I don’t really trust my $10,500 M5.
If you’re a Road & Track regular, you’ll know I’ve experienced some ups and downs with its reliability in the past year I’ve owned it. It's been to track days. It's also been on a flatbed. I need a backup car—something cheap, reliable, and fun to substitute for the M5 in case it breaks.
Miatas are favorites here at R&T. They're fun, easy to modify, and are typically bulletproof. You can also find Miatas at great prices all day every day. So I bought one. Specifically the silver one pictured here, for just $1400. From a distance, it doesn’t look like much—just an NA-generation car with factory daisy wheels. Your standard Miata. But it's not your standard Miata. It's worse.
I bought the car in Pennsylvania after I did a short inspection and test drive. From what I saw, there was a bit of rust in the trunk and it needed a soft top—about what I expected for a car this cheap. The test drive made me think that the car needed an alignment, since it pulled left with the steering wheel straight. It also felt like it needed a set of shocks.The radio worked intermittently, and the A/C didn’t really blow cold. It also had 253,857 miles on the clock. I've bought a lot of cheap cars, so none of this was out of the ordinary. This was a running, driving NA Miata for $1400. That's exactly what I set out to get. So I bought it.
My drive home was uneventful, but confirmed the car definitely needed suspension work. The steering wheel didn’t point straight, and the radio stopped working about halfway through. The brake pedal was incredibly soft, and stopping power was lackluster. But the 1.6-liter engine pulled strong to redline, and didn’t burn any oil or coolant. The five-speed manual transmission felt good too.
I didn't put this car up on a lift before I bought it. I always think I should before buying a cheap car, but I never have and it hasn't bit me yet. Plus, this car was so cheap that I didn't want to spend the money to put it on a lift.
When I got it back to my shop and up in the air is when I realized what a terrible mistake I made. Remember that rust in the trunk? Well, it extends all the way through the body into the left fender in front of the rear wheel. The area is pretty much hollowed out, but any damage is invisible from the outside or from a quick crawl underneath—I have to use the inner frame rail to get the car onto a lift because the jack point no longer exists. The only reason I didn't catch the rust when looking under the car during my initial inspection is that it was covered by the body and completely hidden. I only discovered the true extent of the damage after I tried to jack it up from the jack point, and felt the body give way. Strangely, the other three corners are completely rust-free, meaning this car was probably in an accident and repaired poorly.
But the rust wasn’t even the worst part. What I thought was just a bad alignment was actually a case of catastrophic suspension damage done to the left-front control arms. Both were bent in, pushing the entire assembly forward and making with the shock (shown above). Also, the tie rod had snapped, and instead of replacing it, the previous owner elected to weld it back together. Looking back, I’m not sure how I even made it home alive.
I managed to replace the control arms with a used set off eBay for $100. The hardest part was removing the single massive bolt that held the upper arm into place—it was bent and wedged tightly into the subframe. Thanks to the help of Mathias Rios from Cooper Classics, we managed to get it out after about six hours of cutting and hammering. What a nightmare. The tie rod was also replaced, and after that, the car was given an alignment. It drives straight now. Mostly.
Replacing those control arms with new, properly-shaped versions bent the shock and literally froze it in place. If you try to push down on the car, it won’t compress. I’m afraid if I hit a bump, the shock will shoot through the top mount and punch a hole in my hood. I bled the brake fluid, and discovered a whole bunch of air bubbles in the lines, which, if you know how brakes work, isn’t good. The pedal feels a lot better now, but stopping power remains sub-par. Remember, this was supposed to be a dependable back-up vehicle for my unreliable BMW. It's not really going well so far.
But I'm not giving up on the little Miata.
I think I can fix my suspension problem with some off-brand coilovers on eBay for $200. I already have a new soft top on order, and plan on getting the radio to work soon. I don't really have a plan for the rust—it's too extensive–and expensive–for me to fix. The one good thing I discovered about this car is that it has a limited-slip differential, which is exactly what I’d need if it's going to become my winter beater. I also really like it, despite its flaws.