OUR CARS The Total MX-5 fleet
The Rocketeer V6 conversion is completed, whilst our early mk1 receives some devastating news
If you’re going to write about MX-5S it helps if you own one – and we do. This issue Worland finishes off his V6 Rocketer installation, Fraser (Mrs) suffers a huge sadness, and Bennett’s mk3 keeps him heartily occupied
SIMON’S ROCKETEER PART 2
Last time, we left Simon Worland’s engineless mk1 looming over the Jaguar AJV6 engine that was about to take up residence in its engine bay, attached to the original MX-5 gearbox and the brand new Rocketeer subframe. The engine was ready with its beautifully formed tubular exhaust manifolds, its freshly painted cam covers and its dimensions calculated to fit perfectly into its new space.
Mid February (reports John Simister), I joined Simon and restorer Adam Redding, in whose workshop the transplant was happening, to lend a hand for the big moment. Adam operated the two-post lift to lower the MX-5. Simon made sure the subframe was lined up properly and moved pipes and other impedimenta as the body descended. I made ready with the propshaft to stick it in the back of the gearbox as soon the position was right.
Easy does it…stop! Everything slotted in without catching. I loosely bolted the powerplant frame to the gearbox, while Simon and Adam tackled the subframe bolts. One was recalcitrant, even with careful leverage, so Adam enlarged the bolt-hole in the subframe with a Dremel tool. The original subframe has bigger bolt-holes to allow for body variations; perhaps the Rocketeer people were flattering the Mazda’s precision of build.
Next, Simon and I bolted-up the wishbones and the steering rack, after several attempts to get the steering wheel centred. The lower wishbones’ alignment was set to where it had been before, with a trip to an alignment shop planned for fine tuning once the Rocketeer was running. The exhaust system – the single-tailpipe Racing Beat system that Simon was already running – lined up perfectly with the manifolds and new cat.
But, when fitting the ancillary drive belts, we could see that the power steering pump’s pulley wasn’t in line with the crankshaft pulley. Simon made a spacer to put that right, upon which the pipework then fouled things it shouldn’t. At which point we called it a day.
Two days later, Simon had made a 6mm spacer to put under one engine mount to improve the ‘sit’ of the engine, give better pipe runs and stop the sump protruding below the subframe’s crossmember. He’d modified the power-steering pipework, refitted the gear lever, improved the fit of the alternator, tightened up all the suspension bolts and fitted the electric water pump and the radiator. With the two carbonfibre plenum chambers
and their air filters in place, and with pipes and cables also connected, the Rocketeer was very close to completion. With one exception: still no ECU.
On 10 March, Bruce Southey finally arrived at Adam’s workshop with the vital ECU, having been tearing his hair out over the mapping: eventually he changed the system from an ME221 to a much more sophisticated, and twice as expensive (at no cost to Simon) ME442. With the ECU fitted and plugged in, Simon turned the key. The starter chuntered briefly, the engine caught. It was alive, at last! Relief all round… But should the exhaust have that uneven beat?
Time for a run around the yard, keeping the revs down.
The rev-counter reading was low; it showed three-quarters of what should. That’s because the four-cylinder engine uses wasted-spark ignition, four pulses per crankshaft revolution. The V6 generates three per revolution. A tweak to the ECU corrected the reading.
But that uneven exhaust note was a worry. Wiring? Check. Coil packs? Check. Fuel-rail blockage? Try another one. Still no joy. So Simon gritted his teeth and removed the plenum chambers to the spark plugs. One came apart in his hand, probably cracked from new.
In went a complete replacement set, just to make sure. And, now, the engine sounded deeply sweet, silky smooth and really quite menacing, that Racing Beat exhaust giving just the right note. Feeling delighted and relieved in equal measure,
Simon drove his Rocketeer home in late March, having discovered by then the unlikely truth that both road tax (calculated on this post-2001 engine’s emissions) and insurance are cheaper. And when he took it for a suspension re-alignment, no more than small adjustments were needed.
