We’d never try to dissuade you from buying a rear-wheel-drive Lotus Elan, but owning one can be fraught with problems. Sure the handling is sublime, but they can be fragile and expensive: what you need is a tougher, cheaper alternative. Cue the MX-5. Okay, we’d be stretching the point if we were to say that the Mazda is as good as the Elan on an empty B-road, but you’d be amazed what a close-run thing it is – and when you think you can buy a perfectly decent early MX-5 for little more than two grand, suddenly the British sportster starts to look a tad expensive.
It was all thanks to Mazda that the affordable two-seater rag-top was revived in the late 1980s; without the MX-5 there’s a good chance we’d never have seen the likes of a fully-open MR2 or the MGF. With its rear-wheel drive, double-wishbone suspension all round and an ultra-low weight, the MX-5 was genuinely a true masterpiece; a turning point in the evolution of the car.
Yes, it was only reviving a concept seen decades earlier, but as the 1980s were becoming the 1990s, everyone assumed the world had changed too much for such a model to be commercially viable. Mazda proved the doubters wrong. With its slick gearchange, perfect poise and beautifully-weighted steering, the Mazda showed potential rivals a clean pair of heels before they were even out of the starting blocks.
Here is a car of simple, straightforward joy whose only electronics administer sparks, fuel and cassette player sounds. The all-black cabin is starkly simple: straight lines, eyeball vents and a perfect pod for the clear dials. The exhaust note is crisp but not loud – many Mk1 owners have added aftermarket decibels – and the engine revs with gutsy glee. It encourages maximum use of the tiny gearlever, whose action was lovingly honed by Mazda engineers hooked up to pressure pads and hooked on ultimate tactility.
That’s one of the MX-5’s key points. It’s designed to draw you in, to make you feel what it’s doing so you’re best placed to influence what it does. ‘Horse and rider as one’ the engineers called it, a theme repeated with each MX-5 generation.
So it rides tautly enough to tell you about the road surface, but not so firmly as to agitate your entrails. Again, plenty of aftermarket suspension kits will do that for you. The cornering balance is minutely adjustable with the throttle, letting you scythe through bends on the edge of oversteer as though in a kart, telling all as it goes.
Then there’s the steering. The MX-5 was designed to have power steering, with the geometry to suit and a wristflick keenness to dive into a corner. Some thought the action too light, although creative tweaking of that multi-adjustable suspension geometry, designed with such fine-tuning in mind, soon fixes that with a touch more castor and both-ends negative camber. The decision to offer a basic, stripped-out MX-5 without powered steering came late in the development programme and Bob Hall, creative mastermind of the whole MX-5/Miata idea, despaired of it.
With good reason? Some argue that the ‘purity’ of no PAS gets you nearer to a Lotus Elan reincarnated, and it might if the non-PAS arrangement had its own optimum geometry. Only it doesn’t. While it steers with fine feedback once you’re settled into a bend, it’s dozy around the straight-ahead and requires un-Elan-like heft as cornering forces rise. It’s not the flickable joy an MX-5 should be.
Power steering, then, is vital. Thus endowed, the Mk1 moves naturally with your every thought, enthusiastically egging you on to nibble the limits, immersed in driving at its most viscerally involving level. On the right roads, with the roof down, no classic car is less intimidating while simultaneously more entertaining. It’s completely addictive, with no penalty for repeating the fix again and again. Perhaps that fix grew weaker as Mk1 evolved into Mk3 via Mk2, but it never went away.
Which MX-5 to buy?
Believe it or not, the earliest MX-5 are more than two decades old, and with thousands sold in the UK there are plenty to go round. Although there are frequently MX-5s for sale at about the £1000 level, you really need to spend double this to get something decent – and even better if you have closer to £3500 to spare. The most recent low-mileage cars can still sell for £6000, but the car has to be really good to command that sort of money.
The number of special editions is also bewildering; some are more worthwhile than others so don’t pay over the odds for a car that differs from standard simply by having an unusual paint job. The bottom line is that any MX-5 in fine fettle will be a hoot to drive – and you don’t need to spend a fortune to secure something worth keeping.
For 1994 the engine grew from 1598cc to 1839cc. It looked similar but was actually a different unit, torquier and more powerful at 128bhp. It was joined later by a re-introduced 1.6, with power down from 114bhp to 90bhp to suit a basic, entry-level car.
Various UK special editions proliferated, approximately mirroring the Japanese-spec V Special (beige leather trim), S Special, S Limited, G Limited, R Limited and others. Most Eunos models had a limited-slip differential, viscous in the original 1.6, Torsen later. Automatic transmission was available in the Eunos, while from 1994 UK cars could be had with wind-up windows, steel wheels and no power steering, a deletion that fundamentally changes the car’s chuckable character for the worse.
