After I sold my Audi A4, I was determined to have a cool little sports car for my next ride. I had taken up autocrossing, and as good as the Audi was for learning how to drive, I wanted something a little bit more agile.
The thing was, the only money I had was the cash from the sale of the Audi A4. I had 5 grand to spend, but I didn’t want to spend all of that money on the car itself, so the actual budget for my next car topped out at 3 grand.
Shopping for a sports car
My short list of cars consisted of the Toyota MR2, the Mazda RX-7, and the Mazda Miata. I think I gravitated to these cars because there were other Champaign County Sports Car Club (CCSCC) members that had these cars, or cars at least very similar to them. One friend had a beautiful and clean champagne gold 1988 Toyota MR2 that met its rusty fate as it was pressed into winter beater duty. Another friend had a 2004 Mazda RX-8 and I found the rotary motor in the car fascinating. And of course, Miatas could be found at every single autocross event.
Tom Ingles was one such fellow with a Miata. An older gentlemen with years of experience etched into his face, he had strong opinions, an intense drive to get things done, and a gruff country voice that carried the air of decisive authority. No wonder that in his younger days he was in the Air Force, in charge of keeping planes maintained on schedule and flying right. I had spent many, many hours with him as the two of us worked to transition CCSCC’s timing from a pen-and-paper process to a new computerized one with the new-at-the-time whizbang software called AXWare, something that not all club members were on board with initially.
Tom had a bright white 2003 Mazda Miata that was nicknamed “Maggie,” with a turbo under the hood and a roll bar installed behind the seats. He was constantly edging me on to get a Miata for my next car. “You can join us at Miatas at Hallet,” he said. “It’ll be the most fun you’ve ever had.”
I ended up test driving an 80s AW11 Toyota MR2 first. It was red with crusty rockers, with a nice interior the belied its years in the Midwest. I took it for a drive and was instantly infatuated with the car. It was everything that my Audi was not: small, lithe, peppy, and tinny. I really liked the car, but it was too rusty for me. I vowed that I would someday find and own a rust-free AW11 MR2; joke’s on me, as in the past decade plus, the rust free examples have dwindled to minuscule numbers with correspondingly soul-crushing high prices.
The next car I test drove was a white 80s FB Mazda RX-7. The car was also charming, though it definitely wasn’t as tight as the MR2 I had just test driven. I don’t know how much of that was due to the design of the car (recirculating ball steering, solid rear axle) and how much of it was due to the car’s sorry state. When the clutch pedal stopped working during the test drive, the owner hopped out and simply poured more fluid into the dry clutch reservoir, which raised questions in my head that I didn’t care to learn the answers to. I passed on the car.
Finally, I found a first-gen Miata that I could afford. It was two and a half hours north of Champaign in the Chicago suburb of Gurnee. I went up there by myself to take a look at the car, bringing along some cash tucked into a plain white envelope.
Waiting there for me was a 1990 Miata in red with a hardtop. It had served as a Chicago commuter for many years, and was a relatively high mileage car. Someone had patched the rocker rust on both sides of the car, which was good enough for me, and the interior was still in very nice shape. The A/C was not cold, the drivers side mirror had a terminal case of floppiness, and the front and rear bumpers were beginning to fade. I took the car out for a test drive and was delighted that it drove very similarly to the MR2 I had test driven prior.
There was no way that I could have afforded the car with the hard top, so that was the first thing removed from the negotiation of the car. The asking price was $2700, and I offered $2400 to start. The seller countered with $2600. I pulled out my white envelope, counted $2500 in $100 bills, and offered it as my final bid, tapping the wad of cash on the windshield frame.
That did the trick. I was now in possession of a Mazda Miata, a mere one week after I had sold the Audi.
My father was not amused. I drove back home and the next day, I road tripped with my father back up to Gurnee to pick up the car. I’m sure he was wondering what in the hell consumed his son to buy a small, slightly ugly little sports car instead of something else more… sensible.
I didn’t care. I had my little sports car, and I was over the moon.
You spin me right round
Naturally, the first thing I did with the Miata was take it autocrossing.
It was such a difference to how my Audi A4 drove. Top down, it was a revelation. I could see everything on the course! I could see exactly where I placed each of the front wheels! The little car was fun, tossable, and able to take corners at speeds that the Audi could never imagine!