Detailed fettling followed. In theory the electric water pump dispenses with the need for a thermostat, but in practice there needs always to be a flow otherwise the heads might get too hot and the heater will stay cold for too long after a cold start. So Simon has incorporated an in-line thermostat from a Land Rover Discovery and reset the pump’s parameters. It pumps at half speed up to 70°, three-quarter speed up to 90°, full speed after that. ‘It was a guess but it works perfectly,’ Simon confirms. ‘There’s warmth from the heater in half a mile and the engine is fully warmed up in two miles.’
This mod is one of several suggestions that Simon has made to Bruce, who will also modify the power steering bracket to allow for the variations in Jaguar block castings he has now identified. Other planned evolutions include a longer ECU harness so the ECU can be placed in the original’s position in the footwell rather than under the bonnet, and revised plenum chambers which won’t crack, as Simon’s have, where the throttle bodies’ pipes join the chambers: the new design has throttle bodies nearer the engine.
Simon remains impressed. ‘It’s amazing what two people – Bruce and his colleague Tom – have done on their own with none of the resources of a big company. There are no compromises in the result, not a single downside. The way the nose lifts under acceleration now… I’m delighted. I just need to stop watching the fuel consumption.’
Simon reckons the project has cost around £8500 all-in. ‘I took the view that it would give an already good car a new lease of life. I’ve already had six years’ use out if it, and now I have essentially a brand new car. Looked at that way, it’s something of a bargain.’
WORK IN PROGRESS
It was one of those almost humorous ‘I can’t believe that just happened’ moments. Went to check the oil level and the top of the dipstick just snapped off. Made mention of it online and was informed that it’s a fairy common occurrence. Several makeshift repairs were suggested but there’s still enough of a plastic stub on the stick that I can pull it out with my fingers. It’s still an absolute pain, though.
Also an ongoing pain is the suspension. Mainly in the butt. Literally. I have had another crack at adjusting the settings on the Koni dampers, twisting them all the way around to full ‘firm’ and then easing them back one full rotation of the adjustment knob. The ride is now the best I’ve had with the car, but the rebound remains way too fast and harsh, to the extent that you have to back off the pace on bumpy surfaces, and while the compression stroke is improved, it’s still far from ideal.
Just return it to standard suspension is the oft-repeated recommendation, and logically I know it is the best thing to do. But I really like the stance of my car and am prepared to ride out the rough stuff until I can find/afford a decent compromise.
On the subject of annoyances, the whole time I’ve owned my MX-5 I’ve grazed my knuckles against the column stalks when twirling the Momo steering wheel. I’d wondered if a previous owner had bent the stalks forward, but Michael Cleverley assured me that it’s a common problem when people fit late model mk1s with early issue steering wheels. The peak of my disgruntlement coincided with a press release from Mountney, the British manufacturer of aftermarket goodies for the classic British sports car market (mountneyclassic.co.uk), launching a new deep-dish, 340mm diameter, rally-style steering wheel as part of its M Range.
Intrigued, I started up a dialogue with Mountney’s Dan Kimpton: he didn’t want to dampen my enthusiasm, but did think that the depth of the wheel’s dish combined with the depth Mountney’s boss kit would push the wheel too far into the cabin to comfortably sit behind. Try something with less of a dish, he suggested, from the company’s Classic range. I had my heart set on the rally wheel so Dan allowed me to measure them both up in the car. And while the Classic wheel looked good, the rally wheel was better and proved not to
intrude too much into the cockpit space.
For me, at least, it’s ideal, its extra closeness forcing my arms into a more kinked position than I would normally drive with – if you bring the seat closer to the wheel then your legs bunch up – giving more leverage and control at the wheel rim: just have a look at how close rally drivers sit to the helm if you doubt this. The leverage advantage is particularly useful when you don’t have power steering.
The smaller diameter of the Mountney wheel also gives greater clearance for my legs, which is useful, too. And I’ve definitely got a bit of room between my knuckles and the columns stalks now – they’re almost too far away, but I can live with that.
The Ferodo performance brake pads I fitted to the front of P874 last issue have worked a treat. Much earlier bite and then progressive when they do, and really gutsy stopping power when you stamp on them coming hard and fast into a corner. Ferodo’s claim of low brake dust levels aren’t holding up, though – there are days when it’s hard to tell that my Rotas are purple. And I can live with that, too.
