By on June 17, 2013

derekprelude

For the past 16 years, we’ve done the same routine with varying frequency; it started when I was 2 or 3 years old, at my insistence. Go for a swim at the YMCA, then lunch at McDonalds (always a Filet-O-Fish, since nothing else was kosher. I didn’t know what a Big Mac was until Junior High) and finally, we would arrive at Mecca, 715 Milner Avenue, the site of Honda Canada’s head office.

I still don’t know what compelled me to make my Dad come out to his office every single weekend. I know that as a child, I had was obsessed with collecting car brochures. I had to get a new one each week, and Honda had a big rack of brochures in the lobby, where visitors waited. What better place to get my fix. Like a real junkie, the initial rush had to be fed perpetually, and soon the brochures from the rack weren’t enough.

Behind the copier was the real good stuff; brochures from Japan that seemed to kick around for no reason. The cars were the same as what you could buy here, but they all had funny names and the ad copy was entirely nonsensical English phrases. Other times there were Japanese car magazines with titles like “Motor Fan” and “Car Graphic”, thick as phone books with hundreds of glossy pages and beautiful photography. They made an issue of Evo look like a worn-out hymnal.

I didn’t cry when my grandparents passed away, but I remember bawling hysterically when my Dad told me he was leaving Honda. Life without The Big H was unimaginable – even my favorite Teddy Bear was a promotional item given to Acura dealers that my Dad managed to sneak away somehow (I still have it, along with all the brochures and Honda memorabilia). The YMCA membership swims ended, but Saturdays still revolved around cars.

At age 15, I wasn’t eligible for my learner’s permit and was still too young to spend my Saturdays sleeping off a hangover. The ritual had now evolved into dragging my Dad along to a dealer so that he could test drive cars that I liked, on the off chance that he might buy it and I’d be able to drive them when I was 16. We ended up at a Mazda dealer in the north end of the city that looked like nothing more than a glass-paneled double-wide trailer. If it weren’t for the Velocity Red Mazdaspeed MX-5 in the showroom, we wouldn’t have stepped foot in the joint.

We got within three meters of the MX-5 before we were intercepted by a salesman who wasted little time launching into his spiel. “I see you have a 5-Series,” he said. “This car is as fast as a Z4 but costs half the price.”

For reasons I’ve never been able to figure out, my father’s body language remains consistent whether he’s charming a restaurant hostess so we don’t have to wait or a table or trying to disarm an overeager car salesman. An earnest, confident smile washes over his face, a hand comes to rest on the other person’s forearm, as he repeats a precisely honed script, refined over years being in this exact scenario; trying to cut to the chase so the two of us can go out in a test drive.

“I work in the car business. I know all about [insert two or three features]. I’ve driven [insert key competitor here] and wasn’t impressed. I found the seats really uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t buy [competitive car] on that basis alone. I’d like to take this out for a drive with my son here. I’m happy to leave you the keys to my car as well. We’ll only be gone for 10 or 15 minutes.”

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t let you do that. This is a turbocharged vehicle and we aren’t allowed to offer test drives.” The salesman looks genuinely apologetic. “I can offer you a test drive of a standard Miata. We have a silver demo available.”

My father agrees, but seems a bit dejected. “What a bunch of bullshit. They just don’t want to keep one in inventory to use as a demo.” The silver car doesn’t look nearly as cool as the Mazdaspeed. No Racing Hart wheels. No front-mounted intercooler. No red paint. No turbo. This one is the same silver that seems to be on every third car. My Dad is busying himself with his pre-test drive ritual; adjusting the mirrors, fiddling with the seat, making sure the radio is turned all the way down. We creep out of the parking lot using way too many revs, since he doesn’t drive stick anymore.

It’s the first time I’ll hear the raspy snarl of the Mazda BP engine and watch the red needle sweep over the white-faced tach all the way up to the 7500-rpm redline. I’m enjoying the wind in my hair as my Dad rows through the gears, and I make a play for the radio. My Dad cuts me off before I can get to the volume knob.

