Modding Out of Class and Up to Date (Sort of)
While washing the MX-5 this morning, I once again considered a question I’ve been pondering lately.
Is it time to move on from this car?
The short answer is not yet, but that day may be approaching.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still as fond of the 30 year-old roadster as I was when I purchased the car. But after the modifications and repairs I've made so far, the Miata idles, figuratively speaking, at a crossroads, and I haven’t yet decided which road to oversteer by.
As an introduction, here’s a brief history of my time with “Haku”, a 1990 NA Miata assembled at Mazda’s Hiroshima factory in December 1989:
In February 2016, after an extensive search and several test drives, I purchased the MX-5 as a cheap, reliable weekend canyon-carver that I could enjoy pretty much as-is (I also liked the idea of going for drives with my son, teaching him to drive with the Miata a few years down the road, and maybe even handing him the keys on his way to college). I had wanted a Miata since those pop-up headlights first emerged on the market, and, despite assuming I wouldn’t find a reliable-enough NA model for my taste, this one--with fewer than 47K miles on the odometer and a remarkably clean body and interior--drove well enough to compel me.
Soon after purchasing the car, I had the top, timing belt, and water pump replaced, then drove the heck out of the thing on the weekends. I had plans to replace the wheels and tires and keep up with oil changes, but that was about it.
And then I discovered the forums and the vast, ever-expanding universe that is The Aftermarket. I could transform Haku into a track beast! I could upgrade the 1980s head-unit with Apple CarPlay! I could add turbo power and 100 horsepower to a vehicle that weighs 2100 pounds! Or--turbo-shmerbo--I could swap my 1.6L for a V8 and flirt with disaster at every turn! And wings--my Miata could have a wing!
I have since added over 20K miles to the odometer and made several modifications to the venerable Miata, most of which have improved the driving dynamics of a car that was already good dynamically, and most of which I’d make again, given a redo. Early on, though, the passionate, opinionated forums and superstore-aisle aftermarket options overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to make modifications I would regret or couldn’t really afford, and I had trouble sorting through the well-intentioned advice. Wasn’t the car supposed to be just a fun weekend toy that I’d eventually pass along to my son (should he want it)?
Maybe you’re considering getting a first- or second-generation Miata or other older used car and have some of the questions I had. Maybe you own that car and are already venturing down the modding rabbit-hole/dark-cavern/snake-pit. Either way, I’m hoping this article will help you formulate your own heuristic through which you can make rational yes-or-no decisions regarding modifications. Keep in mind I am in no way an expert on this topic. But by sharing my experience, I aim to provide you a glimpse of how I made good and not so good decisions regarding modifications so that you can avoid my mistakes and consider adopting more successful approaches to modding.
Ready for unsolicited advice, then? Very good; here are eleven things to consider when modding your car:
1. Before modifying anything, take care of all necessary maintenance and repairs.
Soon after taking title of the Miata, I changed the oil and replaced the cracked vinyl top with a nicer canvas one with a glass rear window. I also learned that the timing belt was showing wear.
I probably could have deferred replacing the belt for another 5-10K miles, but since I didn’t want to risk a catastrophic problem while on the road, I had the timing belt and water pump replaced. Over 20K miles later, I continue to rev the engine to the redline without worry.
What I did not do which I definitely should have is take the car in for a pre-purchase inspection, in which case I would have discovered the timing-belt issue before handing any cash over. I would have bought that Miata in any case, but, had I known that information, I would have had more leverage to negotiate a lower purchase price.
2. Get to know the car as-is.
After you’ve sorted out general maintenance, drive the car for several weeks without making a single modification. That’s how I came to realize the Miata’s paucity of power did not bother me enough to warrant a very expensive power upgrade. Sure, more power would be nice, but the more corners through which I flung that small, light chassis, the more I appreciated what the car could do very well--and, with some modifications, could do even better.
During this get-to-know-you phase, I learned about the Miata’s core “personality”--how it behaved at different speeds and on different roads and in different conditions. I discovered within days that the car could handle more than the cheap tires allowed, but a few weeks passed before I noticed some flex in the chassis when I drove the car aggressively. I grew to appreciate how linearly the engine cranked out the little power it had to give. And though I didn’t care much about creature comforts, I did get tired of straining to hear the radio even at low speeds. All these revelations informed my modding plans.
3. Make a three- or four-year plan for your car.
With apologies for the org-development corporate-speak, I do think it’s important to envision oneself in the car over the longer-term. I intended to use the Miata as a weekend-fun street car, but as I perused the forums and aftermarket sites, my plans lost some focus. Then, after attending my first Miata Reunion at Laguna Seca and taking rides in some track-focused and track-capable Miatas (driven by some serious hot shoes), I dreamed of piloting Haku through the Corkscrew and whipping around Turn 11 at Sonoma Raceway.
