Low-rider

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

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS - Words: Brett Fraser Pho­tographs: Antony Fraser

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 garath@themx5re­storer.co.uk

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

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