The MX5 Restorer
Turning rusty roadsters back into top-down gems
From fixing up MX-5S as a hobby, Gareth Smith and Chris Loader have turned their passion into a business. But as they explain here, the money is secondary to keeping MX-5S running for decades to come
Follow your satnav on the hunt for The MX5 Restorer’s Eastbourne home, and you might just question its sense of direction. It leads you right onto the forecourt of a swanky Mercedes-benz dealership, with three-pointed stars aiming at you from all directions. Brave your confusion for a moment and plough on around the back of the dealership and you’re still surrounded by umpteen gleaming examples of
Stuttgart’s finest: turn back?
No. Because a little way ahead you spot your first MX-5. And then another, and one more minus a front wing. Then you spot a couple of brightly shining mk1s with ‘For Sale’ posters in their windscreens, parked right outside a big sign proclaiming that you’ve arrived at The MX5 Restorer – the satnav wasn’t making it up after all, you’ll be pleased to learn.
Inside is feverish activity. There’s a red mk1 being reassembled following an extensive restoration; a green mk1 having its undersides and inner wheelarches vigorously wire-brushed in preparation for a coat of protective underseal – a white mk3 will soon be arriving for similar attention, the third generation roadster seemingly now just as prone to chassis and suspension rust as the earlier models.
Orchestrating all the activity today is Chris Loader who, along with his friend and business partner Gareth Smith, is co-owner of The MX5 Restorer and its sister company, Sussex Japanese Imports (importing – you’ve guessed it – MX-5S from Japan and
Australia). Gareth is actually taking a day off today, but takes the trouble to drop by and say hello. And because it’s a hot, cloudless day, he arrives in his mk1 MX-5 Speedster: roofless
and with a cut-down windscreen and side windows, it was a complex build with lots of hidden ingenuity, and we’ll be revisiting it on another day. Gareth has brought it along today mostly because he loves driving it, but also to demonstrate to us that the reason The MX-5 Restorer is so good at what it does, is because the folk who work there are passionate owners of the product; Chris’s heavily modified mk1 is also parked outside in the sunshine.
And that passion, explains Chris, dates way back to 1998 when Gareth, then still in his teens, bought his first MX-5, a J-plate example that he paid £7000 for. ‘Gareth kept that car until 2003,’ relates Chris, ‘and moved on to a [Toyota] Supra, but it was always in the back of his mind that he would have another MX-5. And in 2006 he did just that – he found a BBR Turbo up in Scotland.
‘Although we were mates with a shared interest in cars, it wasn’t until about 2009 or 2010 that I had my first drive of Gareth’s car. I took the keys off him and went for a blast, and suddenly I had that lightbulb moment and understood what all the fuss was about. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was and I knew that I had to get one of my own.
‘Meanwhile Gareth had become very active on the [MX-5] forums, detailing the maintenance and mods on his car. Between us we’d photograph and document everything he was doing, and before long he was being asked lots of questions. What grew out of that, was people then asking if Gareth would be prepared to work on their cars, too, so that’s what we started doing in our spare time.
‘At that stage we were doing pretty much everything on Gareth’s driveway including, one Sunday, fixing up our own cars. It turned into a pivotal moment: the day started sunny and then deteriorated into
lashing rain. We had to stick up a huge garden umbrella between the two cars to be able to carry on working, at which point we thought, “we have to get a unit.”
‘After that the work came pouring in. Gareth was still employed at this stage and I was self-employed in a nonautomotive job, so we were working on the MX-5S in the evenings and weekends. But eventually the sheer volume of MX-5 work snowballed into us creating The MX5 Restorer and turning a sort of hobby into full-time employment.
‘That change in status didn’t affect the way we approached the business, though, and still hasn’t – we get a buzz out of working on the cars first, and as long as we can pay all our bills then the money side of things is secondary. We place our focus on making sure our customers are well looked after – we try to treat them in the way we’d expect to be treated.
