The Blue Car
Before I even got the car, my wife bought me a workshop manual for it as a wedding gift. And to this day it is both a source of enjoyment and endearment to both of us. I've had the car since 2009 now, and in that time I've become an amateur mechanic, it's been my daily driver, we've done a road trip to Namibia, and now it's time for a complete recondition.
There are no shortages of project and restoration posts on various forums across the web featuring an MX-5. Some of them will be very detailed with excellent photos and how-to guides, if you're into that sort of thing. I won't do that here because while I enjoy working on a car, I suspect you don't so much. So instead, while the first few posts are mostly related to the initial restoration process, I'm going to focus on what is probably the most important aspect of motoring for me: the ownership of a car, and in particular my ownership of an old car that need extensive restoration and care. And me being an idiot in the process.
What this car symbolises to me most of all though is family and friendship. The enjoyment we got as a couple from it, the support from my wife in owning it, and in fixing it. I also did not perform any of these tasks by myself. In almost every case I had help (and required help) from friends with more knowledge and experience in either mechanics or electrics. This car would not have been drivable today were it not for them. And it won't be the last time I'd have to call on them to come and help me, although hopefully my (currently 8 month old) son will be keen to jump in soon.
When I first started looking at MX-5s, I wanted an up-to-date one. Affordability meant I was looking at the NB model (from about 1998 to 2006), since the NC model (2006 to 2015) was still too expensive. Then one day a colleage arrives at work with this lovely blue NA model (1989 to 1998). It belonged to his girlfriend's dad, who was mostly out of the country, and he drove it occasionally to basically keep the battery charged.
So I drove the car, and made an appointment with the owner on his next visit to the country, and I bought it from him without hesitation. My wife wasn't prepared for this sudden gut-punch purchase, but of course, she loved it after the first drive as well.
Then the real issues started cropping up. First though, some history. I am the fifth owner of this car, as far as I know. Back in 1991, a Malawi gentleman imported five examples directly from Japan. Since then, this car was owned by three people, and driven within Malawi. The last of these owners moved the car to South Africa (along with two others) for safe-keeping at his family home in Tableview. This is where I bought that car. Since it was a direct import from Japan, this car is branded as an Eunos (Mazda's experimental luxury brand at the time, akin to Lexus from Toyota). It also comes with all the stickers, warning labels and else printed in Japanese. And of course, it is right-hand drive.
At this time, my wife had already bought me the workshop manual, and I was pretty familiar with the theory of maintaining it. I thought that I would have to do the odd fix now and then. Boy was I in for a surprise. It didn't have a service history prior to arriving in SA. Presumably it was serviced and worked on by non-Mazda workshops through-out its lifetime in Malawi. The radiator was brand new, but apart from that, everything else was pretty old, very dirty and in working condition. For about a week.
We were on our way to watch a show when it just died as we entered the parking lot. It got towed home by a friend (very carefully, on the tie-down hooks!!) where we tried to find the problem. By all conclusions it was an electrical one, but we couldn't find it. What we did find, however, was by-passed fuses, bridged fuses and an horrendous after-market alarm installation. It quickly became apparent that every single part of this car (including the interior) had been worked on by, presumably, people that didn't have the foggiest idea of how to dissamble anything. So, it had it's first trip on a flat-bed pickup to the dealer. They found that the main engine relay had burnt out, and replaced it with one that didn't look like the original, but worked. This was an omen that I didn't know to interpret correctly.
Soon, it was time to service the car. I instructed the dealer to do a full service, including timing belt. Beforehand I shopped around for brake pads, but couldn't find any. So, I had to order from the UK, my first of many part imports. The dealer didn't fit the brake pads correctly. The mechanic either broke, lost or took the custom pad-clips, and the car was returned with the pads rattling within the caliper, and generally not performing very well. I took it back, had a few words, and have never taken the car to another workshop for service. I realised then that I would have to learn to do all of it myself. The dealer mechanics are only trained on the new models, and I later found out they had also partially stripped the thread of the timingbelt tensioner's bolt, in the aliminium block, during that service. So I imported a brake fitment kit, and set out with my first socket set ever.
Most of the rest of the year was quite uneventfull. We did regular trips over weekends, and later joined the local branch of the South African MX-5 Owner's club. I performed small tasks, like refit the radio completely and hooked up the seat speakers correctly.
By now I was reading up on the forums and talking to other club members on what other people were doing with their cars. Everyone had stories and advice, and I took some leads from these as to where to direct my focus. I started with the easy stuff. The gear shifter has it's own oil, seals and maintenance schedule. Mine was in a catastrpophic state. It's a quick job to fix it, but it required more part imports (the shifter boots and nylon cup).
The shifter update made a good difference to the feel of the car. The more strenuous rubber of the boot made it feel more accurate. This was the first fix to the car that made me feel like it's turned into a project car. It was also the first fix where I got told off for my dirty clothes by my wife. Since then, that particular t-shirt has turned into my "mechanic shirt".
Then one day at the office, a collegue reversed into me. I was in the car at the time, fortunately, but it didn't help. Her husband (who was uninsured, as he was a car trader and held nothing for more than two weeks) didn't pay me a cent towards the repairs.
Since the plastic of the bumper was already 20 years old by this time, I insisted on a new one. The clamps on the old one showed the tell-tale white strain where it had bent. But he would have none of it. In the end, I got a new wing and a new nose, but I paid for it myself. So naturally, I fitted it myself to save costs.
Prior to this, there was a vibration that had developed along the drive-train, and by now, this was getting more severe every day. It got better for a while after some hard driving, but would become gradually worse again. This cycle repeated, and shortened as time went on. The workshop manual talked about the two different crank nose designs, and it became clear that I had the early sort, and was suffering from the well documented short-nose crank problem. I concluded that under hard driving, since the engine's rotation is against the thread of the crank's centre bolt, it tightned itself sufficiently to alleviate the problem. But at idle and normal driving the strain of the belts was enough to gradually loosen it again. This gave the car somewhat of a mood, and it started to develop a sort of a personality. There were a few solutions to this problem.
I opted to try the "lock-tight" fix. This was the first time I had to strip the engine all the way to the crank pulley. It was a tremendous experience, until I came upon that tensioner's stripped bolt. Anyway, the workshop manual really helped a lot here, and soon I was putting my broken baby back together again. So, a bit of background: this problem with the crank erodes the key that fits the pully to the crank nose itself. So, to perform this fix, you have to fit a new key that holds the pully onto the crank. Naturally I ordered a new one.
This is when I learnt that one of the previous owners had already suffered from this problem and had his bush-mechanic attempt a fix of a completely different nature. I presume they could only find a key that came from a tractor or a pickup truck, because the key I took out, compared to the one I had ordered, was very different in size. So, to make their one fit, they had manually extended the slot in the crank that the key fit in, and manually filed at the crank pully so that it would go over the bigger key. Nothing I could do with the proper sized key would work. So I had a new key custom made to fit the crank slot, and set about with the lock-tight. This fix lasted for about 12 000 Km. And when it started acting up again, it was three times as bad as before. The custom key had completely broken, ruined the pully and almost took out the one wall of the crank slot completely. This crank was done with life.
I had the option to replace the crank, which would involve a lot of labour and refitment. It's a complete engine-out job though. Or I could just get a new engine. In Japan they chop cars up after 80 000 Km, and some companies get hold of these cars' engines and gear boxes for export. I got a second-hand engine (and gearbox, since all the vibrations had ruined mine) from one of these chops and had it fitted. I also supplied a new clutch. This new engine, since it was a later model, sported the updated long-nose crank, so this problem will never reoccur again. I had my baby back, and it was better than ever with that new clutch. It dawned on my then that what I had actually done by buying this car was take in a rescue dog, and I was busy nursing it back to health.
The condition of the car deteriorated with daily use. Knocking noises started appearing in the suspension under cornering and from the back there were some very faint bearing noises. I sort of expected that the car wasn't actually road worthy, and a test at the AA proved my suspicion. Because I bought the car it did require a new road worthy certificate. Now at least I had a list of immediate issues to look at.
After the calamities with the engine and its subsequent replacement, a few of the items on that list were knocked off, one of which was oil seeping out of the crank seal at the front. Presumably the same happened at the back, since the old clutch was slipping quite often. Mostly though, the problems were all due the car having sat in a garage for a long time. When this happens, the rubbers start to loose their suppleness and become brittle. So when it actually gets to being driven again, the rubbers immediately starts tearing and breaking apart under the stresses.