Well, guess what? I’m still just dreaming about that, despite making several modifications with the expressed intention of getting the car track-ready. And here’s where, in retrospect, a better long-term plan would have served to focus my efforts, prioritize better, and evaluate what I truly wanted to accomplish with the Miata. Maybe Haku is the perfect car to get on the track. Or maybe another, less "clean" car would prove a better fit. I still am not fully committed either way (hence being at a crossroads).
Luckily, the Miata is still a wonderful street-machine that I can autocross (which I did, once, and can’t wait to do again) and track on occasion. But I could have easily made costly modifications that I would have regretted.
It wasn’t all luck, however. I did plan well enough to map out handling upgrades, and I’m glad I did. I started with lighter wheels and summer-but-streetable tires and added some cheap chassis-stiffening braces (both of which improved handling significantly). Once I could afford it, I swapped in good coilovers and sway bars which modernized and sharpened handling overnight. And, recently, I installed frame-braces and a roll bar (which, in addition to making the car safer and legal for track, stiffens the chassis). Though I could continue to tinker in this area, the car handles better than most 30-year old vehicles on the road (and better than a lot of more modern ones, too).
4. Do consider the “modding out of class” argument Todd and Paul make.
Past a certain threshold, modifications can beg the question of whether you should just sell your car and purchase one that delivers, from the factory, the performance and/or features you’re chasing. In my case, the modifications I’ve made have helped modernize the car in the ways I would want (better handling, sharper steering feel) while retaining the old-school analog ethos of an older car. That’s a formula examples of which are unusual to find in actual modern cars (certainly so within my budget at the time).
Were I to continue modifying, however, I would likely cross that threshold. I’ve already come close trying to address a known issue with early Miatas coated in “Crystal-White”: the paint flakes off--gradually at first, then dramatically. About a year ago, Haku fell victim to this affliction.
I wanted to wrap the car, but that wouldn’t work, given the imperfections in the paint. I considered a repaint or respray, which would have cost a lot of money. Even painting just the hood--which looked terrible and would rust soon--would have been expensive and not perfectly color-matched. Ultimately, I opted to install a carbon-fiber hood, which ended up costing about the same as repainting the flaky one. It looks cool and saves a little weight in case I do track the thing, and I’m happy with my choice. But what happens as the flaking worsens elsewhere? I can’t replace every panel with carbon fiber (or can I?). At some point, the wise course of action will be to take no further action and just enjoy the driving--or sell this one and get a car with shiny new paint if that’s important to me.
5. Determine what you’re willing to spend to modify your car over the next three or four years.
With or without a Paul-limiter.
6. Dispel any notion you’ll ever “make your money back” when you sell your modified car.
If anything, you’re negatively affecting the car’s value by modifying it, so assume the money you spend on mods flies out your car’s windows (albeit more quickly, thanks to that turbo-install). Modifications are luxuries; indulge in them knowingly and willingly.
7. With each modification, consider the potential related or requisite modifications related thereto.
Many upgrades are discreet. Want better headlights? Install them and forget about it. But some modifications implicate entire systems. Power is a good example. If I wanted to install a turbo on the Miata, I would also have to change the clutch to handle more power and add bigger or better brakes to scrub higher speeds. I’d have to change or tune the ECU. I should, according to some, upgrade the gearbox. Alice, meet rabbit-hole.
Many Miata owners (perhaps some of you) have added turbos and are very happy with them, and the aftermarket has very good options out there (as well as excellent and helpful customer service). Look, I would love to add a turbo to my Miata. But--since the costs and scope-of-work required are more than my budget can handle all at once, and because I don’t have the garage space (let alone the technical wherewithal) to do most of the work myself--I’ve decided to prioritize other things.
8. Research as well as you can and ask experts (including aftermarket vendors) for advice.
With the Miata, I was fortunate to be able to tap into an aftermarket community rivaling many others in terms of size, scope, expertise, and available parts. It took awhile to sift through the information, though, and what helped was asking questions rather than just lurking on the forums (though I did also learn a lot from “listening” to forum threads). I’ve read a lot of articles and books about Miatas (Keith Tanner’s Mazda MX-5: Performance Projects remains a useful resource). Vendors, to my surprise, have proven as genuinely helpful as anyone. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but every time I've reached out to a vendor (949 Racing and Flyin’ Miata among them)--not to place an order but to explain what I was aiming for and to ask for advice--I’ve gotten objective, sage guidance, whether or not I’ve decided to purchase from them.
9. When seeking guidance and advice, be clear and honest about what you're looking for, and be open to adjusting your expectations based on the advice you get.
If, with a budget of three grand, you want to turn that Toyota Echo into a track hero that can also comfortably cruise the 405, then you should state that intention outright when you’re posting a question on the Echo forum (is there such a thing?). You might get exactly the answer you’re hoping for (yes, that’s doable in your budget, and here’s how) and you might not, but you’ll get an answer to the actual question you have.
10. Verify the advice you get by researching more.
Here’s where trustworthy vendors and performance mechanics can be useful in determining whether the advice you’re hearing makes sense for you.
11. Drive the thing and enjoy it.
Don’t let your modification plans and wishes keep you from enjoying your car just as it is. Get out there and drive!
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.