Long-term, the pure, early 1.6s with the ‘daisy’ wheels are likely to rise fastest in value. There’s also the UK-only BBR Turbo, with an officially sanctioned turbocharger conversion by Brodie Brittain Racing to squeeze 150bhp out of the early 1.6. These are rare and desirable, especially the Le Mans edition in the green and orange colour scheme of Mazda’s 787B, which won Le Mans in 1991.
As mentioned earlier, you’re much better off buying an MX-5 that has power steering. Be prepared to pay a premium of up to £500 for the right car with it.
Performance and specs
||113bhp @ 6500rpm
||100lb ft @ 5500rpm
|Price when new
Dimensions and weight
• You’ll struggle to find an engine more durable than an MX-5’s; it just keeps on going as long as it’s serviced properly, with 200,000 miles no problem at all.
• However, even if everything seems spot on, take a look at all the fluid levels, which will give some indication of how much care the previous owner has taken.
• Also ask when the last service was performed; Mazda recommended maintenance every 9000 miles or annually, but a caring owner will have done it every 6000 miles instead.
• Using flushing oil at every service is a good way to stop the hydraulic tappets chattering on start-up, which is one of the main issues with the engine. Lift the bonnet and listen for a noisy top end as the engine is started.
• The servicing regime should have taken the condition of the coolant into account; because the MX-5’s cylinder head is made of alloy, it’s essential that this is kept in tip-top condition, with anti-freeze concentrations maintained.
• The cambelt should also have been renewed within the last five years or 60,000 miles; any car should be on at least its third by now, even if it’s covered barely any distance. However, if the belt does break, the pistons and valves won’t collide with each other, so all is not lost.
• The earliest engines, which are also the most desirable, are the only ones likely to be suffering from any kind of malady. The motor itself is fine; it’s the ancillaries that are the problem – specifically the water pump. These tend to wear, so lift the bonnet and, with the engine ticking over, listen for a knocking noise. If the pump has worn, it’s a good idea to get the cambelt replaced at the same time, as it’ll probably need doing before too long anyway.
• A fresh water pump is available for £40, while a specialist will typically charge £120 to do the work, plus the cost of fitting a cambelt (usually £200 on its own).
• Some of the earliest cars had a problem with the crankshaft pulley’s woodruff key groove wearing; it can potentially wear to the point where the crankshaft is wrecked. Most cars have been sorted by now, but some will have escaped the system so take a look at how many slots there are in the crankshaft pulley. The potentially faulty units will have just four slots; if there are eight, the stronger type of pulley has already been fitted.
• MX-5 powerplants also tend to weep oil, but it shouldn’t be all over the engine bay. The culprit is the cam sensor’s O-ring at the rear of the engine; fixing it is simplicity itself and even a specialist shouldn’t charge more than £50 to do the work.
• Exhaust systems can give a few problems. First, they all had a catalytic converter fitted, and you need to make sure it’s working properly; the best way of doing this is to put the car through an MoT and see if it passes its emissions test.
• The rest of the system can corrode, but you don’t have to go to Mazda for a replacement; you’re better off looking to one of the many aftermarket suppliers who can provide something sportier, cheaper and made of more durable stainless steel.
• Because the exhaust sits close to the road, there’s a good chance it’s been grounded at some point, so get underneath (which is easier said than done!) and see if it’s been bashed about. If the car sounds very rattly from beneath on start-up, it’s probably because the exhaust’s heat shields have worked loose; they’re easily screwed tight again.
• Any MX-5 that’s had a BBR turbo conversion tends to get through exhausts more quickly than a standard car, because of the increased exhaust temperatures; again, the fitment of a stainless steel system is the perfect fix in this scenario.
• Finally, if you’re looking at a model on an M or N-plate, check the state of the downpipe and listen for blowing. A welding fault on cars built at this time can lead to the metal separating, resulting in blowing and the need to fit a new downpipe. Mazda fixed most under warranty, and any car that’s lasted this long should be fine – but you never know.
• Over time that fantastic gearchange can get a tad sticky through a lack of lubrication of the linkages, so go up and down through the box on a test drive and make sure all’s well – pay particular attention to the change between second and third gears.
• For a rear-wheel-drive sportscar, the MX-5’s suspension components are surprisingly durable. Shock absorbers and springs should easily last 100,000 miles, although many owners will have fitted aftermarket recalibrated parts well before that mileage has been racked up.
• Bushes aren’t quite so long-lived, but they should still last at least 60,000 miles. Any car that’s needed fresh bushes well before this has probably been thrashed. A four-wheel alignment check pays dividends in handling.
• Because there isn’t much power available and the kerb weight is very low, the Mazda doesn’t tend to get through tyres very quickly. However, many owners get rid of their car just as a new set of boots is due, so make sure there’s still plenty of tread on each corner.