My shopping list was basically a refitting of the entire undercarriage: New polyurethane bushes and anti roll-bar mounts, new ball joints and new dampers. The old dampers didn't leak oil, but they were 20 years old by now and had seen a significant amount of gravel road.
The effort of replacing all the bushes was outside the scope of my own abilities and the tools in my garage. The poly bushes are very difficult to get into the wishbone mounts, so I delivered the car to a shop where they could use a press. They didn't do a very good job though. The bushes were fitted well enough, but the rear anti roll-bar lost one of its bolts and I found another bolt on the one wishbone that also hadn't been fastened properly either. I then subsequently heard, quite by coincidence, that this shop refurbished the brakes on another car which failed mere days afterwards and resulted in a terrible accident. So of course I double checked everything on the undercarriage. Real sloppy work.
So after the bushes were sorted out, I turned my attention to the bearing noise that permeated into every drive. Initially I wasn't too sure that it was actually a wheel bearing, and opted to first replace the rear brake disks and pads. They could have been warped at some point and anyway, the pads were done, so it needed doing.
As it turned out, it wasn't the brakes, but the hubs are rather expensive and weren't necessary for the road worthy certificate, so I let it be for now.
The lower ball joints on the front are sold separately, so I got those new. But the upper ones are only sold attached to the upper wishbone. This makes it rather expensive (and also rather silly, because the wishbone itself doesn't really deteriorate). These I had refurbished instead. For the dampers and springs I borrowed a compressing tool and set about building the new dampers and springs. It is rather difficult to manage when you're working on the floor. I had ordered Koni sport dampers, which are adjustable in height and stiffness. The poly bushes had made the ride so stiff all on their own, that I didn't really mess with the damper settings at all. Lowering the car would have made the ride way too hard. Remember that this car weighs less than 1 ton, and the poly bushes props it up so well it doesn't lean into the corners nearly as much as with stock rubber. So, the dampers were really just an extra, and for peace of mind. Also, I'm not into stancing or any of that stuff. This car was meant to be a daily.
One of the problems of old cars like this is rusted nuts and fasteners. The one front damper unit wouldn't loosen on the top cover. It had rusted down so bad that I couldn't dismantle the damper unit at all. I moved on to the rears units, and by the time I completed and fitted the those it was already mid Saturday afternoon. I needed the car ready on Monday morning for work. At this point I desperately called in some friends to come and help. The solution finally turned out to simply split the rusted nut using a chisel. This of course woke up all the neighbours on the Sunday morning, and the chisel was totally wrecked. And I had lost a nut, which is actually a bigger problem than you might think. You don't just go to the hardware store and buy nuts to use. These nuts' and bolts' thread are not compatible with general hardware store types, and I don't have a huge stash of lost nuts and bolts like many workshops have. I can't remember where we got another nut that fit though, but fortunately it was all sorted out by lunch time on the Sunday.
After this the car passed roadworthy, but there were a few other things that needed attention, and naturally some more surprises were in store for me.
Using this car on a daily basis is simply one of the best continual memories I have of it. It being this old however comes with a set of problems that you constantly have to watch out for. One of these is cooling.
When I bought the car, the radiator was almost brand new. I didn't think I'd have a problem with cooling, ever. But, the South African climate can sometimes roll you a nasty one. It was one of those heat wave periods and while sitting at the lights on my way home, I suddenly noticed that the temperature gauge was right off the scale. Something was wrong, but it was the last stop on my way back and I had less than a kilometer to go. So I pushed through. There was still plenty of water left in the radiator as I found out when I made the rookie mistake of immediately opening radiator cap to check, which resulted in me almost ending up with third degree burns all over my face.
The problem was the thermostat. It had given up and locked off the circulation so that the water around the engine couldn't get back to the radiator. Driving around like this is a problem, not least because you're putting the water pump under tremendous pressure.
So of course I had to order a thermostat. I opted for a cheap Chinese knock-off, which is still going to this day. Naturally it would take a while to arrive, and I had to get to work the next day, so I simply took out the old thermostat. This is no problem, the only effect is that the engine takes much longer to get up to working temperature, so I had to nurse it and curb my enthusiasm for much longer. This added yet another flavour to my driving this car which I remember fondly. A few days later though, still in this heat wave, I noticed a hissing sound while waiting for a friend, and popped the hood right there in the parking lot. I found that one of the hoses had sprung a leak. This was obviously because of the pressure build-up on that last stretch home. It was a tiny hole, but it could spell disaster at any time.
Fortunately it was the hose feeding the heater under the dashboard. This meant that it was easy to by-pass it and stick it into the back of the engine to complete the flow. A friend helped to get a specially made hose for this, and I drove around with this by-pass until my order of a complete set of silicone hoses arrived.
The silicone hoses took about a morning to fit, and there are two small pipes that I just couldn't get too, and thus never replaced. But I think the yellow pipes offset against the engine and blue bay looks absolutely brilliant. One problem I had was the hose clips. These things are super finicky (perhaps because of the age) even with hose-clip pliers. In the end I simply replaced all of it with proper plumber fasteners.
By now, the wheel bearing noise were much worse, and so I had to get cracking on the hubs. I had to buy a special tool to pull the hubs off of the axles (and almost totally wrecked the one center bolt completely!). I couldn't pull the bearings from the hubs myself, or fit the new ones. My father-in-law took it all to a guy that had a press who was kind enough to assist.
So at this point the under carriage was almost completely refurbished or replaced, apart from the front brake disks. I had total confidence in the car's long range capability now. But before we move on, the fabric top ripped up during a highway blast. Instead of ordering a Robins or OEM top, I took it to a local upholsterer, together with a new rain-rail, who did a fairly decent job for a third of the price (including fitting). It's still looking neat and is weathering really well almost 3 years later.
We were going up for a wedding, and had decided to make a two week holiday out of it. There were several friends going as well, all on different routes and times and we would meet up in Windhoek. But how do you pack two peoples' two weeks worth of luggage into an MX-5? You don't, you use a boot-rack instead. I had borrowed one from a fellow club member. But clothing and toiletries was just the start. There is one thing about the NA MX-5 that no engineer can get around - the size of the wheels. They don't fit in the boot. The car comes with a minispare (or as we call it, a Marie-biscuit), which is fine. But what do you do with the proper wheel then if you have a passenger? So I opted for a bunch of rescue gear instead, and threw out the spare completely. This included a heavy-duty off-road type compressor (the sort that hooks up directly to the battery instead of plugging into the cigarette lighter), lots of tyre-plugs and also tyre-goop. I was fairly determined not to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
I decided to take the straight and boring route - the N7. Now, the problem with any of the national routes in South Africa is the cargo hauls. Since the demise of the railways, these routes have become the main arteries of the cargo business. The N7 trails along the west coast where port jackson bushes and wheat farmland is exchanged for fruit trees and mountainous greenery as you pass over the Piekenierskloof pass. This is a narrow and terrible pass. There's been road works on it for as long as I can remember, and there are almost no overtaking areas to get past the slow, thundering and black exhaust-spewing lorries as they try to get over this mountainous area. Four years later and I have yet to cross it again; hopefully it's better now.
I must state that this car is simply epic on the long road. Sure, it's engine isn't a creamy V6 and the gearbox isn't a smooth and hassle-free auto, but the car is solid on the road and you get tremendous control through the quick steering rack. All of this sounds counter-intuitive, but compare this to something like a simple Ford Figo for instance (a much more modern car) which rolls around in a cross wind, pitches and dips over any sort of bump and has vague steering which requires constant flailing to ensure you go straight on any sort of road camber. It's truly tiresome to drive something like the Figo for an extended amount of time. The MX-5 though, not so.
Soon the valley of fruits and honey are given up as you pass Vanrhynsdorp. The end of the Karoo plateau is also on your right now, and the arid climate starts to take over here. Small, grey shrubs dot the landscape, and it's hot. The little car was simply stellar, the engine was singing and the wind rushing past. We had the roof up for the most part from the sun, but the air conditioning in our car had long ago puffed the last of its gas. The one thing that made up for that is the seats. They are supreme and my wife falls asleep in them in five minutes flat. And so we pulled up in Garies for a loo break. We had driven for the most part of the day, almost 530 kilometres.
