It’s the world’s best-selling sports car, and deservedly so, as the Mazda MX-5 Mk1 is incredibly affordable and tremendous fun too
• Project £500-800 • Good £1000-3500 • Concours £4000+
Running costs ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★
The Mazda MX-5 has only ever received reviews ranging from positive to effervescent, yet when this cheap two-seater roadster was introduced in 1989 there were some who felt that Mazda was taking a big gamble. After all, affordable sports cars were something from the past; was there really much of a market for them any more?
Mazda’s secret was to keep things simple. A lightweight bodyshell, rear-wheel drive, delicious controls and all-round double-wishbone suspension were just some of the key ingredients. Just as important though are reliability and affordability, which the MX-5 offers in spades.
With this formula Mazda wasn’t taking much of a risk at all. The company breathed new life into a segment that had almost disappeared, and the Japanese company would go on to dominate it for years to come. While rivals did pop up in time, most notably the MGF/TF and Lotus Elise, the MX-5 continues to enthrall as much as it ever did.
Your AutoClassics Mazda MX-5 Mk1 inspection checklist
Engines are very strong, and if maintained properly they’ll easily rack up 200,000 miles. The key is to change the oil at least every 9000 miles, although every 6000 is better. A fresh cam belt should have been fitted within the last five years or 60,000 miles, while anti-freeze levels must also be maintained to prevent internal corrosion of the alloy cylinder head.
The earliest engines are the least reliable but also the most soughtafter. Water pumps can wear out but they’re replaced easily and cheaply; a knocking sound at idle is the giveaway. The crankshaft pulley woodruff key can also wear which is why most engines now have a redesigned replacement; it has eight slots instead of the original four.
A weeping cam sensor O-ring (at the back of the engine) is easily replaced while exhausts get damaged if the car is grounded; all MX-5s came with a catalytic converter but these aren’t expensive to replace. If the exhaust heat shields have worked loose there will be rattling as the engine is started, but everything is easily tightened up.
The gearchange should be light and precise, but if the linkages aren’t lubricated occasionally it can all gum up. Focus on the change from second to third; if the action is sticky then lubrication is needed.
Most cars came with a five-speed manual gearbox but a four-speed auto was also offered in some markets. Both transmissions are reliable but if you buy an auto you might struggle to sell it on – plus you’ll be missing out on one of the best aspects of the MX-5; the delicious manual transmission.
Suspension and brakes
Some MX-5s have power steering and some don’t. It’s worth buying a car that has it as it’s reliable, makes light work of manoeuvring and it’s superb to use.
The suspension is equally durable, with springs and dampers easily able to sail past the 100,000-mile mark. The bushes generally last more like 60,000 miles; hard-driven cars will need fresh bushes well before this.
Tyres last well thanks to the low kerb weight and limited power, but by now the alloy wheels have probably seen better days; some cars got steel wheels but most of these have been swapped for alloys by now. The wheels are easily refurbished unless kerbed heavily.
Despite the use of galvanised panels an MX-5’s bodyshell still rusts. The corrosion tends to be localised, so focus on the sills, especially the seam that runs below the back of the door. Also inspect the door jambs (especially on early MX-5s), the front wheelarches, the floorpans and the windscreen surround.
Poor crash repairs are another possibility so look for ripples in the boot floor and front inner wings. Also check the boot lid for damage as the shallow boot gets overfilled and the boot lid is then slammed down, which can distort it.
The interior trim lasts well although if the car has leaked or been left top-down in the sun a lot, damage can occur. The driver’s seat bolster is the first thing to wear while the vinyl roof has a plastic rear window which eventually goes opaque; mohair roofs are available with a glass rear window. The window can be unzipped so check the state of the zip as it can be damaged by careless owners.
Electrical problems are unusual but the pop-up headlights can play up and the electric window motors burn out, although they’re not difficult or expensive to renew. The Eunos was available with air-con and this can fail, but if you’re using the car only top-down in the summer you don’t really need it.
- 1990: The MX-5 goes on sale in 114bhp 1.6-litre form. There are just two optional extras; metallic silver paint and a hard top.
- 1991: An officially approved Brodie Britain Racing (BBR) turbocharger conversion is introduced, with standard ABS. The conversion increases power to 150bhp and torque to 154lb ft. The Racing Green and Le Mans special editions are also launched.
- 1992: The Special Edition goes on sale with a tan interior and black paintwork.
- 1993: Another Special Edition arrives, the SEII, with the same colour scheme as before.
- 1994: A 1.8-litre engine replaces the previous 1.6-litre unit, with 130bhp. There’s a standard car or a higher-spec 1.8iS edition. Side impact bars become standard issue.
- 1995: A 1.6-litre car is available again, but now with 110bhp. Two more special editions are released; the California and Gleneagles.
- 1996: There are more special editions: the Monaco and Merlot.
- 1997: This year’s limited editions are the Monza, Dakar and Harvard.
- 1998: A new MX-5 goes on sale, dispensing with the pop-up headlamps of the original. The final Mk1 limited edition is the Berkeley.
No MX-5 Mk1 is worth a lot, so at purchase time it’s easy to be taken in by just how much car you get for your money. But you must buy with your head rather than your heart as there are a lot of ropey cars out there masquerading as good examples.
Before buying any MX-5 you must check for accident damage, poor repairs, corrosion and a patchy service history. Walk away if you’re in any doubt at all; there are a lot of these cars for sale, so with a bit of legwork you’ll land a minter if you’re patient.
Japanese-market cars were sold as Eunos Roadsters while in the US it was the Miata. In the UK the Mazda was sold as the MX-5. Grey imports are common but buying one isn’t fraught with problems if you can ascertain how well the car has been looked after. Because the Eunos and MX-5 were both right-hand drive models, the former is sometimes dressed up as the latter by swapping badges, but that’s not a problem; the Eunos has a smaller number plate plinth.
The MX-5 to go for is an early 1.6-litre model as these are better balanced than the 1.8 that came later, and they’re also more powerful than the later 1.6-litre cars. However, the key is to buy according to condition rather than specification as there’s not much difference in performance between the various models, unless you buy one of the unusual BBR turbocharged editions. These provide a useful boost in performance but the MX-5 is all about the overall driving experience rather than outright pace – and after just a short time driving one you’ll soon realise that a brilliant driver’s car doesn’t need a lot of power.
MX-5 1.6 (1989-1993)