Go first” he told me, “and don’t do anything stupid.”
I started driving and as the first straightaway approached, I heard the familiar sound of the M30B34 straight-six screaming by my right ear as the E24 passed at wide open throttle. I downshifted into 2nd and followed suit. Corner after corner we were going flat out, attacking the empty pass with tires squealing and engines growling. The BMW E24, my childhood hero, could not outrun my little Mx-5.
With this car, I’ve learned to heel-and-toe, I’ve learned how to control the back end when it stepped out, and I’ve even driven it with the roof down in snow. but most importantly, it’s allowed me to enjoy vintage sports car ownership to its fullest extent: first-hand.
To this day, after one year and over another 20,000km on the odometer, the car is far from finished. The clutch is on its last legs, the hood has a sizable dent to fix, and the paint has several nicks and cracks in it. But the journey continues. Eventually this car will be in perfect condition, but for now, it’s perfect as a car. As I sit here and write these thoughts, I’m glancing out of the window; all I can see is the front left rim and a bit of the fender. But it’s enough to make me grin.