I felt like Superman. I could do anything! Maybe take these corners at full throttle without lifting!
Nay, the laws of physics still applied, even to small lightweight sports cars.
That first year of autocrossing in the Miata was a crash course in the concept of oversteer. It wasn’t unusual for me to hit a dozen cones and spin half a dozen times over the course of a 2-day weekend. I struggled with the concepts of “the gas pedal is not an on/off switch” and “smooth motions at the steering wheel lest you cause the tires to break traction.”
A good friend of mine, Adrian, who also had an NA Miata, painted in a purple-tinged flat black with contrasting stripes, started autocrossing around the same time as I. In 2008, it became obvious that there were only two contenders for the club’s year-end Bowling Award, an orange bowling pin handed out to the driver who hits the most cones, and it was Adrian and me.
Unfortunately, I “won.” I don’t quite remember how many cones I ended up killing, but it was well north of 60 in a single season. Furthermore, I spun the little Miata 46 times, all tallied up in a video I made back in the day that I’m now too embarrassed to show anybody.
From that season forward, I was the “Spinmaster.” Even now, over a decade since that infamous season, when I’m back at Rantoul for an event and someone spins out on course, the jokes start flying that the driver “pulled a John Li” or “took some lessons from John,” haha.
Cheap car, cheap parts
The best part about the Miata was that I could afford parts and consumables on a student budget.
Tom, having accomplished the first step of putting me in a Miata, began the process of convincing me to run Miatas at Hallett. To do that, I would need a roll bar. Luckily for me, someone on now-defunct local car forum, the awkwardly named Central Illinois Car Enthusiast Network, or CICEnet, was building his street Miata into a Spec Miata. As he removed his roll bar and installed a racing cage, he offered me the roll bar for free if I came to his place to pick it up. Hell yes!
I bought a 4-point Schroth harness and anchored it to the roll bar harness bar and the floor.
Suspension modifications for Miatas were plentiful and cheap. I bought some red KYB shocks — they had these dials for adjusting “stiffness,” so they must be good, right? — and a front sway bar and installed them on the car to beef up the suspension while still keeping the car E Stock legal.
Finally, I needed wheels and tires. Fortunately, there are lots of people tracking and racing Miatas, and at the time one of the most popular track tires was the Toyo RA-1. I found someone in the St. Louis area who was liquidating his collection of Miata wheels and tires, and managed to score three sets of stock OEM Miata wheels, all mounted with half-worn Toyo RA-1s, for $300.
That was enough rubber for an entire season of autocross plus the track day at Miatas at Hallett. And when I had worn the tread off the tires, I turned around and sold all three sets of wheels for $200.
To cart all of my wheels and tires around, I built a small 4’x4′ Harbor Freight tire trailer and installed a free hitch to the back of the Miata.
I also found a set of nice looking 5-spoke 16″ wheels with good summer tires on the local Craigslist. I bought them and that set of wheels served as the “nice street set” of rims.
Tom would be instrumental in teaching me how to wrench on cars, and the Miata was my first trial by fire, sometimes literally. But I eventually joined him and his friends at Hallett, running my very first track day and having the time of my life. That journey will be detailed in a separate post, as it’s a hilarious story worth telling.
I would slowly get better at driving the little Miata, and through all of the cone hits, spins on autocross courses, and spins on race tracks, the little car never once complained about all the frankly stupid abuse I was throwing at it.
But all good things must come to an end. In 2009, I had bought the car’s replacement, and it was time to pass the little Miata on to someone else.
I let my fellow car club members know that I was looking to sell the car. One club member mentioned that his elderly mother was looking for a cheap, fun little convertible to drive around before she was pushing up daisies. Well, my car is cheap, I said. Perhaps she’d be interested in it?
That’s how I found myself in an industrial park, showing the Miata to the club member and his 70-ish old mother. She took it for a test drive and loved how it drove. At $1500, the price was right, and the car was released from my ownership that day.
I remembered being tickled pink that out there, someone’s granny was driving around in a Miata was a roll bar, a bright red racing harness, and a tow hitch. I even suggested that she go kick some motorsports butt with the car, but the woman politely laughed it off. The Miata was now strictly a nice street driver.
