The Total MX-5 fleet
Corrosion woes and broken parts afflict some, but Bennett’s new tyres are just fine
Just like you, we know from first-hand experience that MX-5 ownership has its up and downs, and this issue the latter includes a fair sprinkling of rust... But not once has any of us said, ‘that car’s gotta go!’
A WHIFF OF TROUBLE
What’s that stink? Surely it’s not me? Oh. Sorry about that. Can’t help it though, because my front brake pads are on fire… That’s over-dramatising the situation a tad, I suppose, because there weren’t actually any flames, but there were wisps of smoke snaking their way out through the spokes of my purple Rotas, and that distinctive aroma of overheating friction material.
Putting the MX-5 into neutral on a slope and then releasing both the handbrake and the brake pedal confirmed what my nostrils had already told me – that at least one of the brake calipers was binding because the car wasn’t rolling anywhere. Time for a quick call to the AA: you pay all that money, you might as well use them every now and then.
Michael the AA man turned out to be a bit of an MX-5 fan and had a mate who owned a much-modified example. He stripped down and cleaned the offside front caliper but advised that this was a very temporary solution and that I should get to a garage and have the caliper replaced as soon as. A quick phone call to another Michael, of the Cleverley Repaired Cars variety, and my mk1 is booked in for a replacement caliper the following day.
AA Michael’s prediction of a short-lived cure turned out to be depressingly accurate, because from the moment I pulled out of my driveway, the errant caliper was pressing the pads hard against the disc again. After a couple of miles I had to stop to let the pads cool down and the smoke dissipate, before travelling the last three miles at about 40mph.
At Cleverley’s, Vince was waiting with the replacement caliper. I’ve never had to think about it before so I was surprised to discover that it was a refurbished unit; it seems they don’t make new ones any more. And after all these years, why would they? Vince confirmed that the caliper and pads were ‘bloody hot’, although the smoke and smell had already convinced me of that several
miles back down the road.
Vince is clearly well practiced in the art of MX-5 caliper replacement, because the new one is in situ in what seems like mere minutes, despite him having to blow on some of the bits to cool them down. He then railroaded me into also buying a new pair of wiper blades because he hates seeing people driving around with rubbish wipers!
Sure was nice to cruise back home again without the smoke and pong, and with a much smoother brake pedal action. However, and as Vince had warned me, with the brakes now performing as they should, the pads didn’t bite as quickly as before, so I had to quickly relearn my relationship with the middle pedal.
Soon afterwards I took my mk1 down to Bristol for the MX5 Owners Club Spring Rally; on reflection, offering to also transport my daughter back down to Bristol Uni from our home on the Suffolk/norfolk border at the same time was perhaps a bit mean. Still, we did manage to stuff all her many clothes and study books, together with my overnight bag and her hamster in its cage, into the Mazda. Had to keep the roof up, though, to use the shelf behind the seats for extra storage, and I don’t suppose Grace was very comfortable having to perch with feet up on the seat for most of the 250mile trip, but we made it there without bickering.
A few weeks later the mk1 was passenger-less but filled with camera gear for a trip down to Eastbourne to visit The MX5 Restorer (page 66). Interesting place, interesting guys. Without doubt my car will soon make a return visit for some sill work, although my wife Helen – of the Mariner Blue mk1 also on these pages – also wants her car attended to. Do you think it counts if I say ‘I saw them first’? Hmm, that was my conclusion too.
From The MX5 Restorer I headed off for another 150 miles or so north-west, to drop in on a couple of Daves, who are trading as Davefab (see page 11), the ‘Fab’ bit being for ‘fabrication’. The quality of the work these guys do is stunning, and I’m going to test out their cold air intake system – which pulls cool air from the lowpressure area at base of the windscreen, on the other side of the engine bay’s bulkhead. Michael Cleverley is arranging for me to use a Suffolk-based rolling road to get some before and after power figures, so I’ll let you know how that goes in the next issue.
To be able to install the Davefab intake, the washer bottle has to be relocated to the other side of the car, so I’m also trialling a low-profile fabricated aluminium washer bottle, which again sits at the base of the screen.
A Davefab black painted aluminium trim panel that fits into the engine bay between the headlights, is pure vanity, but may inspire me to clean up the engine compartment a little. Or even a lot...
ON A STRAIGHT HEADING
Well that’s embarrassing. Since its last MOT I’ve only driven 460 miles in my Mazda. Seemed like more. But that’s not what the odometer says. Shame on me…
Given that Mr Cleverley is only five miles up the road and he’s just had shiny new MOT equipment installed, it made sense to take my car to him for the test. I was briefly concerned that I wouldn’t make it, though. Trickling through town in fourth gear I prodded the throttle and the engine started spluttering. It regained its composure as I hit country lanes, but when I slowed for the next village and then accelerated in third, it did it again. It’s the sort of stuff your car does when it doesn’t want to pass the emissions test…
Emerging from his smart new Portakabin office, Mr C didn’t think it would be an issue. Probably the plugs. Maybe the ignition leads. No big deal. Let’s get on with it, shall we? Yes, let’s. Part of his new MOT rig is a fancy Snap-on Sun four-post lift that sits flush with the floor to make it easier to get really low cars aboard, but before my car gets to ride skywards it has to stop in front of another piece of equipment with a monitor on top, and firstly have the aforementioned emissions test. It runs very clean, apparently, and would pass the test for more modern cars. Which is a relief.