“Hey! Don’t touch that! I want to hear the car.”

The joy on his face is palpable as he rows through the gears.  He giggles. “This is a great little car! Great gearshift. Honda could never build a gearbox like this. Great brakes too!” He stands on the brakes, bringing us to a halt from moderate speeds in what seems like no time at all. “Too much fun,” is his pronouncement.

We return the car sometime after our self-allotted time was up. I have a brochure in my hand and my hair is tousled. He knows exactly what I’m going to ask. “I wouldn’t ever buy a car like that. Too difficult for me to get in and out of. But boy, what a blast to drive.”

***

volvo

Eight years later on an especially humid Saturday morning, I’m only slightly hung over, but wide awake. My Dad’s been up since god knows when, fired up on caffeine and polemic op-eds. He’s emailed three of them to me and it’s not even 9 A.M. By now, I’ve already bought and sold my first Miata, a green 1997, and a Volvo wagon that counts as the worst auto-related decision of my life. After it suddenly died in the middle of a busy freeway a month earlier, I decided it had to go. The original plan was to pass it on to my brother, but I wasn’t going to give him an unsafe, unreliable car. My Dad wanted to know what I was going to replace it with.

“I think I’m going to get another Miata. They’re cheap to own. Reliable. And I miss driving them.”

I waited for the inevitable eye-roll or lecture about selling my first car only to go and buy the exact same one, or for wasting time and money on the Volvo.

None of those ever came. “I think that’s a good idea,” was his reply.

***

DadMiata

Early Saturday morning, we set out for a small town about 200 miles southwest of Toronto, behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 press car. Now that the press fleet was an option for me, it had been years since we went to a dealer to test drive anything. I’d let him take press cars out for a spin every now and then, but practical considerations had long overtaken driving thrills when it came time for him to buy a car. Judging by the number of time I’d see my Dad driving around town in my last Miata, I figured that it was a great way for him to enjoy a sports car without having to own one (like the time I caught him in the act, above).

Growing up in Barbados, the roads were chalk full of Little British Cars that never ran properly. Parts had to come from the UK by boat. “They were all shit,” was a constant refrain whenever the Miata versus Classic Car debate came up. “They never ran. What’s the point of a car if you can’t drive it? Mazda took that concept and engineered reliability into it.”

The seller turned out to be an older Scottish gentleman nearing 80, and he simply couldn’t drive the Miata any longer. Though he shared my father’s philosophy on British cars, getting in and out of his Miata every day proved to be too much of a hassle.  His car was a 2003 “Shinsen” model that he imported from Florida, with the mechanical LSD, a 5-speed gearbox and the biggest rotors Mazda could fit under the 16″ wheels. It had been garaged every winter after arriving in Canada and maintained meticulously, with just over 70,000 miles on the odometer.There was no trace of road salt or grime anywhere on the car – the engine bay was clean enough to perform open heart surgery in. The door jambs and underbody were similarly pristine. The only thing that made me a little apprehensive was the lack of ABS – I’d never driven a car without it.

Driving it was both unremarkable and mesmerizing – it felt just like the same car I’d sold a few months prior, but there were subtle differences; the chassis felt stiffer and more composed, the 1.8L was just a bit less lazy thanks to the addition of VVT, but all in all, everything was familiar. The same slightly coarse engine note, the precise feel of the shifter and best of all, the sensation of speed that makes 45 mph feel like 90. I wasn’t blown away by the dynamics like I was when I first drove my ’97, but it felt right.

I pulled over at a roadside gas station and swapped seats with my dad. He wanted to know what I thought of the car.

“Drive it and tell me what you think,” he said. I knew I could count on him for a sober second opinion. This was the first Miata I had looked at, and I always kept in mind his number one maxim that easily defused any desire to buy something on impulse “There will always be something else.”