Finally, Michael Cleverley replaced my alternator belt after it had begun to squeal intermittently – you can see the process on our How To pages. Before putting the new belt on he checked the bearings of the alternator and water pump by giving their spindles a quick spin. Unfortunately he reckons the spindle of the water pump is slightly bent – now that I can live without…
Ah, that long, hot summer. Perfect weather for Mx-5ing. Only not for me. I run a small gift shop and a chocolate shop in rural Suffolk and constantly need to shift stuff from homebased stockroom to shop shelves – haulage isn’t really an MX-5 strength, so my poor Mazda hasn’t moved at all during the best summer since the legend that was 1976.
But when things quietened down in the shops, the big orange orb was still in the sky, and I was determined to get UHO taxed and out on the road to enjoy at least a little of that summer sunshine. There was just the small matter of the MOT to sort out, but that wouldn’t be a problem. Though inactive, UHO had been under cover, so after jump-starting the poor old gal I drove her out into the daylight. And she looked like a barn-find… A thick coating of harvest dust, spider webs and last autumn’s leaves gave the impression that this was one very unloved MX-5, but I promise that’s not really the case. Unfortunately there was no time for a spruce-up before we were due at nearby Cleverley Repaired Cars for the MOT: perhaps the journey there might blow off the worst of the offending dust.
Another task for the short journey to the MOT ramp was to clear some of the surface rust off the discs by braking sharply a few times. I started off doing that at low speeds and then built up some pace, at which point I discovered the nearside front wheel was locking up. But at least UHO was pulling up straight, which was reassuring.
Over at Cleverley’s, Vince was bemused at how scrotty the car looked: he’d previously only ever seen her gleaming. But never judge a book by the cover and all that, and a check of the emissions showed that UHO’S engine was running very sweetly and efficiently. With the brakes section of the MOT looming I told Vince my concerns about the locking front, but he reckoned that lots of mk1s do the same as that corner of the car is lightly loaded – anyway, the brake balance equipment would reveal the truth.
And it did. And it was ugly. The pressure of one of the rear brakes was woefully adrift of what its partner achieved. A fail, right there. Vince was nonplussed: most likely an easy enough fix, let’s do the rest of the test and see what else might need doing. Not the headlights, because they both shone in the right direction and had very clean bowls. Time to hoist UHO skywards for a glimpse underneath.
You didn’t need to be an
MOT tester to see things didn’t
look great. It was as though the car had been parked in a salt bath for six months. Vince instantly spotted a broken rear spring, freshly snapped – I think it may have happened on the last corner before Cleverley’s, and it’s the fifth broken rear spring UHO has suffered. Much worse suffering was to come…
Vince was already visibly wincing at the amount of corrosion he’d seen on the sills, inner rear arches and other critical areas. Then he noticed a blockage in the offside drainage tube. He stuck in some long-nosed pliers to pull it out, and when he did murky water jetted out from the depths of the sill. ‘Oh,’ muttered Vince as he dried his face and arms, ‘that’s not good, is it?’
Game over as far as the MOT was concerned. Particularly as the nearside sill was rotten, too. But it’s not game over for UHO. This was my first wedding anniversary present from my husband (editor Brett), and we’re celebrating our 25th this September, so there’s huge sentimental value at stake. We’re setting up a restoration fund and I’ll let you know how it’s going next time.
THERE TO BE DRIVEN
In the last issue I introduced my new, bargain, MX-5 2.0-litre, mk3. Bargain, because I happened to be in the right place at the right time to bag it for a mere £1000. A bargain, also, because it had 135,000 miles on the clock. That now reads 140,000 and is rapidly approaching 141,000. So, as you might gather, I’m not shy about high mileage, or putting the miles on myself, although I concede that for the money it was worth the risk.
In a fit of new car pride and joy, I quickly attended to any issues, both mechanical and cosmetic. Mk3 MX-5S have comedy suspension, so first job was a set of lowered Eibach springs, and some stiffer antiroll bars for good measure. The tyres were down to the wear marks, so I fitted a new set of Davanti boots and had the wheels refurbed in a dark anthracite grey, which looks very smart in contrast to the Copper Red. What else? Well, some black wheel studs and Mazda logo’d inserts for the wheels and a stubby aerial, plus a funky round metal gearknob for the interior. Oh, and a jolly good polish and wax and some TLC for the leather seats. Phew! All that done, I stood back and considered myself a lucky boy.
