Buyer's Guide

Buying Guide: Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989 – 1998)

by John Simister
28 April 2021 9 min read
Buying Guide: Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989 – 1998)
Photos: Nathan Morgan and Mazda

This could just be the most versatile classic car of all. It’s a speedy, agile sports two-seater of the genre central to nostalgic dreams of automotive pleasure, yet its mechanical design and its construction are of the modern era. It’s viscerally entertaining to drive, yet it’s durable, untemperamental and easy to look after. It looks great, it has pop-up headlamps and an easy-to-use, leakproof hood, and there’s huge owners’-club and support network, both in person and online.

Best of all, it’s not expensive although, for the best examples, that’s starting to change. Hagerty’s research showed that, in 2018, the Mk1 (known as the NA) MX-5 showed the highest annual percentage increase in value of all classic cars. Admittedly that was from quite a low starting point, but the trend was set and price rises show every sign of continuing. At least it does for the good cars, but there are also some horrors out there which we’ll show you how to avoid.

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The story of Mazda’s MX-5 is well known, so we’ll stick to the short version. Mazda wanted to add a ‘lightweight sports car’ to its range, and got three competing design teams to come up with different ideas. The proposal from ex-journalist product planner Bob Hall and designer Tom Matano of the US studio, a rear-drive machine inspired by old British sports cars, got the nod and development proceeded apace in a ‘skunkworks’ building separate from the main Mazda works in Hiroshima.

Revealed in February 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, the US being the key market, the Mazda Miata (as it was named for the US) was a colossal hit and a hefty waiting list soon built up for the start of sales. The Japanese domestic market had to wait until September for its version, named Eunos Roadster and sold through the prestige Eunos dealer channel, and Europeans finally got their cars, badged MX-5, in March 1990.

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 buying guide

After a few years, secondhand Eunoses began to arrive in the UK as grey imports. That Japan drives on the left, like us, made for a great business opportunity for Eunos importers, but doubtless the privately-UK-owned official Mazda importer was unimpressed by this development because it could no longer control the market.

Nowadays Mazda runs the European sales operation and it’s all one happy MX-5 family, acknowledging the truth that MX-5s and Eunoses are almost exactly the same – even down to the somewhat minimal rust protection, of which more later. The obvious visual difference is that a Eunos (like a Miata) has a narrower, taller housing for the rear number plate. It will also wear different badges, and there are detail differences in reflectors, equipment (a Eunos is likely to have more) and in the naming of the myriad and mostly irrelevant special editions. And a Eunos odometer reads in kilometres, although the speedometer face will invariably have been replaced with an mph one.

Up to the end of 1993, the MX-5’s twin-cam, 16-valve engine with the retro-look cam cover was a 1598cc unit with a revvy 114bhp on offer. From then until 1997, when the Mk2 model arrived, power was 128bhp (or slightly more for the last cars) from 1839cc. In the UK, with the larger 1.8-litre engine’s arrival came the option of a basic-spec model with wind-up windows, a plastic (instead of Momo leather-rimmed) steering wheel, steel wheels (hardly ever seen now) and no power steering. Soon afterwards, a similarly low-spec 1.6 joined the range with just 88bhp, but there was no UK-spec automatic. For that, you would need to find a so-equipped Eunos.

What’s an MX-5 like to drive?

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 interior

In short, life-affirming. It’s fast enough to be fun, the engine is a smooth-revving joy and that short gear lever shifts with a meaty snick. There’s enough of a bark from the exhaust to suit a sports car (many examples have been fitted with rortier aftermarket exhausts), and of course there’s the joy of top-down driving. Release two clamps, unzip the rear window to stop it creasing, then simply lower the hood back behind the seats.

An early 1.6 feels a touch less torquey than a 1.8 but has similar outright pace, owing mainly to the fact that the 1.8 is heavier with its extra bracing bars. A late 1.6 is significantly less lively, but fine if you’re not likely to be in a hurry. The 1.8’s bracing does tighten up the structure a bit, but there’s no denying that a pothole in the wrong place can make any MX-5’s structure shudder. Aftermarket stiffening improvements are widely available.