It only took a 500 yard trip down the road before he turned to me and said “I think you should make an offer”.

“Really?”

“You probably won’t find one in better condition. It’s never seen winter. And the price is fair.”

“How do you know? I guess you’re an expert in Miata pricing now, huh?” I knew he was right. The seller was asking only $1000 more than my ’97 for a car with half the miles and zero winters, but I couldn’t believe that my model of fiscal restraint and temperance was encouraging me to buy the first Miata we’d looked at.

“Just give him $100 as a deposit and tell him you’ll come pick the car up on Monday.”

***

ontrack

Selling my original Miata was probably the greatest mistake of my life so far. My rational side feared that it would need a fair amount of maintenance soon, and that the constant need to fix winter rust would be a silly drain on my bank account. I also got tired of doing the hour-long drive to my then girlfriend’s house in a cramped car that got cold in the winter, having my organs pummeled as the full racing coilovers bounded over the potholes and frost heaves while the race pads squeaked like tortured mice. I thought the Volvo would be a nice, comfortable car to drive back and forth while leaving me with a nice bit of money in my savings account – used car prices were still high and someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I will always remember the day I delivered it to the new owner; going to get a smog check done so that the ownership could be transferred, getting the hardtop out of the storage locker and putting it on the car with my brother. He asked me to pose for pictures with my car one last time and I did. I’ve never really been able to look at them, and every time I see a British Racing Green NA Miata, I feel an acute pang of sorrow.

As it turned out, the Volvo was more hassle than I was prepared for, and my girlfriend and I broke up the day before I sold the Volvo. The very last fight we had ended with me asking a friend if I could borrow his Miata for a drive. We were in California and I needed to blow off some steam. He gave me the keys to his white 2000 Miata, and as I wound it out along the PCH near La Jolla, I had a moment of clarity; I needed another Miata.  It was that moment that led me to start looking for another one, to take the drive with my father and come home with the car you see below.

newmiata2

A few months later, I saw my ex again and we went for a drive in my new Miata. A lot of my friends were upset when I sold my ’97 – I was one of the first to have my own car, and the novelty of going for a drive in a convertible was something they still treasure to this day. I made the right decision financially, but I still regret letting go of my four-wheeled time capsule. My ex-girlfriend was the only one who liked the new Titanium Gray color, who didn’t ask what happened to the pop-up headlights or the headrest speakers. After that drive, I never saw her again. Sometimes, I’ll walk by somebody wearing her perfume and I’ll get hit with a twinge of nostalgia and forget about all of the parts of the relationship that made me want to end it.

miatasnow

My Miata had its own perfume too, a mix of old hairspray, cracked leather and Ultra 94. I’ve never encountered that scent again, but every time I wind out the lazy 1.8L BP motor in my Miata, I am taken back to 19 years of age, when I had no concept of money, no idea how I’d pay for my next tank of gas while working in a stock room, hanging the tail out around corners because I still had my snow tires on in the middle of July. Now, I have a real job, and I can afford proper tires, rent, credit card bills and all the expenses that come with being an adult. If not for my Dad instilling a sense of duty, responsibility and self-reliance in me, I might be stuck in my parents basement, unproductive and unmotivated like so many people I know.

But it was him who also introduced me to the world of sports cars and to the car that’s brought me so much joy and been the catalyst for endless good memories. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You can drive my car anytime. Don’t bother buying one for yourself.

dadmumderek

 

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15 Comments on “Of Miatas And Men: A Father’s Day Story...”


  • avatar
    Scout_Number_4

    Great story, Derek–thanks for sharing. I suddenly feel the urge check Craigslist for Miatas.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Fairly off-topic, but I think I know the Mazda dealer you’re talking about (up on Yonge?) – the double-wide trailer-looking building was originally home to the Honda store in the area.