Dropping the front wheels onto a roller set into the workshop floor, Mr C first performs the brake test on the front wheels, then rolls the car forward and does the same for the rears. Then it’s time to move up to the far end of the lift’s ramps to place the front wheels on a pair of pneumatic vibrating pads: later on these will be used to generate the equivalent of some brutal cornering forces through the whole suspension system, to check for play in the bearings and joints. And when I say brutal I really mean it – the front tyres’ sidewalls deform so much I’d swear they’re about to
pop off the rims.
Mr C goes through the full gamut of MOT tests using his high-tech kit, and then calls me over while the car is up in the air for its far more low-tech underside inspection. I’m guessing that when he says it’s the rustiest suspension he’s ever seen, he doesn’t mean it as a compliment… None of it is an MOT fail, but the sills are certainly heading that way and go down on the sheet as an advisory. My husband and Total MX-5 editor has recently been down to see the guys at The MX5 Restorer [see page 66], so that may be where my mk1 gets to spend the winter. I’d better start saving, because I think it could be a big job…
While my car is on the ramp it seems only fair to give Mr C the chance to play with his sophisticated new alignment equipment, too. He clamps on some reflective plates to each wheel, which are what the cameras on the big aluminium crucifix in front of the car focus on to gauge precisely how the wheels are angled for camber and toe-in or toe-out. I’m not pretending I fully understand what any of the readouts that Mr C shows me actually mean, but at least the basics of ‘green is good’ and ‘red is bad’ make sense.
In the 23 years that I’ve owned my mk1 it has never had its geometry checked, so it’s reassuring to hear that despite the red graphics, the car’s suspension is in reasonably fine fettle in terms of which way the wheels are pointing. Mr C reckons that it’s mostly within tolerance of its original factory specification. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants it perfect. Or at least, as close as he can get it. So he oils the adjuster nuts and grabs a couple of long-handle ring spanners and gets busy.
Despite the underbody corrosion, the nuts free off with only a modicum of brute force from our strong-armed MX-5 specialist, and he’s soon wiggling suspension components this way and that, trying to achieve the perfect setup on the monitor in front of the car. It’s an exacting and patient art, because when you get one element of the geometry spot-on it affects another, and when you’ve sorted that part you have to move back to the first as it is now out of kilter. It’s fascinating to watch the readout on the monitor even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking at, but when Mr C achieves near equilibrium on both sides of the car you can almost reach out and touch his sense of professional pride.
Having driven my car so little over the past year I’d be fibbing if I said that there was a huge difference in its behaviour since the tracking and camber were sorted, but I do think the steering is crisper and it’s more stable in long corners.
The older an MX-5 gets the less likely it is to be used as an everyday car – unless it belongs to me, that is. It’s not that an old MX-5 won’t handle day-today use, it’s more the fact that they’re now fulfilling the role of second or even third car. But why ration the fun? For me an MX-5 represents cheap, disposable motoring, especially the mk2.
I bought my 1998 mk2 for £1400 in March 2015, with the full intention of using it until it falls apart. Its cheap purchase price isn’t an excuse for neglect and abuse, more a nod to not being too precious about it: it’s a very liberating way to run a car. Rain or shine, all year round, the MX gets used and I get to enjoy every mile. Which accounts for its rapidly escalating mileage.
It was pretty cheap because it already had 98,000 on the clock – after running a mk1 to 135,000 miles, this didn’t really bother me. We all know Mazda mechanicals can take it. In the intervening 27 months or so I’ve pushed up the mileage to over 120,000.
Costs? Mechanically: three oil and filter changes, new front discs and pads, and a caliper. Cheap motoring. Unfortunately there’s also a bodywork issue. Regular readers will remember the horrors uncovered by our Tech Guru, Michael Cleverley. The rear sills and arches had been masterfully bodged and so we had no choice but to further bodge it through its MOT last September. I should have been distraught, but when you’re only in for a few quid, then you tend to take a more philosophical, year-on-year, approach. If it passes this year’s MOT, that’s a bonus. If it doesn’t, then I’ll take a view on what to do/spend. If it’s not worth repairing, then, hey, I’ll have had nearly three years of very happy and very cheap motoring.
Right now all immediate expenditure hangs on the above. It could really do with a new hood for the winter, but there’s no point if the rot wins. There’s a scrape at the rear and an orange smear, where I reversed into a Biffa bin. I would have been mortified if I’d done that to something of value, but in this car it’s just a battle scar.
