Capsule Comparison Part 1: 1993 Mazda Miata
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
The idea that modern cars are dull, derivative and devoid of character has been gaining a lot of currency over the past few years. In truth, it’s nothing new. In LJK Setright’s heyday, he was already advancing this trope, while claiming the cars of post-war period were the last of the breed as far as emotional stirring transportation was concerned.
The relative nature of driving and the nostalgia that goes hand in hand with cars from a bygone era has kept this notion alive. Anyone who has left a lover, re-united with them and then broke it off for good, knows that the heightened expectations and euphoria that accompanies the initial re-union quickly gives way to the sobering reality of bad habits and feelings of contempt. Owning a classic car has many parallels.
In September, when I had the chance to drive not one but two of the greatest sports cars of the 1990s; both were 1993 models, with less than 30,000 original miles, and both were Mazdas. One was a privately owned MX-5, the other an RX-7, owned by Mazda Canada that lived most of its life sitting dormant in a warehouse. Both are now as close to showroom as possible, driven sparingly and maintained with painstaking care.
As a Miata owner, the 1.6L car is the benchmark against which every other Miata is measured, but I’d never driven one. My first example was a first-generation 1.8L car that I adored and neglected. It was the exact car I coveted in high school, the ultra-rare British Racing Green on Tan version that was a Canadian exclusive, and and that car and I became permanently intertwined. So much so that when I bought my second Miata, a 2003, my friends objected largely on the basis that “it wasn’t the green one” and could never measure up. The second generation car is barely heavier, a fair bit more powerful and much easier to live with every day compared to my 1.8L NA. But the 1.6L is even better.
On paper, the differences between these two cars are negligible, but there is an very tangible lightness to the 1.6L cars that was somehow lost in 1994, when the larger motor was added. The 1.6L motor is livelier than the big-bore Miata, freer revving and displaying much more charm. Make no mistake, this car is still slow, but there are benefits too. The 100 extra pounds make a huge difference in the way the car responds to lateral movements, and the skinny, low-grip tires only enhance the feeling that you are driving a Smurf-blue bathtub mounted on a skateboard.
Most early Miatas in this part of the world have been ravaged by the grind of harsh roads and even harsher weather. This car’s owner is particularly meticulous, maintaining it only with original parts and an obsessive maintenance schedule. Despite the 36,000 kilometers on the clock, it’s had three[s] [/s]timing belt changes throughout its life, with a fourth due up soon [this was initially reported incorrectly as eight changes – Ed]. This car is intended to be an heirloom, and that alone stops me from really laying into it and extracting every last molecule of performance.
This paradox the main reason why I’d never own a car like this; every time you drive it, there is an infinitesimal degradation of its condition that can never be regained. After a few years of enjoying it like a Miata should be enjoyed, the chassis will flex, the seats with crack and the paint will fade. There is no counterpart that can absorb the ravages of age by proxy, Dorian Grey-style. I could never live my life knowing that something capable of bringing me so much joy could only be used sparingly, on rare occasions when conditions are perfect. But the owner is a much more disciplined and mature human being than I am, and those moments, often spent with his wife or daughter in the passenger seat, are likely that much more satisfying.
Despite what the Miata zealots will tell you, the current NC does capture that urgency and visceral fun, even if it’s a bit heavier, with a higher beltline and goofy front end styling. I would happily take one, and not be afraid to go and do donuts in a shopping mall parking lot after a fresh snowfall, lest I get salt on it. The heated seats would keep me warm, and the folding hardtop would add another layer of insulation, even if it felt like an albatross around the car’s neck.
It would be a compromise for sure, but if I ever needed to remind myself of what I was missing out on, the genuine article would only be a phone call away.
Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring the RX-7 and the car’s trademark habit of catastrophic mechanical failure
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I bought a 1991 silverstone Miata in 1987 for $7k. It had 36k miles on it. I sold it two years ago with about 80k miles on it and sold it cheap for about $3,500. It served as a daily driver for a while then sat as my "weekend" car after I had kids and opportunities to drive in a 2-seater without room for a stroller just evaporated. During the 13 years I owned that car, I probably had 10 other cars pass through my hands... a 1966 MGB GT, a 1984 Porsche 911 3.2 Cabriolet, a Corvette, and a host of daily drivers including a 2001 525iT, a Saab 9-5 Aero, etc. In other words, I've never been a loyalist to any make or model, I just like to experience a lot of different cars... but the Miata I never thought I would sell. It was the least expensive car to own and operate I'd ever had. It would sit for months then fire right up as if I had driven it yesterday. Whenever I thought of selling it I just rationalized that I wasn't driving it often, but I only paid about $150/year for insurance, it was paid for, and it didn't cost me much of anything else to keep it. It was also nearly impossible to drive that little car without smiling from ear to ear, so I rationalized keeping it as an inexpensive form of therapy. Unfortunately, life intervened and it passed to a new owner who, from what I heard, has really cleaned it up and modified it for mild track duty. I had a remarkable dinner with Martin Swig and David E. Davis, Jr about six or seven years ago (still can't believe they're both gone now) and the discussion inevitably revolved around cars. Martin had an amazing collection of vehicles and when I asked him what he drove most of the time his eyes lit up and he said his 1994 Miata. I was taken aback... seriously, with a fleet of exotic machinery and a budget that far exceeded my wildest dreams he drove a used Japanese car worth less than $6k? I'll remember his remark forever, "the Miata is the best sports car ever built. It gives you everything you need and asks for nothing in return."
(Obviously very late in reading this...) Wonderful story, Derek, very rich imagery. I'll always love my '91 BRG best out of the many Miata I've owned.