As standard, the handling is pointable, lightly driftable and highly responsive, while the ride is firm but not harsh. That can change if the standard suspension bushes have been changed to polyurethane ones and/or the suspension has been otherwise got at. Fitting shorter springs, usually done more for looks than dynamics, can cause the rear bump stops to be contacted too often for comfort, unless a more complex modification involving MX-5 Mk2 top mounts has been carried out.

What's a Mazda MX-5 like to drive?

Then there’s the world of ‘coilovers’. All MX-5s have coilover spring and damper units; it’s how the suspension is designed. If a car for sale is said to have coilovers, it most likely means it has aftermarket spring and damper units, probably with adjustable height and/or damping characteristics. Some such systems can work well – Meister R suspension is generally well thought of, for example – but others, especially cheap ones, can ruin a car’s feel. It pays to do some research here. All things considered, good-condition standard suspension is best. ‘Horse and rider as one’, was the MX-5 engineers’ maxim. They knew what they were doing.

The MX-5 was designed with a quickly-responding, naturally-weighted power steering system, and co-creator Bob Hall was reportedly horrified that a non-PAS option was later offered. It certainly dulls the Mazda’s responses, requiring more effort from the driver for less reward. Some will tell you a non-PAS car is ‘purer’. They are wrong.

How much does an MX-5 cost?

How much does a Mazda MX-5 Mk1 cost?

A few years ago, you could buy a solid, usable MX-5 with no major faults and a tidy demeanour for as little as £1500. That amount, or less, nowadays buys a project at best. At the opposite extreme, dealers might ask up to £10,000 for an immaculate, ultra-low-mileage example in factory-standard spec, and the most desirable Eunos limited editions – such as the R-Limited and RS-Limited – have been known to reach beyond that in perfect condition. You can browse the Hagerty Price Guide to keep up to speed with the latest values of the Mk1 MX-5.

The stream of grey imports has almost dried up now. The cars have got older, the numbers are fewer, values have risen a lot in Japan and the post-Brexit pound is worth less. This reduction in supply is one reason why values are rising in the UK for good MX-5s.

Nowadays, you’ll need to spend upwards of £3000 to net a tidy MX-5 with no rust, although it is likely to have had some in the past. So it’s vital to check how well the repairs, if present, have been done, which we’ll cover in the next section. Really good cars will be heading past £4000, but it’s worth remembering that by the time you’ve brought an average car up to this standard your outlay might have gone some way past this figure.

Most of the special editions aren’t worth seeking out, those ultimate Eunoses excepted. Condition is far more important. Nor is there any reason to think an original UK-market car is any more desirable than a Eunos, except possibly for its relative rarity. Rust has killed a lot of UK cars, so Eunoses, which gained a few years of ‘rust credit’ in road-salt-free Japan before coming here, are now more common on Britain’s roads.

Cars in standard or near-standard specification, as ever, are the ones that today’s buyers tend to want, but the MX-5 has always attracted accessorisers. Most of the aesthetic damage can be reversed if you feel the need, because the availability of new parts is excellent and eBay is your friend for used bits.

As the MX-5 becomes a proper classic and the tired, end-of-life examples fade off the scene, it’s the earliest cars, 1.6s with seven-spoke ‘daisy’ wheels, that are becoming the most collectable. A 1989 Eunos in Classic Red or Mariner Blue is as pure as an MX-5 gets.

What goes wrong, and what should you look for when buying an MX-5?

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 engine what to look for when buying one

I’ve owned two MX-5s, the earlier of which I still have. I’ve done much refurbishment work on this second one – too much, economically speaking, but our relationship with classic cars is seldom rational – so I know both the good bits and the bad bits of the breed intimately.

Many examples offered for sale have covered high mileages, a testament to the breed’s durability and usability. Here, an MX-5 is like a modern car rather than a 1960s or 1970s classic; if maintained properly with regular oil changes, the engine seems to last almost indefinitely. Over 200,000 showing on a Eunos’s kilometric odometer can look frightening, but that’s 124,000 miles and really nothing much to worry about provided the engine sounds sweet and there’s no blue exhaust smoke.

