COAL: 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata – Chapter 28, Zoom Zoom

Life was a little stale as 2014 turned into 2015.  I was finishing up at the office at the end of the day right after the start of the New Year.  Then a text message came across my phone with a most amazing opportunity.

Photo of attendees at the 2014 CC Auburn meet-up.


One of the things I have loved about my association with CC is the people I have met.  Most of you I have only come to know online, but I have had the opportunity to meet some of you in person.  One of the times Paul threw out an invitation to meet, the location was Auburn, Indiana on a beautiful early October weekend in 2014.  That was my first time meeting several readers here and a fine time was had among people talking cars and enjoying each others’ company.  One of the people I met was a fellow who went here by the name Sevair.  John (his real first name) was from Michigan and drove a beautiful silver mid-70’s Cadillac Seville to the weekend.  During one of the discussions had at the hotel it came up that he also had a Miata.  I must have mentioned that I had always wanted a Miata.  I don’t actually recall because I have mentioned so many cars I have always wanted, but I don’t doubt that I did.

The text message was from John, reminding me of what I had said and giving me a quick heads up that his 1997 Miata was going to go up on the Detroit Craigslist the next day because he was getting another car – but first, was I interested?  Marianne worked in my office at that time and happened to be there.  “Hey honey, look at these pictures” is probably what was said.  That happens a lot, and usually results in one of those looks that betrays the thoughts in her head that are something like “Uh-oh, he has the fever.  Shut this down right now”.  In fairness, Marianne has always been quite good about allowing me my car dalliances but is also a realist who knows that given the opportunity, I would own more cars than is prudent.  But that evening was different.

One of John’s photos of the Miata


First, I had recently settled a nice case and had some extra (meaning un-allocated) money in the bank.  Second, a Miata is something I had mentioned to her a time or, uh, twenty in the past.  Third, John’s Miata showed as cute as a bug in his photos, and was much more fun and attractive than the kinds of cars I usually showed her photos of.

“It does look nice.  And you have always said you wanted one of these.  The price is reasonable and you have the money, so if you want it you should buy it.”  Marianne may as well have signed and stamped a “License To Buy A Car” because within about thirty seconds I was texting John back that I would take it.

This was the first time I had ever bought a car sight-unseen.  There had been some cars that people probably thought I had bought sight unseen, but this one I actually did.  But I knew John well enough from CC to know 1) that he had high standards on his cars and 2) deemed him honest from the detailed description he gave me on his history with the car.  It had 158k miles, had been owned by John for 15 of its 18 year life, and had been serviced/maintained/repaired regularly.

Purchase Day


We agreed to meet in Angola, Indiana, which is just south of the Michigan border and roughly halfway between our respective homes.  I was itching to get my hands on the car and pooh-poohed the threats of significant snowfall.  The snow was just beginning to fall when we met over lunch.  John and his wife were there, and so was Marianne and my middle son John.  Marianne detests driving in snow and we picked (our) John up from his place at school on the way as her insurance policy against driving in snow.  The snow turned out to be a real thing that day and it was slow going as we made it back to Indianapolis.  It was slower going for John in Michigan, as he later reported that it took him something like four hours for a trip that usually takes about two.

I stopped at a car wash when we were almost home to get the salt spray off (and there was a lot of it from that drive), then parked the car in the garage for a long winter’s rest.  (“Sorry Honda Fit, I guess you are an outdoor dog now.”)  It was spring before I spent some time getting to know it.  When school ended for the summer, son John remained there with the Cranberry ’93 Vic and our daughter was home, so the Miata became my daily driver all summer.  And what a lovely daily driver it was.

I have made no secret here that there have not been enough clutch pedals in my car-owning life.  I was as happy as a pig in garbage to get back into a stick shift, and the Miata’s delightful shift action may have been the best I have experienced.  My eldest son took me up on an offer to learn a stick shift, and we spent an afternoon making that happen (an experience I wrote about here).  Middle son John would have been interested, but his 6’6″ frame barely fit into the car, and there was certainly no room for enough leg movement to work the clutch.  There was also the fact that the header panel over the windshield was right at his eye level so that he had to either crouch down to see through the windshield or crane his neck to see over it.  We tried one short drive with John as a passenger with the top up.  It was not a pleasant experience for him.

But for me it was a delight.  In terms of my physique, I am Mister Average.  I can walk into the “suit separates” department of a menswear store and walk out with clothes that fit me just right.  I am probably 5’10 1/2″ tall with arms and legs that are neither unusually long or short.  Or, in Jim Klein’s language, I have a 31″ inseam.  In other words, that Miata was made exactly for someone like me.  Or someone who was no larger than me, at least.

That first year of Miata Life was everything I had ever hoped it might be.  The car was a hoot to drive, every single time.  It was air conditioned for really hot days, had good heat for really cold days, but for most of the year between April and October the top only came up if it was blistering hot or raining.  Even chilly days could be offset with a ball cap, a jacket and the heater.  Marianne and I would go out for drives just for fun, something we had not really done since my hobby cars had gone away.  She enjoyed the car (almost) as much as I did.

