Modifying an MX-5 isn’t a traditional treatment for leukaemia, but when Aftab Ali’s teenage son, Hassan, was diagnosed with the disease, the distraught father knew it would be a welcome distraction for them both. Words and photography: Dan Sherwood
Leukaemia is a nasty disease, so to help his teenage son Hassan through the treatment, Aftab Ali bought a mk2 project as a thrilling distraction
There’s an old saying that laughter is the best medicine. And maybe if you’re suffering from a sambuca-induced hangover, or even a raging case of man-flu, having a good old chuckle could very well aid your recovery to some degree.
But when it comes to serious illnesses, you might need a remedy a little stronger than laughter on its own.which is what 44-year-old Aftab Ali discovered when his son Hassan was diagnosed with cancer.
‘Hassan was just 17 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia,’ recalls Aftab. ‘It’s such devastating news to hear that your child has cancer. It’s something that no parent should have to deal with.your life gets turned upside down and flipped back to front, then torn to pieces. And that’s not even considering the patient themselves and the often horrific treatments they have to endure, which is difficult enough to watch, let alone experience. To try dealing with that requires a level of support that becomes a part of your life, from family, friends, people in your business, everyone helping out, and we are so grateful that we had everyone rally around us.’
Obviously, with such a serious condition, Hassan’s treatment began immediately, requiring several regular trips each week to Christie Hospital in Manchester, the largest cancer centre in Europe – a journey that at first father and son would make in Aftab’s Range Rover Sport.
‘Although the Range Rover was comfortable, it was very big and the tight parking at the hospital was taking its toll on the car’s exterior,’ Aftab says.‘each visit the car’s panels would seems to pick up yet another ding from a car door or a scraped alloy wheel from the high kerbs.’
So a plan was hatched for the SUV’S replacement. As Aftab and Hassan are both car mad, it was decided that they would look into purchasing a project car that they could work on together – one which would serve as a nimble mode of transport to and from hospital, but also one which they could have fun driving and modifying as a welcome distraction from Hassan’s treatment.
‘After knocking around a few ideas, Hassan and I decided that an MX-5 would be the perfect car,’ Aftab reveals.‘not only are they great drop-top drivers’ cars that would allow us to make the most of the summer, but there is also a wealth of tuning parts available, meaning we could really get stuck in and create something special.’
Their first foray into MX-5 ownership came in March
2017 when the pair purchased a black mk2 2005 Icon edition: unfortunately, it turned out to not be the mint example they had hoped for.‘everything looked great on the surface when we viewed the car,’ explains Aftab.‘it wasn’t until we had already bought it and were getting deeper into the project that we found the dreaded red rot.’
The corrosion was hidden behind an old body-kit, and was revealed when Aftab and Hassan decided to strip the car back to its original lines and found it was much more extensive than they feared.‘it needed new sills and a host of other areas also needed treatment,’ recalls Hassan. ‘In the end my dad and I spent around four months, and quite a lot of money, restoring the car back to its former glory. We added a host of upgrades along the way, too, such as a Carbon Miata rear bumper lip, a Mazdaspeed front lip,
Gen 1 side skirts and a Racing Beat induction kit and an awesome-sounding exhaust system.’
But with improved aesthetics and soundtrack, came the desire for uprated performance and soon the speed-
obsessed father-and-son duo were busy researching a suitable forced-induction solution. Turbocharging, rather than supercharging, seemed to offer the best gains, so Aftab and Hassan started looking at the various turbo kits that were offered for the MX-5 and began comparing prices and power outputs.
‘We even asked the advice of our local garage, Speed Equip Auto Centre in Rochdale, who, as Japanese specialists, had previous experience with this kind of thing, to see what they recommended,’ says Hassan. ‘However, what they suggested was completely different to what we originally had in mind…’
The guys at Speed Equip could see that Aftab and Hassan were after a quality build and were concerned that they would be ploughing yet more money into a shell that, even with the corrosion issues repaired, was likely still way past its best, and not the ideal base to likely double the engine’s power output.‘so with that we started looking for another car to act as a base for a turbocharged monster!’ Aftab laughs. ‘And this time we would be sure to check that it was completely rust-free before handing over our cash…’
There were various MX-5S for sale at the time, many of which could’ve been perfectly acceptable contenders, but a certain burnt orange mk2.5 caught their attention.‘it had just two owners from new, with full service history and was in immaculate, visually-standard condition,’ recounts Hassan.‘at £5500 it was expensive for a mk2, but it also came complete with a Stage 1 BBR turbo conversion, a beefier clutch and uprated suspension, all fitted by BBR themselves.’
After some quick man maths, the guys figured that it would almost certainly work out cheaper to buy the car with the turbo conversion complete, than it would to source a clean car and carry out the conversion themselves. So shortly afterwards the deal was done.‘going from a naturally aspirated example to a turbocharged one was a revelation!’ beams Aftab.‘the new car was a missile! In fact, it was a pretty good sleeper, as its stock looks often surprised and frustrated many sports car drivers who couldn’t get their head around the performance of the little drop-top.’