‘We like to be honest and upfront and give our customers the right advice, even when that means we’ve talked ourselves out of a job. I’ll give you a “for instance”. When The MX5 Restorer first started out, MX-5 prices were rock bottom. We’d have people come in and ask us to do a couple of grand’s worth of welding on their car – we’d suggest that as you could at that stage get a perfectly acceptable car for £1200, the welding simply wasn’t worth the cost of doing.
‘Even with the prices of mk1s now starting to climb, there are still things we advise customers to be sensible about. We have people ask us to repair or recondition their engine or
gearbox, but why would you bother when a secondhand motor from a reputable supplier is only about £400 and gearbox prices are as low as £50. We could rebuild your engine if the “matching numbers” thing is important to you or you want upgraded internals to go racing, but otherwise a straight swap is the most cost-efficient way to go for most folk.’
Both Chris and Gareth are keen to point out that despite the company name, The MX5 Restorer is about more than just returning your Mazda to its original glory. Also on the menu are light servicing, replacement components, motorsport preparation, performance tuning, and new and used spare parts. But as everyone in the general MX-5 community is all too painfully aware, the thing that needs most attention of all is good old-fashioned rust.
‘Almost counter-intuitively,’ observes Chris, ‘the very early mk1s, from ’89 to ’91, are more resistant to rust than later versions, and much more so than mk2s: the inner surfaces of key metal parts were treated with a protective coating. The mk2.5 rusts the quickest, with the mk2 not far behind. Early mk3s, meanwhile, really do benefit from a future-proofing coat of underseal, as not only are suspension arms and other chassis components already starting to rust, we’ve already treated a couple for small holes in the floorpan.
‘As the early cars get older, the extent and pattern of the rust changes, too: we’re constantly having to update our processes for particular types of work. When we first started we could open up a mk2’s sill and it was a relatively straightforward repair, whereas now it’s an absolute nightmare with the rust heading off in all directions… But because we’ve witnessed this evolution of the problem and kept on top of it, we know where to cut, where to replace, where to weld.’
Because good quality painting requires both space and a sterile environment, The MX5 Restorer outsources this operation once all the preparation work is done –
‘they know the standard we expect,’ insists Chris. Also outsourced to trusted suppliers are upholstery trimming and suspension geometry setup.
As further evidence of his and Gareth’s personal entanglement in the world of MX-5S, just before we leave Chris shows us ‘The Bunker’, a nearby Nissen crammed with cars they couldn’t resist buying but don’t yet have the time to restore; also tucked away in here are secondhand doors, bonnets and boot-lids, their salvation a shrewd move given that the prices of old MX-5S, and therefore the amounts of money that owners are now prepared to lavish upon them, are definitely on the way up.
And on that latter subject, Chris admits that even he’s sometimes surprised at how quickly things are moving. ‘We had a wealthy customer come in to see us the other day with a [mk1] Le Mans. Although generally tidy, it still requires a fair bit of work to bring it up to 100 per cent. And our bill will be on top of the £17,000 the customer paid for it… Does that mean a good Le Mans is now worth upwards of £20K?’
Just before we leave, we take a quick stroll around the industrial estate where The
MX5 Restorer is based and discover a parking area stuffed with MX-5S. ‘More customers’ cars,’ smiles Chris, ‘we’re rather busy at the moment.’ And with the aforementioned rise in prices for mk1s, The MX5 Restorer team is likely to be bustling for some considerable time to come.
The MX5 Restorer 01323 768356 www.themx5restorer.co.uk
Mk1 being reassembled after a full rebuild. The MX5 Restorer is also kept busy with sill and wheelarch repairs, ailments most of us are familiar with…
Does what it says above the door…
Gareth Smith and Chris Loader
Waiting their turn: The MX5 Restorer’s popularity means that the overflow car park is always full of new business
Even mk3s will benefit from a fresh coat of underseal
Almost a barn find… Gareth and Chris have a few mk1s tucked away as future project cars, if ever they find the time to work on them
Gareth’s Speedster is a demonstration of the company’s talents
The MX5 Restorer keeps a healthy supply of secondhand body parts
Front bumper being prepared to fix back on the full restoration car. The green car is having its arches scrubbed prior to undersealing them