• Most (but not all) of these early MX-5 were equipped with alloy wheels; many that were initially supplied with steel rims have had alloy replacements by now. Whatever is present, check the state of the finish – especially if the original Mazda items are fitted. Over time these tend to suffer from pitting after the wheels have got caked in brake dust then just left.
It’s just a cosmetic thing, though; reviving tired alloys is a straightforward job at around £35 per wheel.
• It might be incredibly reliable, however MX-5 successfully emulated the traditional British sportscar in the way that it likes to rust. Although the panels were galvanised, a number of design floors and water drainage issues mean that the it’s now very difficult to find a Mk1 that hasn’t had or at least doesn’t need some welding.
• Make sure the drain tubes that exit in front of the rear wheels are clear. This is the number one cause of rust, which spreads to the sills. The rear of the sills is the most obvious place, but you should also check the front wheel arches and windscreen surround.
• Early cars can suffer from corroded door jambs, because the kick plates originally fitted allow water to collect underneath and stagnate. Mazda quickly realised there was a problem and revised the design with a rubber pad underneath, yet there’s still a chance that you end up looking at a car affected by rust.
• Because the boot is so shallow, some owners try to cram in too much then slam down the bootlid, damaging it in the process. The bulge that results is very obvious and not easy to remove.
• The electrics are generally reliable, but check that the pop-up headlamps are working properly; their motors sometimes stick.
• If you’re looking at a Eunos, ask if it has air-conditioning fitted, as it’s an option that was frequently specified by the first owner. If it is, make sure it’s working properly as the older R12 refrigerant is expensive to replace.
• Check that the electric windows work properly, as the motors can burn out. They’re easy enough to sort; expect to pay £80 per side for replacement units.
• Although interiors are generally durable, there are one or two weak spots. The first place to check is the driver’s seat, which wears down the side; it’s a natural consequence of the owner getting in and out. Decent standard used seats and aftermarket items aren’t hard to find, but it’s still a useful bargaining point.
• Also check the condition of the hood, which tends to last reasonably well but which suffers if the MX-5 has been cleaned badly (especially in a car wash) or not at all. The rear screen tends to get scratched; unzip before stowing it or it’ll get creased. Also have a look at what state the zip is in; they often get broken by ham-fisted owners.
• If the worst comes to the worst, replacement hoods aren’t that expensive for a vinyl one; you can even get a mohair replacement complete with a glass rear screen. However, don’t forget that fitting a fresh roof can be laborious and costly; if the frame is damaged as well, the bill to put things right won’t be small.
1990: MX-5 goes on sale in 1.6-litre form. There are just three exterior colours to choose from (red, blue and white) and two optional extras; metallic silver paint and a hard-top.
1991: An officially-approved Brodie Brittain Racing (BBR) turbocharger conversion becomes available, pushing power up to 150bhp and torque to 154lb ft. Anti-lock brakes are standardised, while the limited editions also start being released: in 1991 there are the British Racing Green and Le Mans specials.
1992: Special Edition goes on sale.
1993: Another Special Edition arrives – this time it’s black both inside and out. Side-impact bars are also fitted from this year.
1994: A 1.8-litre engine replaces the previous 1.6 unit, with 130bhp on tap. There’s a standard car or a 1.8iS edition, with power-steering, a radio, alloy wheels and electric windows.
1995: A 1.6 litre car is available once again, but now with just 88bhp. There are also a couple of special editions released; the California and Gleneagles.
1996: There are more special editions this year, in the form of the Monaco and the Merlot.
1997: This year’s limited editions are the Monza, Dakar and Harvard
1998: A new MX-5 goes on sale, dispensing with the pop-up headlamps of the original. However, before the Mk1 disappears there’s still time for another limited edition, the Berkeley.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Blissful to drive, well screwed together, durable and cheap to both buy and run, the Mazda really has got the lot. As long as you don’t need to cart much stuff about the MX-5 makes perfect sense, even if you do need to keep an eye on any rust spots.
Pick of the bunch is the early 1.6-litre car, as it’s better balanced than the 1.8 that superseded it and more powerful than the later 1.6. Don’t be put off by a grey import; to satisfy demand in the early days, many cars were brought over from Japan. These have Eunos badging and a smaller number plate plinth in the bootlid. UK-supplied cars’ chassis numbers start JMZ while Japanese editions kick off with NA.
In many cases the Japanese editions are better equipped. However, you do need to make sure there’s a decent service history available with the car; many grey imports don’t have much paperwork with them, so you could end up buying a liability.
While prices do start from less than £1000, you should be looking at cars from £1500-£2000 for something usable. Perfect cars have actually been commanding significantly higher premiums – with top cars selling for more than £5000. For pure enjoyment you can’t beat a cheap and cheerful example, but if you intend on keeping yours for a while then it pays to seek out the best you can afford.