This is my everyday car, hence racking up the miles quickly. It’s my first mk3 after a mk1 and a couple of mk2s. So how does it compare, after a few months of ownership? Well, it’s not quite chalk and cheese, but the mk3 is a very different car. Whereas the mk1 and mk2 MX-5 are starting to feel classic in their own right, the mk3 is very much the modern, contemporary machine, with all the mod cons expected and demanded by modern and contemporary buyers. Well, most of them at least. Typically, it features the desired ‘Option pack,’ with leather heated seats, upgraded sound system, climate control, plus neat standard features like the remote locking and boot release on the key fob.
It’s all a step up from the simplicity of the earlier cars and it’s stuff that I’ve always considered to be superfluous, but predictably am rather enjoying now that I’ve got them. Likewise the DAB radio, which Michelle, the previous owner, kindly left fitted. Now I can listen to 6 Music on the move!
I’m enjoying the space, too, and the simplicity of the hood. Yes, it’s hard to imagine anything simpler than the hood procedure on the mk1 and mk2, but the mk3, with its single latch
is something else. I also love the way the hood folds flat behind the seats and clips itself neatly in position. The hood is in good nick, too, and I want to keep it that way, so will soon be treating it to a good clean and a bit of protection. That said, I’ve got a hardtop for the winter.
Anything else? Well, it’s sort of quite fast. Or should I say, it’s plenty fast enough for fun and plenty fast enough for me and, of course, it combines its relative pace with a great reardrive chassis, proper wishbone suspension all-round, and a limited-slip diff. Forget any hair dresser jibes, this is for most the definitive purist driving setup, and the antithesis of frontwheel drive’s corrupt ways.
Does it feel any the worse for its high mileage? Can’t say it does, really. After all, it’s a Mazda and perfectly capable of going the distance. It’s just that with most MX-5S being used very much as second, or even third cars, they’re rarely required to. Of course, the annual MOT is a great leveller and it was with some trepidation that I booked my mk3 in with local MX-5 expert and Total MX-5 tech man, Michael Cleverley.
Actually, Michael was on hols, so right-hand man, Vince, did the honours. Feeding the details into the computer, Vince commented that mine was certainly the highest mileage mk3 they had seen. He then worked through the MOT checklist, marvelling at its sound underpinnings, floorpan and absolutely spot-on emissions and then replaced a single sidelight bulb and issued a year’s ticket.
It wasn’t all perfect and smug.
The front pads and discs were rather past their best and the front brake calipers were clearly dragging, so I booked it in for a front brake overhaul, after picking up a set of Mintex discs and pads on ebay for a very reasonable £71 incl delivery. Sticking front calipers seems to be something that afflicts all MX-5S, no matter which generation. The piston seal lets go allowing moisture to penetrate the caliper, which in turn creates corrosion on the caliper piston, so that it partially seizes. Left for long enough, the caliper will seize completely. Stripping the caliper and fitting new seals, while attacking the piston with some wet ‘n’ dry fixes the issue, until the next time.
So has there been any other expenditure? Well, yes, and it was a biggie. From the weight of the clutch and the gearchange, I suspected that the clutch was the original.
A lack of evidence for a change in the apparently complete service history seemed to back up that theory. It was spoiling an otherwise great car and had done well to last for nearly 140,000 miles.
So, I took a hit and got Michael and Vince to change it.
Fortunately it’s not a massive job on an MX-5 and all-in only cost £320. And what a transformation. The clutch is light and bites where it should and the gearchange is quick and slick. And yes, on inspection, the original clutch was knackered.
Any other thoughts on a few months with my mk3? Well, yes, but they apply to all MX-5S; indeed to all open-top sports cars. The best summer in years has been enhanced by non-stop al fresco motoring, which makes every journey an event to be enjoyed. It really is very difficult to be unhappy driving an MX-5.
Now winter beckons, but no matter. With the hardtop in place it’s a cosy place to be and the heated seats will help on those chilly mornings. I’ve got the original wheels sitting in the garage waiting for some winter tyres, too. Bring it on...
