Friday, October 16, 2015

Introducing El Cheapacabra: the $600 NA Miata

Oh no, what have I done now? As if my own driveway and the collective DT Project Car stable wasn't yet large enough, I've gone and adopted this forlorn looking Miata. Armed with a penchant for checking craigslist every 10 minutes and a thirst for cheap trackday fun after driving a simple 1.6L NA at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca a few weeks back, I've been on the hunt for an el-cheapo Miata to convert into a low stress trackday car for my wife and I to drive. And with all of the Miata talk lately on the DT Radio Show, I thought it necessary to put (a very small amount of) my money where my mouth has been flapping. The creature presented itself this Tuesday. Here she is, my first NA.

How could you say no to this little guy?

It's a 1990 model year, the first for the venerable MX-5, and was produced in Hiroshima in December 1989 with a 5-speed manual transmission and the "B package" - power steering, cruise control, leather wrapped steering wheel , alloy wheels, power windows, etc - so it was as loaded as they came for the first year of the basic Elanish reboot sports car, save for a slushbox. I'd have preferred a base model car but for the price, I really can't complain. Not sure yet if this has the optional viscous LSD.

Filth, spiders, and a dipstick tab that broke as soon as I touched it. Off to a good start.

This thing has obviously had a few shunts over the years, with some repainted panels and a wonky nose / front fascia. None of that matters for a trackday car, of course. I came across this little low-buck wonder advertised for $700 at a local towing company. The sole photo in the ad was accompanied by the concise sentence: "1990 Mazda Miata runs, may need some work call Tony."

The nose has seen some action. License plate and bracket are installed "wherever" at a jaunty angle.

If you've been following DT for a while and absorbing some of the drivel that we have been spewing from this virtual soapbox, you will have learned that the best deals on cars are frequently had from the ads with one photo and a sub-ten word description. This signals that the owner wants it gone, now, and doesn't want or need to primp the car up for maximum profit. In my case, the low low price was another signal to that effect. Through chatting with Tony, I found out that this car was donated to a local charity who then sold it to the tow yard, just a few days ago.

It smells as funky as it looks.

When I arrived I was greeted with the warning that "it might need a jump," but to my surprise the neglected little guy just started right up at the first turn of the key. A few squeaks and a slightly rough idle greeted me, but no nasty smoke and no major oil leaks were anywhere in sight. Oil pressure held steady above 30 psi at idle after warmup (yay - a real oil pressure gauge in a 1990's car!) and it seemed to shift through the gears fine with the clutch depressed. Time for a test drive.

On the road...hey! This thing is more than decent for the price. It was advertised at $700 but Tony immediately talked himself down to $600. I could sense that he had the urge to fix this thing up himself before flipping it, but was trying his damnedest to move it along before the temptation to spend money on it became a reality. Even though it was fresh out from under whatever tree it had been parked under for the past 3 years (judging by old registration cards and the amount of debris buildup under the hood) drives fine. Sure, there's a bit of vagueness to the steering but cheap coilovers and a quickie suspension rebuild are in this car's imminent future.

While I was waiting for cars to be moved out of the way before I could test drive the NA, I poked around the tow yard and found a few gems. This "shorty" VW Beetle was sitting in the dirt with only a transaxle remaining as anything of value. I dig the Ghostbusters theme that the builder was going for, but really, a truncated Volkswagen is a poor substitute for the real deal 1959 Cadillac Ambulance.

This Ford Galaxie and the early '50s survivor Chevy parked in front of it belonged to an employee, so I took solace in the fact that some kindred spirits were around this place and thanked the chakra stones and Kali Ma for my good fortune and for cheap Miatas.

After getting the legal stuff sorted out, El Cheapacabra will become a trackday car that will remain street drivable (with plates, lights, etc still installed). My wife's goal is to be able to drive in future 24 Hours of Lemons races with our team, Black Iron Racing, and shoving her into one of our terribly unreliable hoopties amongst hundreds of other noobs is probably not the best way to build her confidence as a driver. I figure that a cheap, mechanically sorted NA Miata is about the most benign, user friendly, and easiest to live with trackday trainer car around.

Stay tuned as this thing goes from neglected crusher-fodder to happy go lucky weekend racer.

CFlo is Daily Turismo's co-founder and Technical Editor. When he's not driving an "emissions spewing" TDI he's underneath a Volvo, on top of a Land Cruiser, cursing at a broken BMW, or driving the piss out of a crapcan race car. And that's all before 10AM.