Why not sort the bodywork? It’s not economically worth it. The roughest of estimates start at £3000 and where do you stop? The front chassis legs are without doubt going the same way as the rears, but the rot just isn’t quite so visible and is evading the attention of the MOT tester. Perhaps one day Mazda will go the same route as British Motor Heritage and its ‘new’ MGB bodyshells and start producing ‘new’ classic mk1 and mk2 shells. Not such a daft idea, I reckon.
It leaves me with something of a quandary though, in terms of where I go next. Best case scenario is that my trusty/rusty mk2 can be coaxed through another MOT and winter. But what if it can’t? I really like the mk2 MX-5. It’s just that little bit more refined and suitable as an
everyday car than a mk1, so I’d be prepared to get another.
Should I spend more and get a really good one? No, I don’t think so. Because then I would get all anal about it and I wouldn’t want to take it out in the rain, or drive it through the winter. It would, therefore, become a second car… Besides, these days, a really good mk2 is one that has already had its bodywork sorted. Anything else will end up in the bodyshop eventually and on that reckoning I might as well just get another cheapo mk2 and continue on my merry way.
Or there’s the mk3 option. Tempting, but would require more financial commitment.
Rot isn’t as much of an issue and they are genuinely modern, with such niceties as air-con and heated seats and rather more room. Really early ones can be picked up for as little as £4500, but I would have to have a 2.0-litre. Like I say, tempting and a continuing climb up the MX-5 ladder. At this point I usually start to think about leasing a mk4, but then reality sets in. When it comes to cars, I’m a born cheapskate.
But back to the trusty/rusty mk2. Last issue I reported on having some new tyres fitted, but didn’t have a chance to elaborate on their performance. Now I can, having put over 3000 miles on them. The tyres are from Italian maker Davanti – its DX390. This is the same rubber used as control tyre in the
5Club Racing MX-5 Cup. It’s not a trackday tyre, or something super sticky, just a budget road tyre, that Davanti claims punches above its weight. Scoring well in mandatory EU tests for wet weather performance and noise, I was happy to try a set and anything had to be better than the tyres of Far East origin that I was currently running.
A few thousand miles down the line, what’s the verdict? Well, let’s just get one thing clear. Proper tyre testing is a massively complex and timeconsuming job and well beyond our means, so all I can do is give you a feel for the Davantis based on... Well, based on exactly that: feel. Firstly, the ride quality is greatly improved. My old tyres seemingly had rigid walls and so gave the dampers a bit of a hard time. The Davantis offer a new level of compliance and work well with the varied road surfaces in my neck of the woods. Grip is up both in the dry and wet, but most noticeably in the latter, which is where really cheapo tyres are often scarily deficient. Sure, my Far-eastern cheapies were a right giggle in the wet and on roundabouts, but there was always the underlying promise of falling off the road. The Davantis offer a level of wet weather grip that is far, far superior. Of course, being an MX-5 you can still have wetweather fun, and if I want to be a hooligan I just have to try a little harder. As well as being able to lean on the Davantis in the wet, they are also far better in terms of wet braking and resolutely refuse to lock up.
Recommended? Absolutely. If I didn’t know what they were and it was suggested that they were any of the premium brands, I wouldn’t be surprised, because that’s what they ‘feel’ like. And at £58 a corner fitted, they’re exceptional value.
Michael the AA man makes a temporary fix to the siezing front caliper: replacement, and soon, was his recommendation
MK1 1.8Run by: Brett FraserOwned since: 2016Total Mileage: 117,558Latest costs: £150
Below: Davefab’s cold air intake and low-line washer bottle: the welding is superb. Before the intake is fitted, Fraser wants to put his car on a dyno to get a ‘before’ power output
Right: Fraser’s mk1 parks up withJames Peach’s stunning RS Limited that you can read more about on page 56: some envy was suppressed
Bottom: the offending front caliper was a bit too hot to touch for a while but as soon as it cooled a little Cleverley’s crew were straight on it
Michael Cleverley logs on to his fancy new MOT testing equipment while Helen’s early mk1 waits patiently to begin
Reflective plates allow the system to measure camber and toe-in/out
MK1 1.6Run by: Helen FraserOwned since: 1992Total Mileage: 63,553Latest costs: £0
Alignment hits the sweet spot
Brake balance readout
Suspension could probably do with some wire brushing...
Adjuster nuts freed off more easily than the corrosion suggested
Bennett uses his mk2 as an everyday workhorse and it wears the scars to prove it
Lesson learned – don’t back into Biffa bins. Got it?
Look what’s back
The hood’s a bit tired
MK2 1.8Run by: Steve BennettOwned since: 2015Total Mileage: 121,030Latest costs: £0
Davanti tyres are performing better than expected – they’re the control tyre for an MX-5 race series