Cars of a Lifetime: 1990 Mazda Miata- A Member of the Family

9 Rear-3-quarterLast week, my daughter and I took a road trip from LA to Albuquerque, New Mexico in our 1990 Mazda Miata. Here it is resting in the Arroyo del Oso Park (Canyon of the Bear Park) in northeast Albuquerque. The trip added 1,600 miles to the odometer and required twenty four hours of seat time (12 hours out and 12 hours back). This car has appeared in in a number of my articles (typicaly posing in the background of a picture), and I decided it was time to recognize my faithful steed and do a complete write up.

My wife and I bought this car used in 1995 (with about 30,000 miles) and have owned it ever since. We paid a premium price for it, but was in perfect condition at the time of purchase. The salesman card attached to the Owner’s Manual indicated it was first sold in Orange County, California, and we subsequently bought it from a Mazda dealer in Littleton, Colorado. It served as my wife’s daily driver for the first ten years of ownership, and remains with us today as a weekend fun car. Nine years after we bought it, we relocated to Southern California, returning our Miata to its original stomping grounds.

There’s little need to describe the Miata for a group of automotive enthusiasts. We’re all familiar with Mazda’s automotive interpretation of “horse and rider as one,” so I’ll talk about my ownership experience with this car, a first year model. It came with power steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum alloy wheels and cassette stereo (the “A Package”).  As the pictures shows, I upgraded to a larger wheel and tire combo, but I do have the factory wheels in storage in my garage.

1a engine

This engine shot shows the heart of the Miata, a 1600 cc straight four with Dual Overhead Cams. The engine mounts longitudinally, since the Miata uses a classic front engine, rear wheel drive layout. This driveline harkens back to the classic British sports car, and the designers even shaped the engine components to provide the same look and feel. For example, the valve cover appears to house a traditional chain drive for the camshafts, when in fact the engine uses a cogged rubber drive belt.

This picture also shows the one under-hood modification I’ve made- I salvaged  a factory cruise control system from a junkyard Miata, and installed it in our car to improve open road cruising. Total investment was about $125 and four or five hours of my time.

Over the years, I’ve been very intimate with this engine bay, primarily to perform age related maintenance. I’ve replaced the clutch and camshaft drive belt, the valve seals, and rebuilt the starter and alternator. In most cases I did the work to prevent failure, rather than performing the repairs because of failure.

The car did have one annoying glitch for a while, an occasional stall while coming to a stop. I determined the idle air control valve was at fault, and after pricing a replacement online ($ 449.10!), I found a suitable replacement in the junkyard ($ 25). With the replacement installed, the car has never stalled again.

2 interior-2

This picture emphasizes the purity of the Miata cockpit (please excuse the missing cover under the steering column- I was working under the dash prior to our trip, and left the panel laying at home on the workbench). The hooded gauges, center stack containing audio and HVAC controls, and handy shift lever work together to deliver the perfect cockpit environment. You can also see that Mazda chose quality materials for this car. The steering wheel, seat cover, door panel, and carpet are all original equipment, and in great shape considering the car’s age and mileage (24 years with over 130,000 miles).

To be fair, I did replace the shifter boot- 20 years of brisk shifting created a few small holes along the seams. Also, you can see the faceplate for a trunk mounted CD changer in the center console- I installed it for my wife as a birthday present seventeen years ago.

3- modifications

I also made two other cosmetic modifications for my wife- The stainless steel scuff plate visible in this picture…

4- Hobbes

And this image of Hobbs staring in from the passenger’s quarter window. He’s a very patient tiger, having lived out in the cold for over seventeen years.

5 Nick-1

Over eighteen years of car ownership, you pick up a few dents and dings. My wife ripped the lower edge of front bumper in a parking lot mishap many years ago. I’ve considered a couple fixes for it (using a patch kit, overlaying an aftermarket spoiler, or buying a replacement cover), but at some point these flaws become part of the car’s identity, and fixing them could diminish an old friend’s character.

7 Nick-3

This picture shows some a couple more issues. Prior to our road trip, I repaired multiple rips in the top using iron-on jean patches. I was concerned the patches would fly off over the ensuing 1,600 miles, but they remained in place and prevented unwanted breezes in the cabin until our safe return home.

This is the car’s second top, which included a glass window to replace the original plastic. We installed it while living in Colorado, and I recommend a glass backlight for all cold climates, since plastic windows tend to shatter in cold temperatures (ask me how I know…). However, the glass is heavy and hard to zip in place while raising the roof, so now that we reside in California, our next top may return to a plastic window.

8 rebar-hole

As I said, we purchased this car in 1995, a year before the birth of my daughter. Now that she’s seventeen, we’re using the Miata for her driving training. She enjoys the visibility provided by top down driving, and now thinks all other cars are “too big,” but our training sessions have not been drama free.

This picture shows one such dramatic moment. During an early driving session, Sara was driving in a quiet industrial park. A car in the adjacent lane kicked over a piece of steel rebar, which popped up and pierced the sheetmetal floorboard of the Miata. It ended up driving itself about three inches into the driver’s foot well. I’ve removed the rebar, pounded down the floorboard, and patched the hole, but this rip in the carpet remains as evidence of that freak accident. Sara was not hurt, but it certainly reminded both of us that anything can happen while you’re behind the wheel!

1 Front-3-Quarter

Despite that close call, I harbor many positive feelings for our Miata. To tell the truth, we bought it as my wife’s car, but since then I’ve grown very fond of it, and have logged most of it’s miles over the past ten years.

This picture includes a bridge in the background because the Miata now bridges across all our family members- My wife drove it while pregnant with our daughter, I now drive it as a weekend toy, and starting this year my daughter will use it as her daily driver. I never thought I’d own a car “all my life” but the Miata is proving to be such a car.

I think it comes down to this- While the Miata will never be a car that can do all things for all people, it perfectly delivers on those things it can do. Few cars reach that level of perfection, and when you find one that does, it’s tough to let it go.