When Jonathan Mccormack bought his mk1 MX-5 two decades ago, he never imagined it would become such an important member of the family. Now with 160,000 miles on the clock he has no plans to ever let it go Words: Brett Fraser, Photographs: William Neill/ne
When Jonathan Mccormack bought his mk1 MX-5 20 years and 160,000-miles ago, he never imagined it would become such an important family member
According to the old adage, familiarity can breed contempt. But in the case of Jonathan Mccormack, his long-serving mk1 MX-5 has bred nothing but contentment. In fact, next year he has plans to get the inevitable rust attended to and treat his trusty old friend to a full re-spray.‘i’m going to consider it a fresh start,’ he asserts,‘the beginning of another 20 years together.’
Jonathan, a local government officer, lives not too far outside Belfast, and from an early age inherited – as if by osmosis – the Irish love of driving fast: blame the comparatively small population and the gloriously challenging, largely empty roads.‘yes, there’s a big rally following over here,’ he laughs, ‘so we like to go sideways, we love our rear-wheel drive. The Circuit of Ireland went right near my house as a kid, so how could I not be inspired by it? Mind you, you could say it was responsible for me sticking my dad’s Cortina on its roof… Luckily though, that’s the only accident I’ve ever had of my own making.’
Jonathan’s wheels haven’t always been rear-drive sports cars, but that drivetrain configuration has tended to attract him most.‘the trouble was, when I first started thinking that an MX-5 might be a good idea, back in 1996 or 1997, the prices of Uk-spec mk1s in Ireland were still colossally high – I certainly couldn’t afford the £12,000 that seemed to be the going rate at the time. But then the market for Eunos models imported from Japan started to open up. Now there was a chance to buy a car for around £7000, brought in through the docks in Dublin, along with Toyota Celicas, Nissan Skylines and the like. To me it was irresistible.
‘The MX-5 I chose from the importer had been modified by its owner in Japan for potential motorsport duties. It had a very serious Mighty Roll aluminium rollcage that slotted through the rear bulkhead to connect with the back end strut towers, as well as a lightened flywheel, lightweight propshaft, and an uprated clutch. It had some really good wheels, too, lightweight magnesium rims from RS Watanabe, which I still have in the garage.
‘When it arrived at the docks on
Friday 19 December 1997, I was so desperate to drive it over the coming weekend that I gave the lads doing the preparation work a large crate of beer to get the job done in a hurry.
‘What I hadn’t realised, though, was that the tyres these imports arrived with from Japan weren’t legal over here, so the importer had swapped them for some cheap remoulds without telling me. First night I had the car I spun it on a wet roundabout: some proper tyres were my first investment.
‘Up until 2000 I used the MX-5 purely as a road car, though sticking a couple of black stripes on it proved to be a portent of things to come. I even used the MX-5 to get me to the church for my wedding, and the bridesmaids arrived in two others. Our wedding cake was also in the shape of an MX-5 – and back in 2000
shaped cakes weren’t yet really a ‘thing’ – with figures of Eddie Irvine and
Jacques Villeneuve pushing the car with Louise and me in the cockpit. The inclusion of the F1 drivers is a reference to how Louise and I met: I ran an Eddie Irvine fan website, wrote something about a racing incident between Villeneuve and Schumacher during the 1997 season, she agreed with my opinion, we got talking and a little while later got married.
‘It was around about then that I was introduced to trackdays. I really enjoyed doing them and the car handled really well, so a friend suggested that I give sprinting and hillclimbing a try, especially as the car was already fitted with a very good roll-cage. Getting the car and myself – Nomex suit, helmet, race shoes – ready for motorsport only cost me £400 or so back then, and there I was, set up for a fun six years of competition. while I did enjoy the sprints, I preferred hillclimbing.
‘Ireland only has three race circuits so the sprints became a bit boring and predictable after a while. But there are ten hillclimb courses, some of them lined with cliffs and rocks, and they could be very exciting.
‘The MX-5 stood up to the ‘abuse’ very well, but all the fancy lightweight stuff that was on the car when I got it eventually broke. I also got through four diffs – the diff on the 1.6 has a design flaw, at least when it’s being used for motorsport: I’ve always planned to fit an uprated diff, but every time one broke
I’d be so desperate to get the car running again, that I’d just charge down to the nearest breaker’s and get another standard item.