I wanted to reach Springbok before night-fall - another 120 kilometres. So we got back into the car and... nothing. It was dead. It wouldn't turn over, although all the other electrics were working. I poked around a bit, but there wasn't anything I could do without tools really. We decided to spend the night at the B&B right next to the fuel station. It was solemn, and my wife tried to console me. The beer helped a bit too. In the morning, a cat had urinated on the soft top, and I got hold of the owner of the fuel station (and the B&B). He had a workshop at the back. As it turned out, he was a former employee at a BMW service centre somewhere in the city, and had retired here and was applying his trade in the old-fashioned way. Meaning he actually fixed stuff instead of simply replacing parts. And of course, I wasn't his only customer that morning. In a small town, on the edge of the greatest plain in South Africa, this guy was having a Thursday morning to beat any other while we were having breakfast in his restaurant.
He had the fuel-pump out to see if that had given up, but ultimately he found that the main relay had popped. This was an 'a-ha' moment for me. I had completely forgotten about that first breakdown, and had driven the car constantly since then for almost two years, so this did come as a surprise. To get under way he helped me make up a by-pass for the relay using a 10 Amp fuse. Ultimately I found it rather humorous, this make-shift fix for what had turned out to be this make-shift car.
At Springbok I tried to shop for a new relay, but to no avail, and we just set off for the border with Namibia where we arrived late afternoon. Here, things almost went awry. I suspect that the South African police officer saw the history of the car on his computer, that it had been imported from Malawi. This he figured gave him an ideal opportunity, since he immediately stated that the car had been reported stolen in Malawi. Of course, I'm not a regular border-crosser, so this came as huge surprise to me (and I only realised later he was surely looking for a bribe). I was on the phone to my colleague from who's in-laws I bought the car, but fortunately I had all the paper work and clearances for the new engine and everything with me, to which this warrant-officer William surrendered his claim and simply said "It's fine". We were stamped and through the Namibian side in less than 15 minutes. We spent the night at the Orange River Lodge on the Namibian side.
The next morning we set off for... Ai-Ais. My wife insisted that we should go there, so I turned onto the C-grade gravel road and set off into the reserve. The wash-board roads were terrible, and it shook us to pieces as we went down into the fish river valley. After a while I even stopped caring about the car as we burst out laughing for the insane situation we had put ourselves in. Here we were in probably one of the most unsuitable cars for this trip, on a gravel road in the middle of a reserve, getting our teeth rattled from their sockets. So when we reached the resort, we weren't at all surprised to have to park between Land Rovers, Cruisers, Fortuners and all manner of off-road trailers attached to each one.
We got a plethora of comments from the other 'hard-core' resort visitors in their massive pick ups, mostly the "What the fuck!?" sort. Still, we enjoyed the resort as day visitors. It was rather tranquil, my wife went for a swim in the various pools and hot springs, and we had some drinks. Then it was off again. She wanted to see the Fish-river canyon, we needed to reach Keetmanshoop before nightfall, and I actually had no idea how long or far we were from either. From here the roads became much worse. There had been a massive storm earlier in the week, and it was supposedly still raining in the northern parts of the country. The gravel roads showed the extent of the flash floods and rivers. In general, C-grade roads in Namibia is the equivalent of 80 to 120 km/h tar roads, but not on this occasion. Huge swaths of veld had been taken by the rains and been run over the road, causing muddy or sandy pits, or massive rock-hard settled sand lumps, spanning the entire width of the road. Since the car is low, and rear-wheel drive, I was scared of getting stuck, and no amount of rescue gear would allow me to get us out again on my own. So, unless I was pretty sure it wasn't the rock-hard sand lumps, I simply floored it, relying on momentum to carry us through the longer stretches of mud or sand. It was truly hair raising, and at one point I basically sand-boarded the car across one of these pits, flat on it's engine-cover belly and chassis. Sand went everywhere, and later I wiped some off the top of the engine, from between the cams.
The C-grade road became so bad that I thought we were driving on a bed of rocks instead. But, soon we had to turn off from this onto a D-grade road to get to the Fish-river canyon lookout point. This road forced me down to 20 or 30 km/h. We didn't time it, but I reckoned it took us almost 2 hours to do the in and out legs of this 15 kilometre stretch. I was in a pretty foul mood by now. The car was suffering badly, those fancy new Koni sport dampers were getting hammered, the engine and gearbox mountings were getting hammered, and it was hot. It was really hot and dusty. Our visit to the lookout point was, in a word, disappointing. The lookout point itself was unstaffed and there were no refreshments available in a tuck shop or otherwise. The view though... that was spectacular. The depth and width of the canyon is on a scale that neither I nor a photograph can convey. This is definitely a place that I would want to visit again, and would want to hike as well.
After we made our way out from the lookout, we turned north again and hoped to stumble across some civilisation. By now I had done 250km since the border, which on a smooth tar road would be almost half a tank. On these roads, however, with all the braking and slowing down it wasn't, and I had no idea how far we still had to go. To make it worse, we encountered several junctions (which I figured we needed to take) that was closed because of the rains and the damage to the roads. So we ploughed on, and while stopping for a loo break, I noticed that the boot rack had given up.
After this calamity, I really couldn't care any more. There was nothing I wanted more now than an ice cold beer and a shower. Somehow, our moods had improved though, such is the charm of this little car, even on these roads. It was late afternoon, we needed to find petrol soon, and we still had to find a B&B in Keetmanshoop. Then we were forced, due to road closures, back onto a D-grade road again, and suddenly we came upon a dam wall in the middle of nowhere. To me it seemed... magical, something man-made, something major. It was unbelievable. In reality though, it was the Naute reservoir, and we were very close to the tar road linking Keetmanshoop and Luderitz. We had made it!
That evening we spent in Keetmanshoop and slept well, after a lot of beer. You can buy beer in any shop in Namibia (what a blessing!). In the morning we set off for Windhoek, sticking to the B1 national road. This is a busy cargo road again, and after all those rains, the pot holes could have swallowed any of those trucks whole. It wasn't easy to maintain pace, I would have absolutely lost a wheel had I struck one of them. It was also getting cooler as we were catching up to that storm that had been raging in the south a few days prior, and in Windhoek itself we encountered a hail storm. My wife parked the car under a tree for the duration, and after arriving at the self-catering, it was covered in leaves and branches.
From this point on, after we had met up with everyone, we rented a big Toyota truck to travel together, so we parked the little MX-5 at our friends' place. Two weeks later and we were on our way back, hauling the tar roads and making lots of progress. I had stuffed most of our luggage in with friends, so we were now travelling without the load on the boot. It was also discovered, at a roadblock, that my license had expired, so my wife was doing all the driving. The problem with the main road seemed that fuel consumption is actually worse, overtaking trucks and other cars. With the small fuel tank, we had to literally stop at every town to refuel, even if there was still half a tank left; there was no guarantee that half a tank would get us to the next town. But it was plain sailing, and within one day we were back down at the lodge at the border, and the following day back home. The car had performed amicably, the undercarriage had stood the test of grade C and D roads superbly, and my only loss was to replace Steve's boot rack and the damage to the paint. And then I drove to the shop that night. It had rained just after we arrived back home, so the roads were wet. I turned left on an arrow at the traffic light and promptly when into full opposite lock to get it straight. It must have looked superb from outside, but I immediately knew what had happened.
I'm not sure if it was the extra weight over the boot, the softer Bridgestone Potenza compound, or a combination of both, but there was literally nothing left of my two rear tyres. I couldn't believe that we had completed a 2000km trip, coming out on tires that looked like this in the end. But, we had, and now I had to replace them. It was the most expensive part of the trip, by far.
Replacing the two rear tyres naturally included a spot of alignment, and the guy showed me some play in the steering rack. It wasn't a catastrophe, or urgent, by any means but indeed something that needed to be looked at. Later I noticed some oil on the garage floor, at the rear of the car. Closer inspection showed that the differential was leaking, and I could see a small stone (typically used in resurfacing roads) was lodged between the diff and the one axle, obviously damaging the seal. I suspect this was picked up during the road works on the Piekenierskloof pass which we encountered on the way up to Namibia. It had withstood 2000 km worth or travel, so I wasn't going to delay getting this looked at. At best, the diff was simply low on oil, at worst, the gears would have been ground smooth due to heat build-up. I got new seals from the local dealer and took the car to a workshop. Why did I take it to a shop? Well, there were two things I don't really feel I could handle - gearboxes and differentials. After this effort though, and while observing the mechanic, I'll take on the differential by myself now without hesitation.