  1. The want is strong with this one.
    Whoever buys this...Do your homework on that shortnose crank.

    1. Sorry if it wasn't clear from the writeup, but I just bought this myself. I should have mentioned it but no SNC wobble to be found on this one. The crankshaft pulley runs dead true.

    2. Seems to really only be a problem when the crank pulley is removed to replace the crankshaft seal during a timing belt change and the proper procedure is not followed when replacing the pulley bolt.

    3. Congrats, by the way. Welcome to the cult. Here is your Fez. Enjoy the beverages.

  2. The hardest thing is going to be getting a seat to mount low enough and still be on sliders so both of you can be comfortable driving it. I have a Momo start on stock rails and it works pretty well, I still wouldn't pass the broomstick test but I run with a hardtop anyway so it is less of an issue.

  3. Great deal! I will be eagerly watching for updates on your progress.
    I do see one problem though....
    Both of you may like the car so much that "project creep" will take hold.
    Don't ever add up the receipts because you will regret not buying this
    1995 Miata 300 hp for $13K or less

  4. Good job on buying the most fun on 4 wheels for cheap! I'm on my 3rd and 4th at the moment...the answer is always Miata! I'm sure you're already hip-deep in research, but Flyin' Miata suspension bits are great bang for the buck, and 949Racing's Xida series are essentially the pinnacle of Miata coilovers. Grab some 15x8 wheels and some sticky tires and some good coilovers and you'll never look back.

    And just for general info, you couldn't even get an autotragic the first year of production.

  5. I drove one of these 1.6 miatas year round for almost 5 years, rain or snow. So little stuff to break on that car. I converted more than one car guy before they became as wildly popular with the racer set as they are now. Lots of long ear bleeding road trips, packed to the gills with luggage, 90 whp buzzing along, no power steering, no cruise, no anything.

  6. Good luck building your Miata, that is part of the fun. I was always a Miata (and Mazda fan) until I ended up with a GLC with totally rusted out floors and the same thing with a RX7 which I gave up on restoring because the rust was too severe. You are lucky to live in a climate that does not see snow (and salted roads). The cars I find up here in the great lakes area at that price are usually not worth rebuilding.

    1. You have to come out here to california to buy a rust-free example, then drive it home! I'm from a rust belt state originally, so I am very familiar with the difference. Night and day!

  7. Congrats! Great buy. A bit rough looking but perfect track toy and an unbeatable price. I have 2 miatas (and have owned two others previously), so if you want any pointers to miata sources (especially in NorCal) I'm happy to help.

  8. Wow, I'm flattered by the great response to this. Thanks for all the advice, DTers. Although I shouldn't be surprised since these cars have such a broad and loyal following.

    First orders of business are basic maintenance and tuneup jobs, followed by a trip to my local smog station to see if this thing blows clean. Wish me luck.

    1. I read this just as the Simpsons tree house of horrors came on. Good luck with the smog popo. Hopefully it's not been sold to charity and then tow yard because it couldn't cut the smog. Hey I all else fails there is always that other thing that's always the answer to tired vehicles.

  9. sigh. I would love to trade my scooter for something like this, but I'd have to clean my garage out first...

  10. FYI - It doesn't matter much if it has the viscous LSD or not. It's junk on the track. Same style/design as the S5 RX7s. And based on the mileage on the odometer it's probably shot anyways. The coupling fluid does wear out and it's a sealed non serviceable unit. Do your research and find a mechanical LSD.

    1. Fully understood that the Torsen is the one to have, but thanks. The line about the viscous LSD was more of an aside. To spark conversation. Looks like it worked...

    2. Torsen and clutch based LSDs are available. They both have pros and cons on the street and track. I prefer a clutch based diff, for trackwork, due to Torsens becoming open upon wheel lift (and possibly under heavy unloading) and curb hopping. The downside is the maintenance, noise, and lifespan. Torsens (which there are two styles available for the Miata) are an excellent choice for a car that's going to see more street work than track work or has the suspension setup in such a way that rear lift/heavy unloading is rare. Quality clutch based options are OS Giken, MazdaSpeed, Kaaz, PowerBrute (NOS only), and S4 NA LSD from RX7 (S3 LSD from 1st Gen RX7 may be compatible too).

      I run a PowerBrute in my FC RX7 and enjoy it. Got it for dirt cheap NIB but has long been unavailable.

  11. Duder Dude, huh?
    Two more forum bookmarks for you:
    Club Roadster
    Miata Turbo


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