I thought that that would be the last time I’d ever hear about the car. Then last year, out of the blue, a friend from back home sent me some pictures on Facebook Messenger.
“Look what showed up at [work] today!”
Wow, the car was still alive! I asked my friend if the little old lady was still driving the car. Indeed, she was.
Keep on truckin’, little Miata.
That little Mazda would have been a much better handling car than an Audi but some european hot and not hot hatches will give it a fright but Audis fail to impress I have a couple of impromptu runs with Audis on a twisty highway nearby and none have yet been able to stay with my diesel Citroen despite the wide wheels and impressive badges,
small nimble cars can be a lot of fun you dont needs lots of power if you have no reason to brake for turns just turning hard wil scrub off speed anyway so just stay on the power and steer unfortunately the small nimble hatch I had I gave away to my daughter so I only have a larger version now
Having owned 4 Miatas, including a Mazdaspeed turbo version, I can say that I consider them among the best bang for the FUN buck out there! If it wasn’t for a screwed up left hip replacement I would still have one. I enjoyed the (NONrusty) MR2 I had, but the Miatas, IMO, were even more fun to drive.
As far as the “slightly ugly little sports car” comment; well beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This NA’s design manager and I were in the same tiny class at Art Center College of Design, and I think he and I both agree that it is a very attractive lil sports car! 🙂 DFO
I can sympathize with you about your hip. I had the opportunity to sit in a relative’s Miata, the first time I’d actually ever sat in one. I liked the steering wheel, how the shifter fell right to my hand and the other sports car goodness, but the complaining my hip did while getting out of it told me I’d better not get one 🙁
I like to drive long distances and it’s my understanding that these are anything but quiet on the interstate, nor good at smoothing out the numerous road imperfections that come with traveling on one.
This is a great COAL, thank you. An interesting car owned by someone doing adventurous activities instead of simply schlepping to work in it like me.
I chuckled at “Spinmaster” (aren’t buddies great?) and yes, it’s cool the ex-race car is perfect for Grandma. Miatas are wonderful.
A fine read with my morning coffee. I’ve never driven a Miata, but it would be a fun drive – especially on a sunny day with the top down. You don’t need tire-smoking horsepower to have fun in a car, and the Miata is living proof. I quite like the fact that the old lady who bought your Miata is still driving and enjoying it 10 years down the road. Another car for my imaginary garage.
Count me as another with a smile on my face this morning. Your post brought back all kinds of sensory goodness that I experienced in my own – a car in much the same condition as yours. People told me that I should try autocrossing, and I kind of wish that I had.
My Miata was the easiest car ever to steer through a curve with the throttle. There were a couple of roads with tight curves that I used to love to go out on. By myself, as passengers got too nervous. The car was always straight-up with me, and always gave plenty of warning of impending doom, giving me plenty of chance to back off. An autocross track would have been a great place to take the car to its actual handling limits, which it appears you did with some regularity. 🙂
I have to salute the elderly lady who bought the car, anyone who has the dexterity to get in and out of it (especially at that age) is to be applauded.
This is the missing chapter in my life. Kids came early on, and other interests intruded, so it just never happened. But I’m glad it did for you and so many others.
Well put together story with a cool ending! Thanks for the enjoyable read.
As someone on my third Miata I’ve got to commend you on getting the “feel” of Miata ownership into words. It’s not just the fun you as the owner have, the “feeling like superman” but also the camaraderie you get as part of a community and the joy you get from passing it on to the next owner, who is just as likely to be a 70 year old grandma as it is a kid learning to race. They’re just special cars.
Great write-up! I would still love to own a NA Miata someday. My dad gave me his NB2 when he “upgraded” to an NC a few years ago. Fun car but I hated the color and my wife was too scared to ride in it. I got a Supra to replace it but miss that little convertible some days!
John Li, we seem to be tracking with similar vehicle choices, with the A4 and the Miata.. In February I bought a non-running ‘95 Miata Merlot M edition for $500 from a friend who needed it out of the expensive garage it was parked in downtown DC. A new battery, a few other fixes, and $750 and she was running again. Generally, the car has been well maintained, so I got a good deal.