A little later, while doing rotation, the steering rack issue came up again. By now I'd pretty much committed to keeping the car for ever, and solutions to problems needed to be long-term and lasting. So, I ordered a completely new steering rack. It took some doing removing the old one, and even more doing to fit the new one, but with some help I got it aligned perfectly.
By now I had quit the owners' club after a year of being chairman of it to spend every waking hour on Stingray Incursion instead. I was driving the car every day still, right until it popped the new relay I had fitted after the Namibia trip. I got another one, which lasted about 3 months, but by now it wasn't popping the relays any more, it was just losing connectivity as a whole. It was very frustrating, and it resulted in me not really being able to drive the car reliably, since it would just cut out anywhere at any time. The wiring underneath the main fuse box in the engine bay was shot, corroded and burning. It had to be addressed.
So, I roped in my good electronic engineer friend who, at the time, happened to be working at an auto-electrician workshop. He helped to rewire the main loom and split the main relay out to a new mount we made on the firewall, next to the master brake cylinder. Good as new. But, because of the logistical problems, we used some of our savings to buy a cheap small car as a temporary measure. Now the blue car was practically garaged for weekends only. It also needed a service.
The Ceres valley is rather unique among the different South African climates. Nestled in between the Matroosberg range and the Koue Bokkeveld plateau, it's an agriculturally rich area with specific farming specialization, and it's only accessible via mountain passes. We stayed at the Klondyke cherry farm, which is also at the top of a tremendous little mountain pass. In short, the Ceres valley is a bit of a haven for the driving enthusiast
The main road into Ceres is via Mitchell's pass. This is a wide road that carries a lot of cargo as the farmers truck their loads in and out (Ceres has several cold storage facilities too). As a result, the pass is heavily congested at peak times, but off-peak it's a super pass to drive. It's smooth, it's got excellent bends and great camber. Driving this road is easy and relaxing. You have plenty of time to prepare for the bends and to get your gear changes sorted out to maintain pace through the wide lanes. And then there's ample acceleration stretches between the bends too.
Remember that Ceres is considered a rural town. At the fuel station everyone stopped to ask questions about the car. I am always surprised at the response this little 1.6L Mazda invokes from folk when we travel. And it's always funny to see their faces when they realise it's only a 1.6L, and not some fire-breathing V8 that makes a ton of power. The perception and reality around this little car is very far apart. When we reached the cherry farm, the environment was so tranquil it was actually surreal. It was also bitterly cold. The cherry farm is on top of the Matroosberg range, right next to the reserve, so you're easily more than 2 km up. And of course, we went in June, hoping to be there when the snow comes. The cottage and the bigger guest house is old, but the fire place and the constant supply of firewood made this a truly romantic experience. There's also very nice hiking trails on the farm.
The areas around Ceres is also well worth a visit, and of course it requires driving out via any one of the passes. The R43 between Worcester and Wolseley sports an excellent old train bridge, and an Anglo block house, built by the British very long ago. Tulbagh is picture pretty, and the Paddagang estate sells some excellent wine (when they are open). A bit further out is Riebeeck Kasteel where you'll find the excellent Grumpy Grouse Ale House, which (used to) double as a classic car dealer and have the stock on display. Towards the north there are two excellent hiking trails, and the Gydo pass, which is well known for the annual King of the Mountain event, which was sadly cancelled after two fatal accidents. The pass itself though is rutted, rough and requires quite some skill to navigate quickly. There are very sharp turns, heavy off-camber sections and uneven tarmac. At the top, there's a bit of a geological marvel, where persistent individuals will be able to uncover intact sea shells from the mountain side, and also apparently a restaurant which we couldn't find in the dark.
After a week we packed up and headed home. We drove down the short pass from the farm, which we had traversed at least twice a day for the whole week, and stepped into a bolt at the bottom. This was unbelievable. I had really thought we would have an incident free trip, but alas it was not to be. So I set about changing the wheel for the minispare.
And then, of course, what do you do with the wheel? I had to flag down someone that could take it into town for me. This car makes friends! After I had put the minispare on, however, I noticed that it was rather flat. I had to drive extremely slowly into town, which was about 15 km away. We finally met up with our friendly wheel transporter at a local tyre shop, where it was confirmed that the tyre wasn't repairable. And to make matters worse, the 205/50R15 size is not very common, and the actual Bridgestone stock that they could source immediately was no-where near the correct size for my rim. Finally I settled on a Michelin (195/55R15 if I remember correctly), which meant I now had odd-sized tyres at the rear which will cause problems on the drive shaft, axles and hubs in the long run. After the swap, and the spare was pumped up and put back in the boot, we set off home at a gingerly pace. And so of course, I had to buy another new set of rear Potenzas when we got back.
So we got a new baby seat, and I tried to fit it into the car, which it did! Naturally, this called for a drive, so I piled my son in and we set off. Of course, the previous baby seat was a lot smaller, as was my son, so that wasn't a problem at all. This new seat though, this is much bigger, and supports the backward facing position up to 18Kg. This is required since the boy's already 13Kg at 10 months.
Now that he's older I can take longer drives with him, so I went for gold: Franschhoek pass. It was a superbly cold and misty day, and drizzle every 5 minutes to keep the road conditions just so. I set off out the back from Durbanville, avoiding the N1 and instead opting for a more interesting and slightly bumpy road, the R312. It's winding, but not tight, and not loaded with traffic. The view over to Paarl mountain is good enough on a clear day. From there I crossed the N1 past Butterflyworld, and turned off for Simondium at Klapmuts, past the Anura estate. This is an even more bumpy road, but low traffic makes it the better option. A great place to visit on this road is Le Bonheur. From here it's pretty much straight on the R45 to Franschhoek, although you might want to stop off at the Franschhoek Motor Museum; it's well worth it. It has some great banked bends and a really smooth surface, but it is pretty much single-carriage, and the run into town is slow. A lot of other cars join from the Stellenbosch/Pniel road and are sight-seeing and stopping and turning at different estates. It makes this road rather hazardous, and the wet conditions and low visibility on the day also didn't help.
Then you are into Franschhoek, and boy this town is something else. On a rainy Sunday traffic in general is usually light since everyone's in a shopping mall somewhere. Franschhoek however is the exception. This town is a tourist trap, even for locals, and there are too many restaurants and never any parking. I never stop here. It's too expensive, to crowded and too pretentious. It is rather good if you are out supercar-spotting though. On this occasion I saw a black Lamborghini Gallardo, which didn't disappoint. But despite the parked-up high street you are through it in no time, and at the start of the pass going up the mountain. A GP plated Kia was kind enough to slow down for me to pass, and we were off.
Now, before you complain about irresponsible parenting, note that I do this safely and while focused (unlike you, probably on your mobile texting*), and advanced driver training helps to deal with any conditions, especially wet roads, and to maintain a margin within the car's capabilities for any unforeseen circumstances. Having my son on-board doesn't change how I drive, or my approach to driving this car or any other car. As a user of a public road, you always have to drive safe, not just in certain circumstances. So with that out of the way, the pass was clear of traffic, but it was misty and it was wet, and I mean standing water wet. In spite of this, the MX-5 is simply just fun. This is a car you drive, and a car that responds to your driving it.
In contrast to that Lamborghini I saw, in the Miata you go quickly by not going slow. Going uphill I never use the brakes. I simply shift down if required and let gravity slow me enough, stick it in the bend and gently apply throttle to balance any under-steer there might be. Then, as the road straightens out again you push down on the throttle harder, and in the wet especially, you can feel how the back-end tightens up and starts pushing, first the one wheel, then the other. The open-differential is a bonus in this regard. Even in the wet this car's grip and lack of body roll translates to a flow between the corners. Swap a cog, get off the gas with a burble, turn it in and listen for the swoosh as the excess water washes out from under the additional pressure on the tires, let it settle and then step on it again and feel that prop grab the two rear wheels by the scruff of the neck. It really is automotive poetry.
On the first part of this pass there isn't really enough space between bends to even reach the 7k red-line on the engine, so there's no real need to change up. You might push 80 or so on this 1.6l in third, and on these wet roads that's already plenty. The other thing about this engine: it's rather restrictive. If you take your foot off the throttle in a low-gear the car slows right down. This is handy both in traffic and on the downhill. The car will easily under-steer if you under-brake for a corner or if you don't shift to a low-enough gear. The most defining aspect of this car's driving experience to me is managing the gears, and to enjoy this car the driver has to get to know the ratios and engine speeds. It's not just the chassis that makes you feel one with the car.
