Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke
MAYBE it was because the sun was shining, maybe it was because it was a Friday afternoon. Actually it might have been the attractive deep blue colour and the fact the roof was down. It certainly wasn’t the aftermarket gear stick. I haven’t had as much fun driving for many years as I did in my short blast in this 1993 MK1 MX-5. It wasn’t quick, sophisticated or even that comfortable. It was noisy and basic to a degree. And that’s what did it for me – the simple joy of pared-back driving fun. There are many reasons why the MX-5 has been a best-selling sports car for thirty years. Price, build quality and reliability spring to mind. This car also harks back to much less competent but equally exciting British and Italian sportsters of the post-war era. And then, with clinical Japanese efficiency, Mazda managed to combine their ruthless engineering skills (that sometimes feel sterile in other cars) with the joie de vivre that we lost when Triumph, MG, Austin Healey et al went to the wall. I’ll risk repeating myself: I absolutely loved driving this car. In the moment, as I pootled around sun-dappled Frenchay back roads, I could almost see myself owning one. And I don’t really like convertibles.
Delving into the classified ads, the story gets even better. Because the MX-5 is so ace, and because the British public realised this immediately, there are loads to choose from on the used market. I might review a MK2 over the winter (will it still be fun in ice and snow?) but in the meantime the very pretty MK1 is a good place to start. For one, it has pop-up headlights! Some of the most exciting cars ever made have had pop-up headlights: the Porsche 928, Chevrolet Corvette, endless Ferraris, Lotuses and, as it happens, a small handful of Mazdas. The look they immediately give, allowing the designer to make the car sharper and appear faster even when standing still, is that of unquestionable cool. What a shame then that they are no more, deemed too dangerous to pedestrians in an accident.
My 1993 test car is a Japanese import 1.8 in special order blue paint, putting out about 130hp. The smaller 1.6 was offered first of all back in 1989, although I suspect that with around 115hp, it feels a little flat. Behind the wheel, it is easy to see why Mazda have stuck resolutely to the same formula since 1989. This is a simple, light-weight rear drive car with a fabulous manual gearbox. Somehow, despite crash regulations making cars heavier over time, Mazda have managed to keep the weight down with each new model, going a long way to explain the continued appeal. Today’s MX-5 is like a late middle-aged lady who has kept her figure, a silver fox gent who still gets to the gym. Straight-line performance and top speed is to miss the point – this is all about the drive. With no ABS or traction control (or even power steering on earlier models), you need to remember that you are entirely responsible for what happens behind the wheel.
So if you want an MX-5 jump right in, because they also happen to be supremely reliable. The engine is a gem, and is that most sensible concoction of naturally aspirated (no turbocharger) simplicity combined with a ‘non-interference’ design. That means that if the cam belt snaps, the valves won’t crash into the pistons, saving you a fortune in repair bills. They do rust, though, so budget for sills, door panels and wings. Parts are cheap and available, so that shouldn’t stop you. I’d insist on a hard top for the winter, and you need two to lift it on and off.
If my young daughters were just a bit older I’d be tempted to buy them an MX-5 as their first car rather than the usual Corsa/Fiesta hatchback stuff. In an MX5 they’d actually learn to drive and become a proper driver. They’d also have a blast.
Mazda MX5 MK1 (’89 – ’97): From £1k for a running restoration to £5k+ for low mileage specials.