Richard Hart, an old friend and transplanted New Orleanian who lives in Durham, North Carolina, followed my automotive advice recently. He bought a low mile, first-gen 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata, from a friend of a friend, an older gent who’d owned the car since new, maintaining and garaging it continuously. This was good news, essential even, since the owner lived in Queens, New York, where cars that live on the street don’t get no respect.
Richard and I have been friends since my second day of college and I knew his automotive history, a thrifty enterprise littered with older cars, sometimes ones I’d found or was passing along, the last one of these being a 1975 244 Volvo sedan, which only a few years in had become too needy, too reliably unreliable, for him and his long-suffering wife, Sally, to bear. Sorry about that, guys.
In his past, there had been Darts and Valiants and Opels and not too long ago an old Mercedes Fintail. But Richard always remembered the MGB he daily drove for a few years in the ’80s, the way he loved its sporty, rorty nature and top-down possibility, as anyone with a pulse must. But it is fair to say that he was not a dedicated gearhead, displaying no discernible bandwidth, mechanically speaking, and little of the true obsessive’s willingness to spend money on nonessential maintenance—essential/nonessential being a fine line in many old cars and an issue on which the wrong side is too easily chosen. Even with his kids grown up, another MGB, which he craved, wouldn’t do. But a Miata would. They’re cheaper to buy and for someone seeking practicality, an altogether more reasonable proposition. At least that’s what I kept telling him. When it comes to old cars, I’m not afraid to proselytize. Especially for the NA Miata, the first of the breed, which turns 30 this year. (Here’s our original review.)
So Richard bought this one, which was good, because it spared me or my son, Ike, who found it, the trouble of having to buy it ourselves. Because it was too nice to let pass by. Low miles—80,000, or less than 3000 a year—crank windows, factory hardtop. No rust, no accidents, no mods. Its original red paint still shined and its black cloth interior had no tears or serious wear; the timing belt, the only expensive maintenance item, was freshly done.
Last month, I delivered the car to Richard in Durham, driving 650 miles or so in a day, with a stop in rural Virginia to lunch with an old friend of this magazine, the veteran journalist, curator, and hot-rod authority Ken Gross. The visit reminded me that there is a reason Ken’s niceness is the stuff of legend. And after 10 hours on the road with the first Miata, I remembered why I liked it back in the day, why the MX-5 itself is a legend and an indisputable classic. It easily earns a spot on my list of 10 all-time best cars.
If you’ve never spent time with one, you ought to. Here’s why:
DRIVING FUN. Famously inspired by the Lotus Elan, the sweetest handling, most chuckable confection of the 1960s, the Miata is above all a hoot to drive. It’s a Denali XL next to an Elan (though actually only about 500 pounds heavier) but safer and less likely to shred a half-shaft coupling or snap a lightweighted wishbone mid-corner. The Miata’s steering feel is as good as it could be by 1990, and especially so when in manual, non-powered steering form like this car’s. The MX-5 was born with what I’d nominate as the most pleasant manual gearbox ever, a creamily positive, short throw, dream device with that all-useful fifth speed for highway cruising that is also one of its many best features. Handling is companionate, ride is excellent by sports-car standards, thanks to all independent suspension, with delightfully predictable roadholding, plus a pleasing willingness to slide and just enough free-revving power in its original 1.6-liter formula to get that job done.
ECONOMY. Cheap to run, cheap to repair. Mazda and an army of aftermarket suppliers make finding parts easy and when used parts will do, they’re plentiful, as we found out when the car arrived and it turned out the motor that lifted the left headlight was dead. New? $314 from the Mazda dealer (sure, not too cheap, but readily available). Perfectly good used from a guy down the street with a wrecked Miata in his backyard? $50. Twenty-nine miles per gallon at 75 mph was not going to win any economy prizes, and is worse by some meaningful percentage than a new Miata, but it wasn’t bad. And if you want to buy a new Miata instead, a still joyous machine, better but less simple, you won’t hear me object.
CONVERTIBLE TOP. First off, Miatas don’t leak, a concept that makes MG owners variously cackle or cry. Second, there hasn’t been a manual convertible top easier to erect or take down, making this one simply the best in the business. It’s long-wearing, with a zip-out rear window for breezy top-up use on a too-sunny day. And three cheers for the optional hardtops. Like Miatas themselves, they are a meaningful unit of currency—handsome, easy to remove, easy to install, and always easy to sell, say, if you ever need some of your money back but don’t want to give up the car. Also, unlike many of its historic antecedents, there’s no need to do anything with the Miata’s soft top to make the hardtop fit.
CHEAP TO BUY. NA Miatas found the bottom of the market, price-wise, several years ago and are on their way back up, but on a dollar-to-smile basis they’re still incredibly affordable. Good Miatas needing work can be had from $1500 to $4000, cars purporting not to need work from about $4000 on up. Expect to pay $1000 extra for the hardtop, and less for cars with uninspiring automatic transmissions. Go shopping with $6000 and you should be pretty certain of going home in a good car. If you don’t, it’s probably because you didn’t have someone who knew cars check it out for you. Avoid: rust, accidents.
RELIABILITY. Everything works in a Miata and if it doesn’t it is A) a rare occurrence and B) easy to set right. The plastics are hard-wearing, ditto the switches and cable-operated controls. The bodies don’t rust, except in cases where repaired bodywork has been poorly prepared. The gauges and electrics work, always, as do the wipers and a real heater and defroster. The oily bits don’t leak. The doors open and shut properly. The door locks function. Can you tell I’ve owned some old convertibles? These things concern me. As does the fact that trunk stays dry. And for those so inclined, Miatas are straightforward and easy to work on yourself. Nor too expensive for you to hire someone else to work on.
Six weeks later, Richard is still pinching himself—the Mazda hasn’t broken once. “No better, smoother, cheaper thrill than hugging a corner from a foot off the ground at 30 mph,” he writes in this morning’s e-mail. I’ve owned a few Miatas in my day, and, though I don’t own one now, I guess I’m still crazy about them after all these years. Would I buy another, even if only to salt it away? Absolutely.