Soon though I spotted a Land Rover a few turns ahead and decided to turn around. It was nearing lunch time, and the boy was bound to wake up grumpy from hunger. I quickly stopped at the viewpoint to take a picture, but alas, the weather drew the curtains.
The drive back was, as usual, pale in comparison, and I simply lumbered down the N1 to get home in time for lunch. That pass in the wet though.. that's something else.
*Based on anecdotal data
I usually order from MX5Parts.co.uk, and I've never before had an issue with any of their parts, service or delivery. So naturally I had no qualms ordering the fuel filter from them. Especially since locally my only option was getting an OEM one made for almost 4 times the price at the old Ford/Mazda factory.
However it was the first time I imported since the South African postal service strikes last year, which lasted almost six months. Why the postal service? I don't have a choice. If the parcel is small and light, MX5Parts sends it via Royal Mail, and hence it arrives via our postal service. And to be honest I doubt I'll ever receive it - it's probably stolen, stuck or even lost at customs somewhere.
So after a month of waiting I jacked the car up, removed the old filter and took it to the local Midas parts store. They pulled out their catalogues and we started searching for a filter that will fit. There are no after-market fuel or air filters for the MX-5 available locally, only the oil filter. The catalogues' section for the MX-5 were literally only one line. What was interesting though was that, apart from the MX-6, all the other older Mazdas (323, 626, Astina, Etude) use the same fuel filter. It's not the same as mine, but not too different either, and the Astina and Etude has pretty much the same engine, mounted sideways for the FWD train.
Replacing the fuel filter on a Miata is super easy. Just pull the fuse so that the pump is disabled and then idle the car until the fuel line is dry. Undo the flap and pull off the fuel lines. Fitting this other Mazda filter didn't pose a problem, but because the filter's lines doesn't match exactly and because the rubber fuel hoses are very short, there was some bending necessary. So it's on, and it works, and it doesn't leak, but the hose on the engine side bends a bit too much for my liking and fitting it in the bracket would simply tear the fuel lines off. I'll try and get some silicone hoses at some point to replace these old line hoses with.
Or, here's hoping I still get the real filter delivered.
UPDATE So I did actually receive the ordered filter. It arrived a month and two weeks after shipping from the UK. The packaging was absolutely mangled, but fortunately the filter itself was intact. It's sitting on a shelf now for when I need it again in 30 000 km.
It was a Tuesday like any other, and I was on my way to work. On my route there is quite a sharp bend with two lanes. I moved into the right-hand lane on the turn's entry to overtake, and moved back to the left-hand lane before the exit. Suddenly I was 90 degrees with the road, heading for the end of the barrier. I really did think I'm going to launch over the embankment down into the valley. Of course I was on full opposite lock as quick as I could, but with no result, and slid into the barrier and scraped the nose cone along it until it ended. Here the right front wheel came upon some really tall grass into which it dug rather deeply, kicked up a tonne of mud and let out a bunch of air, but served to pin the nose immediately. This spun me right round, I corrected with the steering and caught the car straightening out, facing down the road again. I simply shifted to second and continued driving on, straight to the Supa Quick for an alignment. I'm still left with flat-spotted rear tires though, which is utterly annoying at highway speeds.
Stuff like this is exhilarating, even at 40 Kph. But it makes you appreciate the modern safety features like traction control. The fact that it was in no way on purpose is my only way of saving face for not being able to apply sufficient counter-steer quickly enough.
Now, I don't advocate drifting on public roads, but I have tried it exactly three times on purpose. Once in the wet, which ended in me facing the wrong way in the incoming lane. Once in the dry, which worked out well, and a third time in the dry which didn't work out well, spinning out over three lanes, snapping the auxiliary belt in the process. Why? Because using power to try and slide a Miata (ala Chris Harris) is actually really difficult. It's on the very top shelf of the car in a manner of speaking, and you have to be truly quick to catch it because there's no transition. There's no inertia. Just suddenly, zero grip. Fitting skinny 185 tires will probably make things a lot easier, and I'll do that one day when I get a set of steelies for the track. For the most part though, you're much better off carrying momentum through the corner and hoping for a little hip-wiggle at the exit; this is the correct way to drive a Miata.
An effect this episode has had however, is break my procrastination towards some detailing I've been putting off. With the fender gauged, it's as good a time as any to get to it. I've started my project plan and budget already, which is always the first step. There are a lot of small dings, surface rust and damage from the boot-rack that broke on the Namibia trip, and bits of old paint are starting to peel around the rubbers. The car then also needs a complete respray since the paint is at least 10 years old already. And I'm having the chassis completely rustproofed from scratch. In addition to all that, I need to replace the front brake disks and pads, and I want to install additional exterior trim, specifically a front lip and front mudguards. All this will require me to strip the car comprehensively, so I'll start doing that soon I guess.
The detailing project I mentioned previously has been planned, budgeted and costed.
This car is now 24 years old (if it's a '91, I'm not 100% sure) and it's really started to show it during the last few years. If you compare photos of when I got it in 2009 vs now, it's clear how much the paint has deteriorated. Of course, things like the trip to Namibia hasn't done it any favours, but that's part of owning the car in my book.
This detailing project isn't just about looks however. There is just as much an emphasis on proofing the car against another 20 years of use and ownership. Seals, fixtures, trim and then some two or three nice-to-haves as well. So in that spirit I've started working out my budget to see where I can get things done and what should/could wait until later.
The main items to be addressed are:
- Total body strip, treatment of dents and dings, prep and finally respray
- Complete chassis prime, rustproof and respray
- Windshield replacement
- Various fixture replacements and additions, including front sidelights/indicators and front mudguards
- Wiring and bulb holder replacements for front sidelights/indicators
Items currently on the longer term plan are:
- Front lip
- New wheels
- Clear reflectors
- Replacement rear light clusters
- New exhaust with a 4-2-1 branch
Items on the very long term list are:
- Flyin’ Miata’s little big brake kit
- Air Conditioning rebuild/refit to new standards
- A new idle control valve
I've made some progress on the strip of the body. The first item was to get the roof removed. It's only about 4 years old now and doesn't need replacing yet, so I only need to remove the frame. For easy access I removed the two seats as well, and found the first problem area of rust - one of the mounting points of the passenger seat. Apart from that, the exposed interior of the body just needs to be cleaned properly for the most part.
Unfortunately, the plastic rear cover plate between the rear lights that holds the license plate cracked during the removal process. It was extremely brittle, which I thought was due to sun and age, but as it turns out this is simply the quality of plastic the OEM part come in. This adds an additional cost to proceedings, and also extra time to import since this is an Eunos rear cover and not UK/EU spec. Hopefully nothing else breaks.
Once all this is done, I need to remove all the light fixtures, wings, bumpers and door trim.
The toughest part by far to strip is the interior. Especially if you intend to put it back together again.
Since the last post, after I had removed the roof, belt-mould and rear cover plate, I moved on to the exterior. The rear lights, boot lid light, reflectors, side lights and headlights are really easy. However, the water seals around the rear lights are shot and I’ll have to replace it. I cleared the boot and found some plastic bowls that got stuck there and forgotten from our Namibia trip. Then I moved to the interior. The door cards are easy too, if you’re careful not to tear the clips through the cardboard. This was all the low-hanging fruit. Easy to get to, easy to undo and easy to remove.
While I was removing the roof, I removed the seats to get space to crouch and work in, and found that cracked and rusted mounting point. So I decided that I need to remove the entire interior carpet to ensure that the floor of the car is solid and can get treated if required. The tunnel cover isn’t too tricky, I’ve removed that before to service the shifter boots. Then it was the center console. This comes with all sorts of wiring and connections - the radio, the hazard and pop-up buttons, and the vent-controls. Most of it is undone, but I’m still struggling with the vent controls.
The radio is obviously no longer the original (after five owners that would be a leap), but whoever fitted this one didn’t do a good job of soldering the connections. The speakers also need to be unsoldered to remove - those I’ll connect up with clips again instead.