Still getting to know it. Haven’t really had the time to enjoy it, in today’s world. I will be fixing a few cosmetic things before probably moving on. I’m 6’1”, more runner than lineman, and fit snuggly. I definitely had more room in the ‘77 Fiat Spider I owned. Was hoping to get out with some owner’s groups on local farm roads, but that will have to wait…I autocrossed once with the Fiat, and maybe will try again sometime soon. A local engineer I work with races Miatas in a series at Summit Point. These possibilities intrigue me, but adult responsibilities might keep me away…
The Miata is obviously more modern than the Fiat, with more precise steering, has about the same power as my modified engine in the Spyder, is way lighter, and feels lower to the ground, particularly when getting in or out, but also in traffic next to what today is produced for pickups and SUV’s. I also like the 25 years of progress in automotive design safety. I enjoyed rowing the gearbox more in the Fiat, though.
I’ve been watching Miatas and MR2s on the Oregon craisgslists lately. Want!
Mine of the same generation was red as well as many/most seem to be, glad to have had the opportunity, what a fun car to drive. Plenty fast and quick, great handling, reliable, endlessly modifiable, and able to drop and raise the top while sitting in the driver’s seat. I don’t know if I’ll ever buy another sports car but if I do, a Miata of any vintage would be a strong contender.
Glad the little old lady is still doing well at 80 and the nearly 30 year old Miata is still puttering along despite living in the Midwest. Wonder if the Miata still has the trailer hitch?
As soon as I read the first sentence, I knew who had written this article!
Folks, don’t let John Li fool you: He’s a damn good autocrosser! How do I know? Because I too had an NA Miata, and although as a ’94 mine should have been faster, John Li whupped my butt week after week. Once he got done spinning for the day, he was always much, much quicker than I was. (Though as I remember it, it was “Spin Doctor,” not “Spinmaster”.) We rode along with each other many times. I’ve attached a picture (who took it, I don’t know) of John in my car; I think he was hollering at me to put my damn foot to the floor!
John got so good at autocross that (although we were in the same beginner’s class) he became an instructor in CCSCC’s annual autocross school. The day he instructed me remains the most helpful of all the autocross classes I’ve taken, including the nation-wide Evolution class.
John Li and I got rid of our NA’s at about the same time, too. He got an NC; I got a 10th Anniversary Edition Miata–and he was nice enough to tell me that he was jealous of my car.
John Li is a real renaissance man. This guy’s got more hobbies than anyone I’ve ever known. And now he’s writing for one of my favorite websites. I want to be John Li when I grow up!
My sweet ride….1990 Miata, bought new in 1990 with 36k miles on it. Most fun you can gave in any car!
I had one exactly like that and it was a fun little car, but just not practical for a daily driver. I’m 6’3″ and in the excitement of running around on the test drive, I didn’t consider just how tight it was. When the top was up, I felt suffocated inside.
My dad’s aunt loved it. When I was gone during the day in the Loop I parked it at her place since she was only a block from the trains, and she had keys to it when she wanted to use it. She was 75 years old and would wrap a scarf around her hair, slide on a pair of sunglasses, drop the top and drive everywhere in it. She loved it so much that I sold it to her when I tired of jamming myself into it.
I was happy that she was so happy. Her last car before the Miata was a Olds 442 Hurst, white with gold trim, but it was needing work and she was offered a fortune for it. She loved that little red Miata, and she had it until she couldn’t drive anymore at 92.
So I have a lot of great memories of her and me tooling around with that little red Miata, top down, and looking for trouble. Thanks to Olive’s love of that Miata, I see them as great cars for seniors!
A little late here, but this is a terrific story!
First, I love Miatas. My sister and her husband owned one in the mid 1990s, and were gracious enough to let me drive it. I still remember driving it though Northern California backroads, top down on a beautiful day… one of my favorite driving experiences to this day.
Your autocrossing tales continue to be highly entertaining, and (almost) make me regret not getting into that sport.
And the thought of granny driving around in your rollbar-equipped Miata just makes my day. My 80+ year old mother-in-law drives a bare-bones Jeep Wrangler (manual transmission, no power steering, no a/c, etc.)… and I often say it helps keep her healthy. Same with Granny Miata perhaps…
I want one. I had an ’89 Protege sedan (same engine) and loved it.