The MX5 Re­storer

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

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

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