You might hear a clatter from the hydraulic tappets on start-up, but if it goes away after a few seconds there’s no cause for concern. A low oil-pressure reading on an early car’s gauge is more likely to be poor electrical contacts where the gauge fits in the intrument panel than an engine fault, while on 1995-on cars the gauge is a fake which simply switches to a confidence-inspiring reading when the engine is started.

Very early cars have so-called ‘short nose’ crankshafts, identified by four slots in the bottom pulley rather than eight. The crankshaft itself is lighter than later ones, making for a revvier, snappier engine, but the bottom pulley is prone to working loose and damaging the crankshaft if its central bolt has been incorrectly tightened. It’s worth checking that there’s no wobble or play in the pulley.

Oil leaks are becoming common as the cars age, but the main one to worry about is from the camshaft angle sensor on the back of a 1.8’s exhaust camshaft. The drip from this lands on a heater hose, which then perishes and splits. Replacing the sensor O-ring and the hose is easy enough, though.

The transmission is tough. If the gearchange is stiff or imprecise, new spring washers either side of the pivot ball, a new nylon tip at the bottom of the lever and a change of oil in the remote-control extension between lever and ‘box should fix it. The two rubber gaiters should be changed at the same time if, as is likely, they are perished and split.

Clonks or creaks in the suspension may be nothing worse than a worn or failed anti-roll bar drop link, easily and cheaply fixed. Vague or shuddery progress suggests worn bushes or dampers, and the coil springs often break if allowed to corrode.

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 roof costs around £300 to replace

Check for dampness in the cabin and in the boot, which can have a variety of causes. The rear light-lens seals are easy to replace, failed door membranes (and consequent damp carpets and warped door trims) less so, and there are drains in the sills and from the hood’s rain rail – the latter emerge underneath, just ahead of the rear suspension – which can get blocked. If the cabin’s rear shelf is damp under the carpet, then the rain rail itself may have cracked. This involves removal of the entire roof assembly to fix properly.

Check, too, that the hood itself fits well and isn’t split; new ones can be fitted from around £300, more for a hood to original-equipment spec with double-skinned rear quarters. The leather seat trim fitted to some special editions is thin and prone to splits, but a specialist can work in new matching sections.

Finally, the big one: rust. The first manifestation of this is usually at the bottom of the rear wings, ahead of the rear wheels where the panel covers the sill structure. It’s a bad piece of design, because moisture trapped behind this panel has no means of escape. It’s not really a structural panel, but if it’s badly rusted there’s every chance that the important parts behind it have also suffered.

Most MX-5’s have been repaired here by now, some badly with filler (check with a magnet) or a rough patch, some properly with a new section of shaped steel. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a car which still has all its original metal intact here (the existence of original spotwelds, although easily faked, is a guide), it’s unlikely to stay that way for much longer. The best repair panels incorporate a pair of drainage channels; it’s not ‘original’ or ‘correct’, but it solves the problem for the future.

Other top rust points? The entire inner and outer rear wheel arch area, the floorpan next to the aforementioned rear wing/sill troublespot, the sills themselves (and probably the inners if the outers are crumbly), the bottoms of the bolt-on front wings and the wing area just above the front bumper, and occasionally the bases of the windscreen pillars. Long-term cabin leaks can eat into the front floors, too, and road salt can erode the pressed-steel suspension arms.

It’s all repairable, and pre-formed panels are available to fix most commonly-rusted areas, but it’s expensive work to have done properly. At least the Mk1 MX-5 doesn’t suffer from the major rot in the front chassis rails that afflicts later Mk2s.

If you do manage to find a rust-free MX-5, make sure you get it thoroughly wax-injected (Dinitrol, Bilt Hamber Dynax S-50, Waxoyl or similar) if it hasn’t been done already.

So, which is the right MX-5 for you?

How to buy the best used Mazda MX-5

It could be any of them, although the automatic and the late 1.6 are the least likely to appeal to driving enthusiasts. Don’t get hung up on the limited editions, don’t be swayed by bright bling such as fake rollover bars, chrome vent rings and oversized, ride-ruining wheels, and treat modifications with caution. Why are they there? What do they achieve?

Top-condition, near-standard cars are rare nowadays, but they are worth searching out and paying extra for. Power steering is strongly recommended, but the year, the engine capacity and the marque badge really don’t matter much. Stick to those suggestions, and sports-car nirvana will surely follow.