I’ve had one other casualty so far. My son dropped a piece of his feeding chair (disassembled at the time) something through the passenger side hole in the wing where the side repeater is fitted. It was crucial that I retrieve it. No problem, I just needed to undo the bottom of the wing by the door. Needless to say, a LOT of dirt came out, dirt which didn’t dislodge when I sprayed it out with the hosepipe earlier, dirt that had been there for a very long time. This is a major cause of rust, and so of course the one bolt that holds the wing in place snapped straight off. I haven’t attempted to remove the wing completely yet, and I’ll probably have to drill that fucker right out. Not looking forward to that, or to see the full state of that sill.
After I got the dashboard out I could inspect the interior thoroughly. I needn’t have worried. But there is a lot of cleaning up to do.
In the end it wasn't as difficult to remove the dashboard. A previous owner had an aftermarket alarm fitted which is probably the worst part of the electronics that still remain. It will be a challenge to put it back again since I had to cut three of those wires. They’re marked for resoldering later. The alarm-box itself is also haphazardly hanging loose, so I’ll make an effort to secure it to the inside of the dash.
Some of the trim does look a little worse for wear after 25 years. My wife is keen to have some of it replaced, but that sum comes to more than everything else I’ve had to order already, and what I still need to order. I don’t think it’s something I’m going to attend to in this round, since it’s mostly cosmetic and easy to replace. Besides, I really want to order new wheels for the car too.
The car is now completely stripped (as far as I can strip it), but the end of the year is fast approaching and I still need to put in an order for the cracked cover panel, among other things. By the time all that will arrive the paint shop will probably be closed for the festive season, so I'm going to delay the body work until next year. Unfortunately I damaged the cover that fits over the mounting point of the rear-view mirror. Another item I need to order :/
In the meantime, I'm taking the car to an air conditioning shop to rebuild the AC system. It still operates on the old CFC-laden refrigerant, and it has a leak too. Since the dashboard is completely removed, it is an opportune time to get that sorted out. Hopefully it won’t be too intense; the biggest problem is getting the car to start and the AC to switch on with the dashboard removed. This is required for the shop to test the system for leaks or properly drain and refill it. So, I’m probably going to hot-wire my own car!
I didn’t think that after six years of ownership the history of this car would still throw up a few surprises.
One of the things that I both love and hate about this car (mine specifically) is that at full chat the bonnet, or hood, rattles and vibrates like crazy. This has always been the case since I got the car. I’m not sure why it does it. I’ve even secured the bonnet with rubber at it’s mounting points to stop it from destroying the paint. That didn’t help. It lends the car a very unsettling TVR-esque feeling when driving it very hard.
This is one of the experiences unique to my car that is probably from a direct result of it’s history with Malawi and it’s four previous owners. I’ve learned to love it by now, it delivers a hard acceleration character that is dramatic and assaults the senses.
So I was quite surprised when I learnt of a completely new aspect of the car as a direct result of that history: the missing wheel-arch liners. As I now learnt, these came as standard fitment (on NA models at least) between the front wings and sub-frame, helping to keep the dirt and mud build-up out of the wing fixture point at the sill. My car has never had these while in my ownership. In fact, I didn't even know these existed. So I’m fitting new ones, together with aftermarket front mudguards, in an effort to keep the build-up to a minimum and the wing mounting points clean.
So what happened to it? Well, I suspect that they were simply destroyed from years of gravel and dirt roads, much like my engine undercover-tray. This had one mounting point left at the back, so the whole thing hung low, almost dragging along the road. That is, until my pirouette the other day, at which point it was practically ripped off by the tall grass.
And then, as a small cherry-taste reminder on top, I found this underneath the fuel hoses cover plate:
So the car stayed in the paint shop over the festive season. They couldn’t finish the paint job and heat-treatment in time before they closed up. I’m not in a hurry to rush this at all though, and I had a few small things to prepare anyway.
The first item was a cleanup of the fog lights. These are the original JDM spec lights that was apparently OEM fitted only from 1991 to 1992. They work, but the outer plastic covers look really tired. I got a kit that did a neat job of clearing up the housings. They are still quite gritted and have a lot of pockmarks, but hey - they saw 25 years of gravel road after all.
Secondly, the galvanised plates fitted inside under the carpet covering the fuel tank and hoses, trunking and rear shock tower mountings, and also the plate in the boot covering the fuel hose, had to be cleaned. Three of them succumbed to moisture, probably from a leaky roof, and had started to rust in a few spots and also had a white mouldy chalk buildup on them. Vigorous sanding was applied and then I spray-painted them with high-heat black. The main lid comes with a lining and some sound-dampening material stapled to it which I don’t want to remove, so that’s why these weren't re-galvanised. They look so good now that it’s actually a pity no-one will see them!
So that’s what I did while the car is in the shop. After i get it back one of the first things I want to do is manufacture a plate-bracket. Here in SA it’s required to have a front number plate. Previously I didn’t care much and simply stuck it to the nosecone with double sided tape. This is of course pretty amateurish, and really spoils the look of the car quite a bit. Fortunately my car still has both its tie-down hooks, or baby teeth. These I want to remove, clean and then spray paint as well. Then, I want to make a bracket that attaches to one of these hooks and provides a mounting place for my plate off to the side, next to the fog lights. I saw a plate mounted in that position on a VW today. It worked to some extent for the City Golf, but it’ll look really cool on the MX-5.
After that there is the air vent system under the dash. The heater box has sponge lined around the edges that the vent pipes press into when the dashboard is fixed in place, making a seal. These sponges are pretty ragged, resembling something akin to dried sea anemone. I need to remove it all, clean it and line it with new sponge. I'm not sure if there is a specific type of sponge to use for this yet - I got a tip about a rubber and what-ever place nearby from which I can buy something suitable.
Even though the plate bracket doesn’t prevent reassembly of the interior to proceed, it’ll still take me a few weeks to work through these two items. First though, a New Year's party, so here’s to 2016 and all my giddiness to start reassembly.
I got the car delivered back home in the third week of January. It looks so good, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
Now the rebuilding process is underway, and there is so much to do. Pulling it all apart is easy, really. I didn’t care so much as long as everything was stacked and sorted appropriately, and nothing broke. But when you put it all back again, you focus on the detail, on the alignment, on the fit, on not stripping old rusted bolts.
First off, I have to deal with what the paintshop didn’t deal with, and what they left me with. After the clean-up I found a strip of rust on the passenger floor which wasn’t obvious before. I sanded that down and sprayed it. Secondly, there were the remains of the rear lights’ gaskets. I had hoped that the paintshop would clean and treat these areas for me, but I wasn’t explicit enough about it, and they sprayed around it. On the driver side it was OK, and only required light treatment. On the passenger side however I had to chisel it off, then scrape the remaining bits off, and then sand it down. After this I sprayed both sides too so that the new seals have a clean smooth surface to sit on. The rear bumper was only partially attached, and I had to get innovative with some extra clips the detailer gave me when I pointed out that the rear mudguards weren’t attached. And of course, I have to attach those too.
The paintshop didn’t attach the front bumper on delivery (I took it home separately along with the mudguards) for paint-protection reasons, and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It made it very easy to take off the two front tie-down hooks. These need to be cleaned and painted too. There’re also a myriad of small little consumables that I want to replace; clips and plugs and grommets and so on.
The devil’s in the details as they say, but on the whole I’m very excited to get this done now, before the turn of the season still. Stay tuned!
Work continues amid some setbacks on the A-pillar and boot-lid. I’ve got the two ends of the car almost completed, but there's so much building...
The rear of the car is now almost reassembled, including the rear lights, reflectors/side indicators and the license plate cover panel. I had some trouble with the rear mudguards. These were never completely fastened, and I wanted to reattach them properly. It took some bending and cutting of clips to get it all to fit and tighten nicely. The only other problem area is the lid brake-light. When I took it off, the water seal around it tore off completely, and of course it’s not listed as a part on any Mazda catalog anywhere, although it does appear on their PDFs with a part number. I can special order from the UK, or try and make something locally. Of course, I was never going to reuse the old one anyway, so this would have been a problem all along.
Then, as I was preparing to put the windshield frame strip back, I noticed that there was a missing plug in it. When I removed it, I thought I had done so with all four plastic plugs in place, but alas, I didn’t check correctly and one had remained in the A-pillar. This isn’t a problem of course, but as it turns out it had torn out of the rubber long ago. I removed the plug from the A-pillar and found a load of rust underneath it in an area that I really don’t want rust. This has been leaking through the tear for a long time. I had to sand and treat this area too, since it’s critical to prevent further deterioration of the A-pillar. It seems to be mainly around the plug hole; knuckling around the hole and down the pillar doesn’t deliver dull or soft sounds which would probably indicate very thin or eroded areas. It was quite a mission to clear this off, and I used a Dremel bit extensively rather than hand-sanding.