Thrilled by the level of oomph from their new toy, the pair then set about sorting the basics, such as completing a thorough underseal and Waxoyl (once bitten, twice shy), and carrying out a fresh service, fluids and filters. Those
essentials completed, Aftab and Hassan then focused their attention on enhancing the car’s factory lines by fitting all the styling components that were previously fitted to their original black example.
‘As the creative director of my own web design company, I had a clear vision of what I wanted the car to look like and worked closely with Hassan to modify and colour-code key parts to bring together a cohesive exterior package,’ Aftab explains, highlighting the unique hardtop which features a roof spoiler seamlessly blended in to the rear trailing edge.
One of the first modifications that the pair undertook after the initial parts swap was to upgrade the car’s rolling stock to a set of wide 9 x 16in XXR 537 wheels with 5mm spacers. Inspired by the retro designs of Minilite and Watanabe wheels – not to mention the stock alloys of the original MX-5 – the XXRS lend an air of old-school cool to the MX-5, while still managing to look totally fresh and modern. And wrapped in Yokohama Advan ADO8R rubber, they certainly keep the mighty Mazda planted through the twisties. In the dry, at least…
‘The Advan tyres are a track-focused semi-slick design and are amazing in the dry, but can be a bit sketchy in the wet,’ concedes Aftab.‘and considering we live in the North West, where the weather is best described as averaging on ‘moist’ at best, it can make for interesting driving when you are trying to put all that turbocharged power down.’
After the fresh wheels and tyres came some mods to make the car’s interior a nicer place to be, including a banging double DIN stereo and speaker upgrade, plus seatbelt extenders, a short-shifter and a cool and safety conscious GC Fabrications roll-bar.with the car now looking more like Aftab’s original vision for it, the pair decided to seen if they could squeeze any more power out of the turbocharged engine.
First upgrade was a heat-wrapped 3-inch Milltek Sport stainless steel de-cat exhaust system. The large bore pipework added a deeper tone to the MX-5’S growl, but also meant that the engine could evacuate its waste gases much more efficiently. An HKS dump valve made its way under the bonnet around this time and it helps to keep the turbocharger from stalling, improving throttle response and affording each change of ratio the trademark
whoosh-tish sound beloved of turbocharged nutters the world over.
‘With the improved gas flow we decided to get the car remapped to maximise the potential power gains,’ Hassan says.‘but rather than simply tap into the BBR piggyback ECU, we felt it would be beneficial to make the swap to a standalone Motorsport Electronics ME221 ECU instead.’
The ME221 is a comprehensive yet affordable aftermarket ECU designed for four-cylinder engines and, when combined with a set of larger ‘yellow’ injectors from the MX-5’S bigger brother, the RX-8, resulted in a 30bhp power boost when rolling road mapped by ECU specialist, Efi-tuning.‘the car made 251bhp at 11.4psi on the dyno,’ grins Aftab.‘which not only made driving it a hoot, but with its go-kart-like handling it also dramatically reduced the time taken for our all-too-regular hospital trips.’
Which brings us neatly back to the reason that this car exists in the first place. Aftab and Hassan’s tangocoloured MX-5 may have started out as a way to divert Hassan’s focus away from the gruelling medical treatments he had to endure, but it ended up as much more than a simple distraction – it has also brought this father and son team together on a much more positive level that isn’t just based around test results and impossible to pronounce pharmaceuticals.
‘We’ve grown really close through doing this project,’ reveals Aftab.‘in fact, having the car as our focus and our passion has allowed all the family, our friends and everyone who’s been involved with the build, to be a part of our journey. Even the other kids in treatment with Hassan at the time, were fascinated by the little orange rocket that you could hear before you could see it.’
Unfortunately, not all of them survived to enjoy reading the conclusion of Hassan and Aftab’s story, which luckily does have a happy ending. Around the same time the final piece of the car’s kit was being installed, the Ali family got the call they had for so long been hoping for – Hassan was clear of the leukaemia.
‘It’s been one hell of a ride,’ sighs Aftab.‘it’s not just been about modifying a nice car – although it will be great to continue enjoying it into the future, too – it’s what this car means to us. It’s almost like a trophy, a prize, something akin to an Olympic medal, because what Hassan went through – and the other kids on Palatine Ward – was no less a feat than an Olympian dedicating their life to winning gold.’
And with the constant worry, unpleasant treatment and hospital trips soon to be a distant memory, we reckon for Aftab and Hassan, the future’s looking bright… And definitely orange.
Top: Milltek Sport exhaust system beefs up the rear end’s looks
Right: cabin not wildly modded but does feature impressive sound system upgrade
Above: unique hardtop features a seamlessly integrated trailing edge spoiler that we reckon looks superb
Below: not only is this turbo installation pleasing to the eye, it also produces 251bhp, which gives the little roadster a turn of speed that surprises drivers of ‘better’ sports cars…
Far left: the Ali team bought their car with a BBR turbo kit already installed
Left: carbonfibre shield to keep the turbo’s heat away from the intake system’s inlet
Above: the Alis spent some time colour-coding the car, and their efforts paid off