[Ed Note – I couldn’t resist a good chance at some Turkey puns back in November, so here is a look back at my first year as a Miata owner. It was a little early though, as today is actually one year to the day after I drove Roadster home for the first time, and it overheated, beginning what would become an expensive first year. Things have begun to improve since this post was written, but before we get into that, here is the story of what’s been going on with it for most of this first year. ]
From the past year of my personal automotive frustration, here is a story of my own Hooniverse Thanksgiving Turkey. A comedy of errors that could only happen when you combine a man who hadn’t bought a car in almost ten years, hadn’t owned anything with a manual transmission since five years before that, and a location saturated with overpriced and under-maintained Miatas just waiting to win hearts… or break them.
When I was in my teens and early twenties in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Japan was at the tail end of an automotive performance golden age. There was of course the Skyline GT-R, the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and a little roadster that helped ignite it all, the cheap and cheerful Mazda Miata. Options were plentiful, but as with most people of that age, money was tight. Fast forward to three years ago, I sold my 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer to pay some bills and to buy a digital SLR camera to begin shooting cars with. Since then, my wife’s newer VW Rabbit had been fun and entertaining to daily drive, especially for a car on factory suspension, but cheap used cars and the raw fun of driving something older, simpler, and more raw was calling to me. This time last year, I found myself scanning the local craigslist and I realized that I had gotten the itch to own my own car again. It would be something to drive to car meets, that wouldn’t look out of place, and something that could be autocrossed without worrying about breaking anything.
One of the first things to be changed on the car, covering those ugly steelies with a fresh coat of white paint.
Considering things like cost of ownership, availability, cheap parts, and depreciation, the original Miata seemed like cheap fun and a safe bet. The search began for a late first generation roadster with the slightly larger 1.8 liter engine. That 1.8-liter is an important detail to this story, because without focusing on the few examples with that engine, this story may have come out differently. Along the way, friends with Miata owning experience gave a wealth of advice in what to check over before buying, but the most valuable came just a little too late. Do not buy anything until you’ve test driven a few.
The first soldering I’ve done since college: changing the connector for the coolant temperature sensor behind the block. It was a major victory as it was not easy to get to.
The egg for this turkey was laid on Martin Luther King Day of last year. I test drove the second of two Miatas and, excited over it having the somewhat locally rare 1.8 engine, impulsively jumped to put some money down on it. There was what looked like some dirt in the cooling system and most of the fluids probably needed changing, but it ran well. Some light corrosion that could be cleaned up and a small hole in the top that would have to be mended. What could go wrong?
Roadster (that’s its name) was acquired the next day when we returned with a check for $2,800 plus tax. For the first forty minutes of the 1.5-hour drive home, I was in automotive heaven. The top was down, the weather was perfect and Led Zeppelin was blasting from tiny speakers. Then all of a sudden, the temperature gauge went red and steam began erupting from the hood. We stopped at a rest station and added the last of the bottled water to the overflow tank, waiting for things to cool down.
Half an hour later, it started up, as though there was no problem. There was no steam or smoke coming from the exhaust. The temperature returned to twelve o’ clock. It seemed like everything would be okay. Just to be safe, the rest of the drive home was taken at a maximum of 55mph.
The hole in the top is now sewn shut, and soon after this was taken, was patched in the back as well.
For the next few weeks, Roadster didn’t get driven much, out of my being a bit gun-shy and with there being things like the dirty radiator that needed to be addressed first. The radiator was flushed a few times and trust slowly began to return. There was a strange beige chocolate milk-like substance on the surface that I would later discover to be oil. For the time being, it just seemed like old dirt, until one evening, when I took my mother-in-law for a drive around the neighborhood. We returned to find water trailing from underneath the car, across the garage floor. This was not good. This was just two short weeks before the IndyCar race in St Petersburg that I would be shooting. Panic quickly set in and Roadster was taken to a trusted local shop where I used to work, to have things checked out. It turned out that the water was just a coolant leak, but the real problem was a blown head gasket and a radiator full of oil.
Two weeks and a large pile of money later, I had a functioning car again and a receipt that was as tall as I was. With replacement of the head gasket, intake and exhaust gaskets, as well as the radiator, the hoses, the water pump, thermostat, and the timing belt, the car had nearly doubled in price. Feeling even more gun shy, the car was much more of a weekend toy at that point. Miatapalooza was coming up. Perhaps this bird would learn to soar with the flock… until a check engine light came on while driving to the event. It sputtered and choked, but still kept on gobbling fuel. It survived the “flight” but it was only then that I realized that Roadster was OBD1 and therefore un-diagnosable without a paper clip. OBD2 scanners were everywhere but who keeps a paper clip in their Miata? Soon after limping back home, the culprit was found to be a failed oxygen sensor, and the coolant temperature sensor and its connector, which was zip-tied together. Some weeks later, I finally gave up on two different oxygen sensor removal tools and borrowed one that actually worked. On top of that, a friend found an M-edition Miata in the local salvage yard, from which I was able to scavenge the connecter that Roadster needed as well as a newer non-scorched taillight. Things were looking up.
For half of this year, this turkey was flying on jack stands and ramps.
The car was finally reliable… and then… the coolant hoses began to sweat oil. Another panic-filled trip to the shop followed. It turned out that deep in that enormous receipt lurked news of a leaking oil cooler that no one had remembered to mention, and it was leaking right into the cooling system. Thankful that it was not the head gasket again, quite a bit extra was paid to acquire a factory fresh oil cooler. Again it wasn’t cheap, but the car seems to be reliable. Knock on wood.
First hour of driving with no issues! Hooray!
And so, when I was asked to tell a story of a Hooniverse Thanksgiving Turkey, I instantly thought of my own turn-key turkey that I’d been feeding all year, and decided to share it here with you. While the media is aflutter about which turkey will get the Presidential pardon, for me despite the fowl first year experience, this is the turkey that gets to see another year. Perhaps once the brakes are bled and the shifter is rebuilt, it will turn back into the corner Hawk that I thought I was buying. I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving and bid you good luck in the garage, until next time.
Re-published from Hooniverse, text and photography by Bryce Womeldurf