Garath Smith wanted to create a car in the style of Mazda’s MX-5 M Speedster concept: the finished item is a fabulous tribute and packed with glorious details
Garath Smith’s tribute to an MX-5 concept car is stunningly executed and a pleasure to drive and to look at. And it may be for sale…
The young guy in the sporty Ford Fiesta ST almost snaps his neck as his head whips round to stare. And when we park up alongside a brand new MX-5 mk4, the lady owner – on holiday with her father – is all over our car, inside and out, making appreciative comments.what’s clear is that she doesn’t really know if it’s old or new, she just likes the way it looks: her father, meanwhile, confesses that when we first pulled up he thought it was a Porsche.
If Garath Smith’s intention was to create a crowd-pleaser with his muchmodified mk1 MX-5 Speedster, then it’s very much mission accomplished: wherever you go, people gawp and smile and point. While MX-5 fans might know immediately what the Speedster is based on, to the rest of the world it’s a sleek, low, dazzling white mystery machine – they’d be even more impressed if ever they were fortunate enough to drive it…
Some of you may recognise Garath’s name as one of the directors of Eastbourne-based The MX5 Restorer, but while his company’s website address adorns the sills of the Speedster, the project started life when fixing up MX-5S was still a sideline for him.‘i’ve always been passionate about the MX-5,’ reveals Garath,‘and was eventually able to turn a hobby into a business. But before that happened I was working on my own cars and, of course, driving them.
‘I’d just finished restoring another mk1 and it was looking so good that I didn’t want to drive it through the winter. So I bought a mk1 Eunos for £400 just to run around in. One of its rear wings was stove in and it was rusty in places, but it had a half-cage and was surprisingly nifty, and I kind of liked it in the end.
‘That said, it later got to the stage where it was just sitting on the drive,’ Garath continues. ‘Meanwhile, though, I was trawling the internet, as you do, and was reminded of Mazda’s mk1 M Speedster concept from 1996. And I got this idea that I’d build one of my own – not an exact replica, but something in the spirit of that car. And as luck would have it, I had the perfect base car cluttering up my driveway.
‘For me it was going to be just a fun project, so I floated the idea on the MX-5 Nutz forum to see what others thought – the response was so overwhelming that I realised I was going to have to do the job properly. And as things progressed, it evolved from me driving the project, to the project driving me…’
Although Garath had a vision of what he wanted to achieve, the path to achieving it wasn’t precisely defined. Which isn’t to say he didn’t have a plan… ‘I knew that I wanted the seating position
to be as low as possible,’ he explains, ‘as the lower I sit, the better connected I feel to a car’s chassis. Everything else about the Speedster would stem from that driving position, starting with the height of the windscreen – I didn’t want my head sticking above it, but I did want it to be as low as possible.
‘Once I’d found some suitable seats – from a Lotus Elise S1 – I set about finding out how low I could mount them. By solidly mounting them, so no fore or aft adjustment, they really could go very low, and the height of the windscreen could then be determined to suit. I also wanted there to be a flat deck between the bootlid and the rear of the cockpit, so the standard hood had to go.
‘Because I wanted humps behind the headrests I thought I could use the whole hood cover from a Renault Mégane convertible – I bought a complete deck off ebay for £28, but it didn’t really work the way I’d hoped. I kept the humps, though, and they angled up perfectly to match the height of the headrests – it was a stroke of luck, really! I then reflected the angle of the humps in the shape of the fixed Perspex side windows: it’s one of the little details that I think helps make the car.’
The visor-shaped windscreen proved a challenge.‘it’s a standard screen cut down,’ reveals Garath.‘the rest of the car was pretty much ready and with the MOT date approaching I discovered that the guy who was going to cut the screen couldn’t get it done in time. But then an old bloke from over in Shropshire got in touch to say he could cut the screen down, transport it to the south coast and fit it, all for £250. Naturally I gave him the job. And it was perfect.’
While items such as the low-line screen are obvious mods, Garath has also added lots of other more subtle touches. The radius of the bottom trailing edge of the doors has been altered, for instance, as have the corners of the boot lid where they meet the upper deck. The side repeaters on the front wings are smaller and in a different location to standard, and there are no door handles – the catches are electrically operated via small push-buttons inside the cockpit, high and just aft of the door apertures. And the front bumper assembly is from a Mazdaspeed A-spec mk1, with a lower lip from, intrguingly, a Renault Laguna.
As for the choice of the gleaming white paintwork, Garath says: ‘I wanted a clean, pure look. I could have gone for an orange like the original M Speedster, but I’d like people to actually see the attention to detail that has gone into my car, rather than be overwhelmed by a whacky colour.’
The white might be a symbol of purity for the outside of Garath’s Speedster, but under the bonnet its liberal application is all about dramatic effect. One major item of underbonnet hardware that has been deliberately spared the white spray gun is the supercharger casing: it’s black.‘i originally considered leaving the engine standard,’ confesses Garath, ‘but ultimately I knew I’d be after a little more poke, and the M Speedster was supercharged, too. The blower came from a written-off car that I found in a breaker’s: I bought the whole car, refurbished the supercharger, and then harvested as many other worthwhile spares as I could.