‘While I got an immense amount of pleasure from competing, I never actually won anything. On the hillclimbs I twice came second, though – I was beaten to the top slot on both occasions by a friend with a 1.5-litre Fiat X1/9 who wouldn’t ever tell me precisely what he’d done to his car to make it so very, very quick. But the lack of silverware was never an issue because we all had such a great time at those events.
‘I stopped competing – or rather, put it on hold – when my wife got pregnant. Until that stage I’d used the MX-5 pretty much as my daily driver, not just as a race car, and we went all over the place in it. We toured all round Ireland, drove up to Scotland and down to London and through Wales, and got to thrash it around the Isle of Man on an event where they even closed off the mountain road for us.we took it to the Nürburgring, too. In Germany I decided to max it on the autobahn – from 110mph to 120mph took forever, and those pop-up lights make a big difference to how fast you can go when they’re raised. That’s the fastest
I’ve ever been in the car, and although it was exhilarating to sit at that speed, being flashed to get out of the way by diesel Mercedes saloons doing 140mph and more rather highlighted the little Mazda’s limitations.
‘With a baby on the way I just parked the car in our garage for four years. It went in there with all my sponsors’ stickers still on it and my racing number – 23 – on the doors. And even now I haven’t taken them off.to me they’re like a time capsule, a reminder of all the events and drives of the past 20 years. Next year I’m hoping to have the car properly restored – I have had the rust attended to before, but it has come back through on the sills and wings – and that will include a full re-spray, probably using a silvery gunmetal colour from the Alfa Romeo paint range.
‘At that stage the stickers will have to come off, but that’s OK because I see it as a fresh start, the beginning of another chapter in our relationship. I would like the black stripes to make a
re-appearance, though, but this time I’d like them painted on, not just vinyl stickers. I’m not sure if the teeth from the front grille will go back on – I bought them in a drunken ebay moment from a company called Auto Expression in the US, and though I’ve toyed with the idea of taking them off again, my two kids think they’re great.
‘Apart from the pressures of motorsport destroying the diffs, and the wear and tear that any car with 160,000 miles and more on the clock is likely to have suffered, mechanically the MX-5 has behaved very well over the years. Every year I take it in for an MOT, and every year it manages to pass. On one of the very few occasions that it did have a problem, that was very much down to me. After it had been sitting idle in the garage for four years, in 2012 I decided that I wanted to pick up my lad from his first day at school in the MX-5.YES, I should have checked it over before going anywhere, but instead I shot off at full pelt to get an MOT. The water pump belt broke which in turn caused the radiator to blow up! Even so, I got it fixed, got the MOT and got to the school in time for the kids to come out.
‘Although we obviously can’t all go out in it together, my two kids love the MX-5, and I can see that my 10-year old son already has his eye on it. My wife gets a little bit nervous about them going out in it because there aren’t any airbags, but the wonderful thing about the MX-5 is that it can feel quick even when you’re not actually going very fast. My car has a straight-through exhaust, and you can floor it at low speed, rush up to 40mph, and it sounds like it’s doing 100. The kids scream with delight. I can’t blame them – I still can’t resist making the thing roar when I’m driving through empty tunnels!
‘Those years spent racing have slowed me down on the road – it’s as though I’ve got nothing to prove when I’m away from the track. And there are other pleasures to be had on the road: I really like driving at night with the roof down, watching the stars. Sometimes on those night trips I get a sense that this is now quite an old car – the lights are dismal compared with a modern car’s, and ditto the wipers. But while modern cars spoil you with their efficiency and convenience, they feel so detached and clinical to drive.
‘Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to own 17 cars, but the MX-5 is the only one I’ve kept, which tells you something about its charms. I’m never letting it go, it’s part of the family now.’
Even though he currently doesn’t compete in it, Jonathan has kept the race numbers and sponsors’ stickers on his car, as a reminder of the things they’ve done together over the years
Jonathan Mccormack’s trusty mk1 – a Eunos import – has been such a key feature of his adult life that he rocked up to his wedding to Louise in it: it also featured as the happy couple’s wedding cake
Left: Jonathan was an enthusiastic hillclimber…Below: what kid doesn’t love a car with a face? And big teeth