GETTING IT SORTED
You may remember that last December I had a plug ‘n’ play ECU fitted to my MX-5 in preparation for turbocharging the car. The plan was to drive around with just the ECU fitted and no other upgrades, have some fun with a little more power and driveability, then go back a couple of months later to have a turbo installed.
The turbo conversion didn’t happen (it’s on hold for a few months), so I took the car to Skuzzle Motorsports near Winchester to have some issues sorted. The first three runs on the rolling road showed the car with 108.7bhp at the wheels but, rather alarmingly, the air/fuel mixture was going too lean towards the rev limit, meaning the engine was using less fuel but getting incredibly hot, which explains the smell I’d noticed on runs.
Some tinkering on a laptop by electronics wizard and Skuzzle owner, Nick Bailey, and the air/fuel ratio was back in order, fuelling at start-up was corrected and power at the wheels increased to 117.5bhp – around 140bhp at the flywheel (MX-5S lose around 20% of power between flywheel and wheels), a 10% increase on the power my 1997 1.8 would have had from the factory.
After a few runs the power started dipping, so Nick repeated the process and gave a likely diagnosis of the catalytic convertor having broken up due to the high running temperatures from the lean air/fuel mixture. He checked figures on his laptop and assured me the emissions were fine for my MOT and that I’d be unlikely to notice any dip in normal driving, but it would strangle performance if I took the car on track. This will be sorted when the turbo conversion eventually happens and I’ll likely fit a sports cat.
Travelling to and from the Goodwood Revival, the car was much better to drive, and while fuel consumption is going to be slightly worse now the engine isn’t running so lean, with 15lb ft more torque than before at 4500rpm, I’m driving in a higher gear, so hopefully any extra loss in fuel consumption will be compensated for. The ECU is still the best you can buy for your MX-5 and, if you’re anywhere near Hampshire and need your car tuned, I can’t recommend Nick and Skuzzle highly enough.
Some good news, too, for mk4 owners – using Mx5parts’ car for development, Nick’s produced an intake kit and is currently finalising production.
Owner Simon Worland gets ready for the big moment when his mk1’s body gets lowered over the Rocketeer V6 engine unit.
MK1 ‘ROCKETEER’ Run by: Simon Worland Owned since: 2011 Total mileage: 50,000+ Latest costs: tba
Silver duct tape covers cracks in the carbon plenum chambers – they’ve since been redesigned to cure the issue.
Sump initially protruded below the engine’s subframe, but was fixed.
One of the subframe bolts need a bit of persuasion to slot into place.
The deeper dish of Mountney’s rally-style wheel means greater clearance between rim and column stalks. Inset: the other Mountney Fraser turned down
Still can’t get the setting right
Damn and blast!
MK1 1.8 Run by: Brett Fraser Owned since: 2016 Total mileage: 122,907 Latest costs: £125
Ferodo performance pads are great stoppers but throw out a fair bit of dust
Replacing the alternator belt revealed a possible water pump issue
Well, at least UHO has kept the local spider population employed
MK1 1.6 Run by: Helen Fraser Owned since: 1994 Total mileage: 65,310 Latest costs: £54
The moment of truth – it’s MOT time for Bennett’s bargain mk3
Cleverley’s Vince Bickers literally picking holes in Helen’s mk1
Suspension components look like they’ve been parked in the sea
Ooh look, it’s having a wee… There was much more where that came from
MK3 2.0 Run by: Steve Bennett Owned since: December 2017 Total mileage: 140,800 Latest costs: £510
Few things are more joyous than an empty country road in an MX-5 with the top down, during a summer like we’ve just enjoyed. Bliss…
Bennett’s mk3 shows off its solid underside on the Cleverley MOT ramp
Bargain buy off ebay
Calipers get an overhaul
Ah, now that’s a whole lot better
Old discs very tired
Data cable links MX-5 to laptop while it’s running on the rolling road
Power and torque traces show that Fox’s car is now in rude health
Strapped down and ready for a rolling road session at Skuzzle
MK1 1.8 Run by: Simon Fox Owned since: January 2017 Total mileage: 127,493 Latest costs: £300 (tuning)