‘From what we can tell, it’s a really early Sebring supercharger, before they became branded as Jackson Racing. It’s running about 5–6psi and doesn’t produce a huge amount of power, but does give just enough extra kick. Interestingly, we don’t think the engine in this car is standard.when we removed the rear number-plate we uncovered a little badge that relates to a Japanese race series: also, it’s a really free-revving engine which suggests a lightened flywheel, and it has an extremely high rev limit – you can gun it to 8000rpm. Plus, the car had no power steering or electric windows, which is unusual for a Eunos, and then there’s the half-cage…’
With only rudimentary weather protection for when you’re parked up, any trip in the Speedster involves detailed inspection of the weather forecast.we’re promised sunshine by the middle of the day, so despite the morning’s dark clouds Garath invites us to climb aboard. Actually it’s more a case of dropping in, because once you’ve pressed the little button to open the door, it’s a long, long way down to the seat cushion. Compared with a regular mk1 the doors and facia tower around you, yet somehow you’re spared the feeling of being imprisoned. Although from the outside it looks like just a sliver of glass, from the driver’s seat the windscreen is deep enough so that you look through it and not over the top of it or have it half-obscure your view.
Garath has fitted a very nice Momo Prototipo steering wheel, behind which the instrument binnacle wears a neat leather coat. The instruments surround is stainless steel by KG Works, and the cool turned aluminium column stalks were supplied by Planet MX-5 (run by an exjeweller), that Garath believes is no longer trading. The gorgeous solid stainless steel handbrake is to The MX5 Restorer’s own design, but Garath confesses that they’re in the process of finding another manufacturer for it. Splashes of white on the centre console and restyled door cards add to the sense that while this cockpit is something you may be familiar with, it’s also strangely different to that of an MX-5: it’s a subtle and clever effect.
The Speedster fires up with a crackling bark and settles into a quickpaced, raucous idle. The absence of power steering is evident the moment you start rolling, while the ultra-low seating position gives a fresh perspective even to low-speed MX-5 motoring. Because the rear deck is so high behind you, twisting your head to look rearwards isn’t that easy, so you’re more reliant on the mirrors than in a standard mk1.
Garath doesn’t think much of the Speedster’s suspension, but compared with Total MX-5’S project car, it seems moderately well damped on the urban roads around Eastbourne, and out on the open roads absorbs potholes and ridges without sending shudders through the bodyshell.‘i bought the suspension from a customer for £50,’ says Garath,‘and at the time my sole objective was that the Speedster should sit lower than a Ford GT40. [As you may well know, the Ford racer stood 40 inches tall.] Ordinarily I would fit Gaz Gold Pros, which are absolutely excellent.’
We manage to get up on the roads near Beachy Head before the tourist traffic arrives, so there’s a chance to play with the Speedster a little harder. Superchargers don’t give you the whambam-thank-you-mam sudden wallop of turbochargers, so the car doesn’t feel explosively fast, but what you do get is superb throttle response from between about 3500rpm and 5500rpm. Sometimes it can seem a little too punchy, like when you’re sitting in a line of traffic, in third, say, hoping to overtake, your foot tickling the throttle pedal but the Speedster leaping forward when you’re expecting a gentle surge.
On the other hand, this is a boon through series of unsighted corners when you want immediate acceleration from the moment that you spot the quickest exit line.
The Speedster sounds brilliant, too, raspy and raucous (in a good way), the soundtrack overlaid by the precision mechanical whine of the supercharger as you pile on the revs beyond 5500rpm. We only take it up to 7500rpm, by which stage there really is a sense of considerable speed, certainly more than the standard 1.6 brakes are comfortable with – Garath confesses he knows the car needs the 1.8’s stopping equipment, he just hasn’t gotten around to sorting it.
The same is true of the suspension geometry. The Speedster’s steering is a tad fluffy during turn-in, and in sharp, quick bends there’s a tendency towards roll-induced oversteer: again, this on Garath’s ‘to do’ list, almost certainly at the top. Those two foibles aside, the Speedster flows nicely through the twisty stuff, particularly when you surf along on all that mid-range torque.
Possibly the Speedster’s up for sale; Garath has another project that requires funds. But he isn’t keen to let go of his creation. Unsurprisingly. The Speedster’s dramatic looks and spirited behaviour make for a captivating driving experience, one that is refreshingly different to a regular mk1 MX-5.
So if there’s room in your garage for a fair weather funster, why not make him an offer?
You can contact Garath via firstname.lastname@example.org
There isn’t a roof…
Owner: Garath Smith
Windscreen looks like a visor from the outside, but from behind the wheel gives fine vision Speedster pictured absolutely in its element
White centre console links to the exterior Aluminium billet stalks no longer being made…
IL Motorsport twin light setup
Subtle plug for Garath’s company
The release button for the electric door catch
Interior upgrades abound in the Speedster