Moving towards the front of the car, I had some surprises. The shop had not attached the front-bumper to prevent damage during transportation (the tie downs inside the mouth made them nervous I guess), but they had also removed the plastic support for the spot lights, bumper stays and under-tray. This made it easy to take off the tie-downs to clean up, one of which would be replaced by a license plate bracket. While waiting for the paint to dry, I reattached the bumper completely, and set about the front parking and indicator lights. The new clear side indicators look ace. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints I didn’t get clear side reflectors too. I will definitely get the stock orange ones replaced as soon as possible now.
The light clusters though, that was something else. You might remember I had gotten the black smoked clusters instead to replace the stock clear and orange clusters with. In the past these didn’t support a separate indicator light, but recently they started offering these clusters with the indicator hole drilled out and a special rubber fitting for a separate indicator bulb. What I didn’t expect was that these clusters come with bulb harnesses and wiring already fitted, with the caveat that the main bulb is wired as the indicator (due to the old configuration) and the separate indicator bulb is not connected. Fortunately, because of the state of my car’s original bulb harnesses and wiring I had ordered replacements, expecting to use it with the new clusters. So now I had two sets of harnesses and wired plugs for each cluster. The stock indicator holders doesn’t fit into the drilled hole in the new clusters though, so after some cutting and soldering I built a mix and match set for each cluster that fits rather nicely from the two sets of harnesses. The smoke clusters look absolutely super, probably the best buy for this car I’ve done to date.
After that I started measuring out the passenger side tie-down and designed the plate-holder to put in it’s place. This plate holder will go all the way out of the mouth of the bumper and present a suitable area to attach an import-sized plate onto. This was a very interesting part which I really enjoyed doing, partly because I used to do 3D modelling as a hobby, and I’m pretty anal when it comes to things like rounded corners and bevels and so on. Of course, this morning it turns out that using Blender to model it and the export plugin to save to the .DXF format is pretty useless, and the guys doing the laser cutting of the stainless steel can’t do anything with the data set. I guess I’ll try something like Sketch-Up next, otherwise I’ll just get a trial version of AutoCAD.
This is slowly turning into more of a build than I anticipated, but I really shouldn’t be surprised about that actually. This car went from being an “occasional maintenance” project to a full-on “project car”, so I guess it’s just a continuation on that theme. More next time!
The last month or so saw some serious work towards completing the car's interior, including sealing and sound proofing. Finally I'm on the home stretch to complete this restoration!
During the final steps of assembly on the front and rear ends, I was contemplating putting the rubber seals on the windscreen frame and rear-deck back. It was pretty clear that I wouldn't be able to do this alone, what with trying to pry open the lip while also pushing the sealant in there with a caulking gun at the same time was impossible. But first I had to clean them out. The old sealant had to come out, and along with it years of dirt and grime. This stuff isn't like silicone which sort of hardens and dries. This sealant is more tar than anything else, and remains in this perpetual sticky state. It's a real mess to work with.
After some help from a friend and my wife the two rubbers were prepped, filled and pulled back into place over their mountings and plugs. The windscreen frame rubber was especially hard to work with since it's really floppy and pretty long too. During fitment I tore it a bit around one of the plug holes. To compensate I simply pushed more sealant in. The rear deck seal was much easier. This one is metal backed and doesn't flop around and touch and smear sealant on everything in a 5 meter radius. It was also much easier to fix into place. It's worth mentioning that getting the sealant in wasn't easy. It has an astronomically high viscosity, and pressing it out with the caulking gun is especially difficult and really hurts your hands after a while. Not to mention all the flexing you have to do is really tiring. I noticed on an MCM video that they were using an electric caulking gun. I don't know what those cost, but I would imagine it's much easier to work with. So with that done, I started doing the sound proofing.
When I took the carpet out there was a lot of insulation material that came off, either stuck to the car's floor or which simply just fell out. Of course this stuff is there for a reason, and unlike some motoring journalist I don't want to turn my car into a stripped out race car. So after contemplating taking it all to a motor-trimmer, some further research led me to Dynamat. It's not expensive, and really easy to fit. The biggest part of the work was cleaning out the interior properly - the one-on-one session with the methylated spirits was really interesting. So, hopefully this stuff is as good as they claim, and it also helps to shield against permeating heat from the drive-train.
Next I put the carpet back, a process during which I cut my one finger to shreds on the one mounting stud over which the carpet had to be fed, going in underneath the heater box. Overall it was much easier fit compared to taking it out. I made sure that the speaker wires for the seats were pulled out, but I neglected to pull out the antenna lead. This will prove to be a problem later on.
The dashboard was of course a bit more trouble, since it's rather unwieldy, and putting it back means checking and placing a lot of plugs, looms and other bits like the speedo cable in the correct positions while maneuvering the dashboard. Fortunately this time around I had removed the steering wheel beforehand, which made the process a lot easier. After it was in place I started plugging things back - which almost immediately resulted in that particularly concerning burning electronics smell. Eeeek!
Being the amateur that I am, I had neglected to disconnect the battery beforehand. This wouldn't have been a problem if not for the alarm. Since it's on an always-live connection it immediately started polling it's sensors and switches, even though I had it bridged to not immobilize the car. However, with not all the plugs and sensors connected yet it had some sort of potential build up which literally turned one of the sensor wires into a heating element and promptly started melting off it's own insulation. Luckily it was isolated to that one sensor, and didn't appear to have damaged any other looms, plugs or whatnot. A bit of a "phew" moment for me there.
I have now started preparing the reassembly of the roof, which I'll detail in the next post. And then there is testing all the systems on the car too, electrical and otherwise. Lots to do still, but I'm so excited to be almost finished with this project!
The project suffered some setbacks, one which is pretty big and commands even more unforeseen expenses to correct.
After I sorted the carpet and dashboard I decided to test the instrument cluster and head unit. The cluster checked out fine, but when I started connecting the head unit I realized that I had not pulled out the antenna cable. It was stuck somewhere underneath the carpet next to the tunnel, under the dash. What a cock-up. So, I started to unplug just enough to get sufficient space for my hand to get in underneath. This involved removing the instrument cluster again since the speedo-cable is the one item in this whole thing that has the least amount of play. I struggled a bit, and when it finally came off the cluster slipped out of my hand from the force and bounced onto the floor of the car. This caused the rev-counter needle to slip past the stop-pin, and just sort of dangled there... another cock-up!
I got the antenna cable out and cut my hand pretty bad in the process, and then set about fixing the rev-counter. This was pretty easy actually, and had the thing back and tested in no-time. The head unit connections also checked out fine.
After all that I started preparing to put the roof back. The roof of the MX-5 is actually pretty complicated, and was also the only convertible roof of its time that tucked in under the body. This means it comes with a gutter tasked with leading any water away into drain holes located on either side of the car, exiting just in front of the rear wheels. It also means there are a lot of fitting and lining up to do when putting it back. It can be done by one person easily enough, but of course it's easier with two people. That said, I attempted it alone and promptly cocked it up.
I had to rotate the roof to get it in the correct position for fitment, and did this in the air while holding it. During this manoeuvre I didn't keep a firm enough grasp on all the struts, and it slipped out of my fingers and opened up. Except, it didn't open with the puny force of my arm pulling it, but with the mighty force of gravity, popping it open like a parachute. This literally pulled the roof lining out of its fixture at the driver side along the window line. A third cock-up! So now I have to get a replacement, at considerable cost, fitted. To state it eloquently, I was rather disappointed.
With that job well in hand, I moved back to the interior to start putting back the small things like the glove-box. As I peered in under the passenger side of the dashboard I noticed that one of the clasps around the heater box wasn't fastened. I couldn't remember if I had even loosened it, but it didn't matter. The dash had to come out again! I had lost count of the cock-ups.