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  • Susan nixon says:

    I have a mx5 1999 16.000 miles garage stored all its life showroom standard I love it .like new.

  • Robert Boone says:

    Great car I own 1997 speedster edition with ac delete and limited slip. These cars are going to be collectable one day but thats not why you buy one its a throw back to a different era, one that involves the driver without all kinds of electric nannies and alike buy one while you still can.

  • John Piper-Brown says:

    I have just purchased a 1999mk1 which I intend to restore to original.
    Don’t mind how long it takes or what it costs.
    It will be worth it In the end.

  • Colin Gianella says:

    I have a 1995 Mk1 MX5 California in absolutely pristine condition with 22,000 miles from new. It has all the Mot certificates with only 1 advisory 10 years ago for a splitting wiper blade! Full service history and a recent cam belt replaced as a precaution although not really needed, just for peace of mind. The only way to distinguish it from brand new is by looking at the mileometer reading.According to the MX5 restorer at Eastbourne, it’s the best one they have ever seen. I think I shall be hanging on to it for the time being.

  • will c says:

    having just completed a total top to tail rebuild on a 93 eunos 1.6 auto almost zero rust body or chassis , veerything looked at removed new if required and refinished as required, new aeroquip lines, new screen and sealing and finishers, total panel off repaint, wings front and rear panels doors bonnet and boot. engine cleaned gearbox going 5 sp. 270k on it and running like a mouse chewing paper yet redlines easily without smoke.. having rebuilt 30 odd vehicles in my 70 years, I know from raw experience i would rather have a totally restored car than a 30 y.o. with 16k on it, because a car is better being used than stored..Garage queens are good at car shows, I rebuilt a user machine..

  • Randy P. Mason says:

    Have a 1993 MX5 Mariner Blue Miata. 86k miles. Documentation from birth. Sales papers and original sales brochures. Garaged with ND wheels and tires but have original Daisey wheels and new tires also. We love our car.

  • John m says:

    I have a 93 Eunos S-limited 1.6. One of the rarer JDM editions, black with red interior and slightly modified before it was imported from Japan. Currently on 96k miles and in good order with no known rust. I love it.

  • Mark uk says:

    The antenna for the radio was supposed to be unscrewed then used as a rod roof down behind doors you find a hole do this at least autumn and before spring to remove crud from leaves etc its a rain channel owners just dont know about or forget did mine regular and no rust rear wings wise..also meant I wasnt carrying around two buckets off blabk cruddy water to weigh me down.

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Wait, Mark, really? I’ve owned two MX-5s, driven umpteen of them and been writing about them for years, and never heard about this! That’s incredible if so though, who’d have thought the ideal tool was screwed to the car the entire time?…

  • crawford hughes says:

    I’ve got a 1991 j limited eunos roadster, I’m I’m the middle of a full restoration, can’t wait till it’s back on the road.

  • Thomas says:

    I have a MX5 mk1 in Red 92 J reg upgraded gaz coilovers clarious exust system hard top 100k on clock runs but needs some tlc no mot poor thing what do I do sell or restore

    • Antony Ingram says:

      It depends how much work needs doing really Thomas – at the moment you’d be unlikely to recoup the cost of a restoration if you were to sell the car afterwards, but you might find that it’s less work than you expect (provided it isn’t riddled with rust). These are hardy little cars and rust is the only thing that will really kill them. Parts are easy to come by though, so if it’s mechanically rough you should have little problem attending to anything that needs doing in that regard.

  • Douglas todd says:

    I have a 94 mx5 in beg 89890miles want to sell full history all mots run great can’t drive any more eyesight any offers would be nice

  • Kevin coxhead says:

    I have just been reading your site as I have a 1991 mx5 euros roadster for sale and it’s made me think about the price.
    I have been restoring the one I have the body work has been completely renewed along with a full re spray, but due to I’ll health I am unable to finish the restoration it needs a new roof frame work is on the car also a good service any advise would be appreciated.

  • Ray and Jill says:

    We have a red Mazda euros roadster imported in 2001 and we have service history since then.
    Just over 78,000. Sadly need to sell any advice as to how and where?

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