COAL: 1997 Mazda Miata – How Many Mid-Life Crisis Are We Allowed?

When the kids reached the age where they no longer needed dad to pick them up after school, I started to toy around with the idea of buying something really fun to drive.

We had purchased our fixer-upper home in 2000. Built in 1915, it had needed a lot of updating when we moved in. By 2009 we had completed a substantial amount of the work and I was getting restless for some kind of new project. We lived in St Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood and our particular block was blessed with extra deep lots, which allowed for a modest driveway. In our case, previous owners had the foresight to orient the garage doors to open perpendicular to the alley, creating a parking pad in addition to the modest two car garage. And there was almost always street parking right in front of our house. All of this is to say that after doing the math, I saw no reason we couldn’t acquire another (fourth) car, as long as I kept it small.

By 2009, first generation Miata were still plentiful, but they were starting to show their age. They were not quite collectors cars yet, so prices were very reasonable. As much a Mazda fanboy that I was, I really didn’t know much about Miatas. I would soon find out, thanks to the online Miata forum. I decided that a 1997 would be my target car as it was the last year of the NA body style. Mazda had replaced the original 1.6 L engine with a 1.8 L in 1994 and they had continued to refine and update the car since its introduction, so I would benefit from all that came before.

I scanned Craigslist ads, getting acquainted with typical asking prices and mileage. I soon found a 1997 in Chaste White showing about 95,000 miles. I learned that the owner was selling this car after it just a couple of months of ownership. He was loving the Miata experience so much that he had gone out and bought a low mileage NC with the power retractable hard top (PRHT) and needed to make room for it. I remember taking a test drive, top down, on an unusually warm April day. I tend to make quick decisions and after about 5 minutes of driving I knew this would be my next car.

While the car was in very good condition, it was starting to show its age. The drivers seat bolster was well shredded, the front bumper was cracked below the radiator opening from a curb hit, there was a bit of rust around the antenna opening on the rear fender. Just little stuff like that, but mechanically it was great, no issues at all.

I found a guy in St Cloud who was parting out his ’94 and sourced a pair of seats in decent shape. Then I got my first lesson in Miata evolution. The seatbelt mounts changed between these years and the new seats wouldn’t fit. I found out that I could swap out the seat backs from the ’94 with my decent seat bottoms to create a hybrid. The fabric was slightly different, but you would only notice if you were paying attention. I put the leftover seats together and sold them to a guy building some sort of two seater, solar powered cart, breaking even on the deal.

The front bumper was repaired using a heat malleable rubberized patch applied to the inside of the bumper. This patching system was developed for NASCAR style bodies to repair damage during races, the cure time was something like 60 seconds. And then while I was down there working, I decided to add a front spoiler sourced off ebay. The spoiler served to further strengthen my patch and the crack never opened up again. The spot around the antenna was just surface rust and was quickly dealt with. I repainted the entire fender using custom mixed rattle can paint, good enough from 10′ away.

I remember my future son-in-law coming to visit with our daughter. I knew he was a sports car fan and they needed a car to drive while they were in town, so I loaned them the Miata. I think they appreciated the gesture despite the dead battery later that evening. This is when I learned about AGM batteries and where to source them quickly. Mazda recommended AGMs because the battery was located in the trunk and the off-gassing of a regular lead acid battery could quickly lead to corrosion issues in the enclosed space.

This early fun got me started on a bunch of little tweaks, maybe some beyond the bounds of good taste. First up, an Audi TT look style bar. Lots of hate out there for these from the real roll bar crowd. I didn’t care, I thought it looked cool and I had no plans to flip this car over. The style bar was fabricated by a guy over in Wisconsin and it was a quality piece. It replaced the body brace behind the back seat, so it was functional anyway.

This photo also highlights the Miata’s ability to haul oversized packages. I kept the top down most of the time, it was starting to complain a bit about being put up, especially on cold mornings. So I did what any self respecting Miata owner does on a cold day, drove top down with heat blasting and a warm jacket. And yes, there were summer days when I ran the A/C with the top down as well.

Next up, my favorite wheels of all time, Chaparral Minilite replicas. These were 15″ gunmetal with chrome edges, really well made wheels for a very reasonable price. They replaced my 14″ Miata 7 spoke wheels, coming it at about the same weight.

I learned about suspension mods from Flying Miata. I ended up just replacing the bump stops, adding NB style front shock mounts and new shocks. This is where I also learned the term ‘death sticks’, almost literally. I bought my first set of spring compressors from Harbor Freight, but after having one slip off a partially compressed coil spring, it was off to Sears for a decent, affordable set. A friend helped me with the change out over a weekend, resulting in about a 1″ drop in ride; just about the perfect stance with those new wheels.

After this, I started to get a little crazy. Mostly because it was just fun to work on the car but partly because the aftermarket stuff was cheap and plentiful. I found an OEM replica rear spoiler and bought it despite being warned that the extra weight would be too much for the trunk hinges. I never got around to the hinge mod to address this, the trunk was so small that I rarely used it anyway.

Some of my mods were tasteless, like the addition of bright red tow ring under the front bumper (along with a cute little red TOW arrow) despite never intending to get anywhere near a track.

All of this is what made this car so much fun at a point in my life where I needed some fun. The Miata forum was very active and knowledgeable with responses to queries often coming within minutes of posting. The forum was well moderated and discussions tended to stay on topic. Most of what I needed to know about my car came from these guys.

For example, I learned that you adjust the flush headlight covers to match the contour of the hood by pulling on the cover itself until it bends back to where it belongs. Once you’ve done this, it’s the first thing you notice when you see a Miata coming at you. I also learned about Shin Etsu grease to lube the power window tracks. I still have a tube if anyone needs some. I went back and looked at the forum in preparation for this article, sad to say, I think it’s changed a bit. It looks like a lot of the generic car forums these days with folks asking questions without having done much research and topics quickly straying off to who knows where.

I kept the car until 2015, only driving it in summer. We had purchased a condo with just two parking spots and I decided the Miata had to go. I regretted selling it almost immediately, but I have no interested in owning another, ours was a one and done sort of relationship.