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Buyer's Guide

Buyer’s Guide: Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989 – 1998)

by John Simister
28 April 2021 9 min read
Buyer’s 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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