There was very little I had to do with it.  I bought a new battery after the old one died.  I also had to buy a vent kit for it because that was something that had gone missing over the years – the battery mounts in the trunk and vents directly outside via some tubing.  The transmission had developed a bit of a whine and I had my local shop replace the gear lube with a Ford Motor Company synthetic product that got rave reviews on the Miata forums.  It didn’t do much for the whine (which I suspect was some aging bearings) but took the shifting action up a notch better than it had been before.  I didn’t worry much about it, as Miata-forum-wisdom decreed that good used transmissions were cheap and plentiful.

But I discovered something – or maybe I just re-learned an old lesson from my days of owning five cars twenty years earlier.  Each year I used the car less than the year before.  After that first summer the car became a pure extra for most of the time.  The top went down in April and back up again at the end of October, so if it was too hot or if rain was expected, I drove the Honda Fit instead.  The recreational driving took a hit when Marianne decided that the stress on her aging knees outweighed the enjoyment of our pleasure drives.  And a pleasure drive is much less pleasurable when you can’t share it with your best friend.

Photo by Jim Grey


There were really only two problems I had with the car.  The minor one was the red paint.  I have never been a red car guy, but had to agree with my son John when he said “Just look at it – it is supposed to be red.”  Part of the car had been repainted with a modern base/clear system and that part was easy to live with.  The problem was the other part that was the original single stage enamel.  After a good cleaning and waxing I had a red car.  But about 4 months later I would start to have a 2-tone red car.  After a year the difference in the two colors of red was really noticeable, so another cleaning and waxing was mandatory.

The bigger problem was rust.  I knew going in that this car had spent most of its life in the Detroit area.  I also knew that former-owner John had treated the car to some significant rust repair bodywork at some point in his ownership.  When I got the car there was some bubbling getting started in the usual locations around the rear wheels (which John had disclosed in our phone conversation).  Though I only rarely drove the car in salty conditions, those little bubbles continued to progress as they always do.  I knew that this would eventually have to be addressed if I kept the car.  I also knew that there were still really pristine early Miatas out there that had been driven sparingly and had better bodies and lower miles than mine.

Late in the summer of my 4th year of ownership I finally decided to sell the car.  Part of it was financial.  I was finishing a short period of solo law practice that had not gone as well as I had hoped, so a little cash out of the car would help, as would the reduced insurance costs.  But more than that, I had to decide whether to commit or move on.  My cars have been like relationships to me, and 4 years in with the Miata had been all fun and virtually no work or expense.  The car was going to need some attention, with small things like a noisy speedo cable and an old convertible top that was getting so tight that I had difficulty stretching it enough to latch in the up position unless the weather was warm  And, of course, there was the slowly worsening rust issue.  I decided that my time and attention were needed in other areas of my life.  I advertised the car and sold it to a nice young fellow from southern Indiana who was looking for a fun car as a regular driver.  Old Miatas in Indiana seem to come in two kinds – either gorgeous cars in exclusive communities that are very nice and a bit costly, or cars that are at or near beater status and are quite cheap.  My car was in that halfway between status where it had some issues and was reasonably priced, but that still looked and drove really nicely.

I will confess that I missed it almost immediately.  I never tired of shifting gears or of taking curvy roads or highway entrance ramps at speeds far faster than was normal.  I appreciated the car’s neutral handling characteristics and how I could steer it through a curve with the throttle.  I loved the top-down motoring I had not enjoyed since my high school days in the green Galaxie 500 convertible.  My dermatologist was less in love with the idea, having removed a bit of cancerous nastiness from the bridge of my nose.  I compromised and kept a ball cap in the car.  But I will also confess that I liked being able to keep my daily driver in the garage again (especially in the winter) and not having to maintain more than two cars.

At this point I have owned four hobby cars.  The ’61 ThunderTurd and the ’64 Imperial were cars that required (either actually or potentially) much of their owner, whether in repairs to complex systems or just the need to keep a really nice car really nice.  The other two may have been the nicest hobby cars it is possible to own – a Ford Model A is so simple that there is almost nothing to go wrong.  A Miata is simple for this day and age, and has modern safety and comfort features (air bags and air conditioning).  Both cars are quite durable, were presentable but not so nice that I stressed over a rock chip.  Also, both of them had a way of bringing smiles to the driver and everyone in his environs.

My life has been busy enough that I have not really thought about another hobby car in the last few years.  I am not sure I would get another Miata, but only because of it being a solo rather than a couple activity.  And maybe also because I have already enjoyed the experience and part of the fun of a hobby car is getting to know something different.  I will also confess that my own knees are starting to catch up to Marianne’s.  But then again, if the right one parked itself in my path, who knows.  It may be an increasing challenge to get in or out over the next few years, but when strapped behind the wheel it is hard to find a way to have more fun.