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1991 Mazda MX-5 – Project Profile

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By Chris Pollitt

There are few things in the motoring world as pure as going for a blast in a light, agile, well-balanced sports car. The Japanese knew this, which is why the MX-5 of the late ‘80s was so heavily influenced by cars like the classic Lotus Elan. Both cars are no frills, basic engineering, but basic isn’t bad. It just means you get to experience the thrill of driving without needless computer aids getting in the way. 

The only problem today is that the Elan, while wonderful, is prohibitively expensive for most of us. As for the MX-5 that so embodied its spirit, well, they’re less expensive, but by being so, they have also fallen into the crosshairs of those who like to modify cars. There is a vast and seemingly endless world of aftermarket parts for the MX-5, allowing owners to build a car to any specification they see fit. 

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While we’re all for a bit of modification and self-expression, the fact is that doing so makes original cars thin on the ground. And when it comes to the MX-5, we do feel that you should enjoy them in the specification the engineers intended, which brings us onto this week’s project of choice. This is the perfect, original spec car, that you can either enjoy, or build into the MX-5 of your dreams. 

What is it? 

What you’re looking at here is actually quite special in MX-5 terms. It’s an early 1.6 UK car that hasn’t been messed about with at all. This is about as pure as Mazda MX5 ownership comes. And this strikes us as a car you can buy with a degree of confidence given that the current owner has had it for around eight years. A car that’s had an owner for a long time is always a good thing, as it often means they have looked after it. 

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The only modification it has had is a stainless tubular manifold, but that’s no bad thing. Other than that, it’s presented exactly as Mazda intended. Two seats, a willing engine, manual transmission and no roof. Perfect. 

Why is it a project? 

Age has caught up with the little car. At 29 years-old, and with 170k on the clock, you can forgive it a bit for giving into the rigors of time. There’s some lacquer peel, the screen frame is showing signs of rust in the left-hand upper corner, there’s “general surface rust” on the underside, and most pressing of all, one of the sills needs repairing before another MOT can be acquired. Oh, and there’s a minor oil leak.

The big thing is the sill. The vendor states that the driver’s side has been professionally repaired in the past (don’t be concerned – old MX-5 love to rot, sadly). However, the passenger side is now in need of attention. The vendor was going to have this done professionally, but alas hasn’t had the chance. He does state that it could possibly be patched for MOT, but he suggests doing it right, which we wholeheartedly agree with. 

The car has also, unfortunately, been a Cat C write off, but this was a long, long time ago, and the damage was apparently only to one wing, which has obviously been replaced. 

So, before you can get an MOT it needs some attention from the sparkly spanner, but that’s it. Everything else can be done while the car is rolling. Sort the leak oil leak out (probably just an old gasket), sort the peeling lacquer and you’ll have a very smart MX-5 to play with. 

Five things to look for:

1) Rust

As we said earlier, these little, old Mazdas love to rust. The vendor has been wonderfully transparent about the condition of the car. However, it won’t hurt for you to have a good inspection yourself. Sills, suspension mounting points, floors and firewall are what you need to look at. 

2) Roof

It’s a ragtop, so you need to check the roof is in good nick. It’s not electric, so nothing to worry about there. And while new roofs are readily available, it’s going to be a couple of hundred quid by the time it’s fitted. 

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3) Suspension

The MX-5 is a car you buy for the handling, not the speed. As such, the suspension needs to be in rude health. Despite its mileage, the vendor seems pleasantly confident in it. He says there are no knocks, bumps or bangs, and that’s great. But still, have a look and listen for yourself. 

4) Differential 

We’re quietly confident that this long-term owned example will be fine, but still have a listen to the differential for any clunks or knocks. They could be indicative of past abuse, and it’ll be about £200 to put it right. 

5) Transmission

Again, the transmission is an important part of the drive in an MX-5. It needs to be direct and sharp, not wayward and difficult to engage. If it is, it might just be bushings, which is no big deal. If, however, it doesn’t like engaging gear, that could be something more terminal. 

What should you do with it? 

This MX-5 is a bargain at a mere £850. Add another £300 or so onto that and, if the vendor’s description is as delightfully honest as it sounds, you could have it back on the road and fighting fit in time for summer. If you wanted to go further, you could upgrade the suspension to emphasise that wonderful handling, and maybe fit some better rubber to the wheels. 

That’s all we’d do though. The trick, as we’ve said throughout, is to enjoy the MX-5 in standard guise, at least to begin with. Once you’ve experienced it in every driving situation, you can then delve into the vast and wonderful world of modification, which is something this car would lean into quite well. It’s got 170k on the clock, so it’s never going to be an original show queen. So, why not give it a new lease of life after putting it on the road?

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