By now I'm was a bloody expert at removing the dashboard of the MX-5, and had it out, the clasp (and the heater box bolts) tightened and the dashboard back in, in under 30 minutes. Job done. Then I slowly set about putting the steering wheel, the cluster cover and the tunnel cover back. The latter got new genuine leather shifter and handbrake gaiters which goes a long way towards lifting the tired old plastics out of their gloomy existence, and goes perfect with my old leather gearknob
The final exterior bit was the chrome fittings where a hardtop would fasten. These have rubber gaskets underneath them which was absolutely knackered. I had to cut new ones to replace the fixtures. I'm now ready to take the car to the motor-trimmer to get the roof done, and then it's back to the paint shop to finish the stone chip and final touch-ups and polish.
Can you still read a wiring diagram from school? I tried. Also had the car out on a back road for the first time in almost 6 months.
After all the recent calamities I was keen to get the car properly on the road. I drove it around the neighborhood and to work for the first time on Tuesday and then again Thursday. Thursday night it was dark by the time I went to put the car away, and I found that none of the back lighting/illumination in the dashboard was working. Not a catastrophe, but we’re approaching winter and you never know when you will find yourself in the twilight. My initial thought was that the bulbs all broke when the cluster dropped. So out it had to come to test it, but the bulbs were fine. So I broke out the wiring diagram and started measuring all the points.
Some time later I had figured out that half of the circuit (red/black) was intact and measuring 12V on ignition with ground. There was definitely power. But it measured nothing with the other half of the circuit (red). After some head scratching I contacted an electronic engineering friend (who helped me in that first week after getting the car) and also started searching through forums. My friend was first to the line with his own conclusion that the problem was the dimmer switch. But I don’t have a dimmer switch. And right as I replied to him I happened onto a post on the UK owners club forum mentioning that some later Eunos models had blank-offs that complete the circuit and needs to be plugged in.
There are three additional switch locations to the outside of the driver’s position. In later models and in US spec models this is where things like cruise control and the dash dimmer was located. In my car this is where the fog light switch is. And also two blank-offs, one of which has an electrical connection at the back.
When I was putting the dash back (all three times) I couldn’t find the home for two plugs. The white one didn’t fit in the only white empty connector there was, and there was no blue connector under the dash whatsoever. It turns out that, one, it was the small blue plug that fit the empty, large, white connector. And two, this plug didn’t need to be unplugged to remove the dash at all. The lesson here? Take notes when you disassemble, so that you know how to put it back together again.
So with that sorted I took it for its first proper shakedown over Malan’s Hoogte. It’s a small, narrow equivalent of a B-road from Durbanville to the entrance of the Fair Cape farm. It’s rutted in places, but it’s quiet so if there was any problems I wouldn’t find myself in a dangerous situation. There wasn’t, except for the new EBC brake pads that smelled terrible! They’ll settle in soon enough though. It was a fun drive, but I must say that after 6 months I have to really get used to the car again. I’m so spoiled now with the CX-5’s level of comfort and ride-quality that this old MX-5 now feels like a right old go-kart. It’s not a bad thing though, it’s still a visceral experience. But the old 1.6 is sluggish in comparison and I really struggle to heal-toe this car. It’s far easier in the CX-5. Still, I wouldn't swap it for anything in the world, but today and tomorrow my wife has it because I'm on doggy duty :(
After the long months of stripping, painting and reassembling the car, I had high hopes for getting around in it for a bit. Alas, it was not to be.
I had previously replaced the rear wheel bearings as part of the initial restoration, and I guess I should have expected that the front bearings would retire at some point too. For a long time before the teardown I had lived with a slight rotational sound audible only at low speed, but figured it was not of any concern since it wasn’t getting worse. As it turns out, while standing around for a few months in my garage, the bearings had apparently deteriorated somehow. It was now making grinding noises under braking and the wheels were tram-tracking like crazy on bumpy surfaces. The former probably only became apparent after I had replaced both the front rotors and pads during the reassembly, the latter I had ascribed to the Konis and poly-bushes, but it was worse now and pretty disconcerting. So I pulled off the front brake and hub assemblies, after I acquired a 2 meter piece of pipe, and found grease all over the one dust cap with both bearings having sideways play in excess of 2 to 3 millimeters, which would explain the instability of the front wheels.
So then I had to get hold of new bearings. This front-hub and bearing assembly is considered a unit, and Mazda doesn’t have a separate part number for only the bearing. The EPC only details the entire hub as a single part. So of course the dealer price per hub was around R4500.00, where-as I could get aftermarket parts from both the UK and Dubai for less than R1000.00 and R500.00 respectively. So I ordered and waited.
While waiting for the parts I got another set of stands and lifted the rear of the car off the ground so that I could also adjust the handbrake. This has never worked properly before, but it’s a simple process involving a small adjustment screw on either side. With that done, and the hubs finally here, I “piped” everything back together again in no time, and the results are...dramatic. The front-end feels way more solid and composed now, with the turn-in response better than it has ever been. I’m really happy now, and bearing life is something I will always consider and inspect whenever I buy another older car.
My handbrake light started staying on. I figured the switch went bad and thought nothing further of it. But then on my way to work in late Feb I hit the brake pedal. Nothing. Straight to the floor. It was the most out of control I have ever felt, and I include the moments like my pirouette, when I ripped the power steering belt trying to powerslide a 96kw car, and my time on the skid-pan at Killarney during an advanced driving course. That day I learnt that if the handbrake light stays on, check your fluid levels!
There was a leak at the one rear caliper. I figured it was the cover screw for the piston adjuster that I hadn’t tightened properly when I adjusted the handbrake. Of course, later I would also learn that if brake fluid even reaches that far back you have a much more serious problem. At any rate, I figured a good exterior cleaning would do the trick. It didn’t. After fitting new lines (why not?) and bleeding all round it was time for a test drive. The handbrake locked up on the one caliper and smoke was pouring out of the wheel well by the time I got it back into my garage. The leak on the other one was still there too, although now I could clearly see where it was leaking - the lever arm that gets actuated by the handbrake cable.
I read up, and yep, I had a much more serious problem. The O-rings around the piston adjuster spindles were most like shot. So I took it all off again and started the total disassembly process. It’s not difficult, apart from the cir-clips that holds in the spindles. They have to come out in order to remove the spindles so that you can remove the lever arm. If you don’t have the proper pliers you might still get them out with two pins. And even with the correct pliers, I had to file down the tips to get them small enough to properly fit into the little holes to squeeze effectively.
With everything removed the result was startling. Clearly a lot of dust and grime had worked its way into the calipers’ mechanisms, wearing away at the O-rings (that old African heritage of my car again). But then the brake fluid started coming out and created a grimy slimy mix that somehow held together for a long time, until I started messing with the piston adjuster last year in an effort to adjust the handbrake.
The cleaning process isn’t hard, but there are quite a few things to look at, plus I have to get new seals, boots and O-rings which are on order from the UK. Here's a good step-by-step guide if you're interested.
We always like to talk and blog about upgrading the brakes or suspension or engine. Sometimes however you have to deal with the boring stuff too.
The NA MX-5 electric windows are a resilient but slow design. They raise or lower in geological time scales. If you first pull up at an access controlled gate and then only wind it down to put your arm out, the queue will be hooting and shouting behind you before it’s even halfway.
To make things a bit easier I regularly spray Q-20 (WD-40) down the weatherstrip that also guides the window along the quaterpane. This mostly works but doesn’t last for very long. After 25 years however, the passenger side weather strip decided it'd had enough and tore open around the corner of the quaterpane frame. The result of that was the glass itself pulling the strip out with it every time you wind it up. So I ordered new ones through the local dealer this time. And I have it on good authority that this new pair of weather strips were the last pair at the factory in Horishima.
The removal and fitment is really easy. Both took me about 20 minutes per side. The glass comes with some stoppers which you have to remove while it’s still in the doors; give it the reach-around for that. The weather strips are basically fastened with a bunch of plastic clips, with the exception of one screw each side on top of the quaterpane frame. I really struggled and ultimately failed to get these screws to take thread to tighten it back down again. Their holes are heavily rusted and I probably stripped them on the first try. The clips are destroyed in the process of removal. Fortunately the weather strips came with clips attached, but I had ordered additional ones in any case. When fitting the new strips, I started by feeding the window guide in first for the driver's side, and on the passenger side I first clipped in the main part of the strip and worked around the quaterpane last. There wasn't much difference in the two approaches. Both had the same trouble getting the rubber into place up the quaterpane, and getting the corner seated around the very sharp metal edges at the apex of the quaterpane. I used a credit card and a sharpened toothbrush to help me pry it in without damaging it (never use any metal tools with weather strips and rubber parts in general).