    I know my father would never really support the purchase of a Miata. Sure, it’s reliable and pretty decent on gas, but there’s no back seat! The trunk’s too small! You won’t want RWD and a soft-top in winter! At least he’s taught me some sense of fiscal responsibility.

    • 0 avatar
      eunos

      Oh, I don’t know. As far as sports cars go, Miatas are the epitome of fiscal responsibility. Especially if you’re single or if you have a spouse with a larger car or SUV.

      Maybe I’m the antisocial one, but I’d say 93% of my driving is by myself, 5% is with one other person, and 2% is with more than one other person. For that 2%, I can just borrow my wife’s truck. Costco run? Wife’s truck.

      And RWD is no handicap in a Minnesota winter if you have snow tires.

  • avatar
    LeeK

    Wonderful piece, Derek. A very fitting tribute to your dad and the ties that bond us to our fathers.

  • avatar
    sparhawk

    I bought my 1990 Miata in similar condition two years ago – only 134,000 km, never winter driven (probably not even in rain), and very clean.

    When I bought it, I was living in a smaller town in a house with a two car garage for the Miata and my CR-V. Now I’m living in Toronto with a single outdoor parking space. The Miata lives under a car cover and the CR-V is parked on the street.

    I’ve considered selling the CR-V, but I can’t bear the thought of driving the Miata in the winter and watching it rust from the salt. That’s the problem with buying a car that’s too perfect and having a lot of mechanical sympathy, I guess.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thank you Derek ;

    Well said , every word .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    chrishs2000

    Excellent piece, Derek.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Your little tot self, in front of the red Honda, reminds me I had that very same Prelude in white, blue interior. Great car.

    Kosher and Mecca in the same paragraph. : )

  • avatar
    jbreuckm

    Nice call on the Shinsen…that’s a good package.

    I bought my ’02 Miata the day after getting my first job out of college. Two kids and 11 years later I still have it…it’s paid for, and costs nearly nothing to own.

    Cool story about you and your dad, too.

  • avatar
    Synchromesh

    Very nice piece. As a former Miata owner (’94 M-edition and ’95 R-package) I know exactly what you’re talking about. Someday I might get one again and I’ll probably aim at the NB as well.

    One thing though – your father was incorrect about Honda not being able to make a better shifter. I’ve test-driven multiple S2Ks and it has hands down best shifter I’ve ever driven including Miatas. Also, my old Integra GS-R’s factory shifter was very close to Miata’s in goodness which is a remarkable feat considering it’s a fwd car with remotely located transmission unlike Miata which connects directly.

  • avatar
    noxioux

    Excellent Story.

    I also find myself mostly leaving the stereo off so I can hear my Miata. There’s just something about it that hits all the right places in the car centers of my brain.

  • avatar
    waltercat

    Derek, thanks for the excellent piece. I bought my ’03 Miata about ten years after my dad passed away. While not exactly a car nut, he appreciated an attractive, good-performing car – and if he could’ve fit behind the wheel of my Miata, I know he would have enjoyed it.

  • avatar
    2012JKU

    When I was about ready to graduate high school in the mid 90′s, there was a guy in one of my classes who had a red 92 Prelude about like the one in that picture. He beat the crap out of it, riced it out and ultimately sent it to the junk yard due to his crazy driving. Now you cant find a Prelude of that vintage stock and even the rusted beaters that still run have been riced out to the extreme and are a lost cause. Too bad Honda cant build cars like that these days.

  • avatar
    tjominy

    Excellent story Derek. Like anything of value, it caused me to think. Specifically:
    1. How old I am feeling now because I remember seeing Mazdaspeed Miatas right after grad school and that was 10 years ago. I bet those are highly sought copies
    2. I had my own Miata moment after I finally stepped out of the world of [ever-higher performance/payments/maintenance] luxury sport-sedans. I drive a Jeep Wrangler now and never had more fun driving slowly, even lawfully. Then I started looking at Miatas differently and thinking to myself “you know they just make sense”.


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