Can we call the original a classic yet? | First-generation Mazda Miata Buyer's Guide

Photograph Courtesy Mazda

Think the Miata is too new to be a classic? It originated 40 years ago. 

I see it as a perfect remastering of all the Alfas, MGs, Triumphs, Lotuses and Austin-Healeys that came before it,” says Norman Garrett, long-time sports car owner and also concept engineer for the original Miata. “It’s as if all those great classic sports cars from Europe post-WWII were being funneled into a narrow point in time, one that climaxed in 1982–when our design project started–and out popped the Miata a few years later, the distillation of all the best attributes those cars had to offer. 

So I literally see the Miata as the product, or outcome, of all of those cars, blended into one machine, like some mechanical family tree in reverse.”

[What Makes a Great Sports Car?]

And lately, the market has noticed the Miata’s importance. Prices have been on the rise, with Hagerty showing best-of-the-best models closing in on the $30,000 mark. That’s just a tick behind a perfect 1970 MGB

Not bad for a car that more or less started as feasibility project. The Lightweight Sports Car, like its predecessors, would feature a front engine, rear drive and a manual transmission. And, as with most other favorites, the top went down.

This project, however, simmered on the back burner–minivans were hot at that moment–until its eventual launch for 1990. The original Miata carried on through 1997, its most significant update being an engine displacement increase from 1.6 to 1.8 liters for 1994. 

The cars were fun, sure, but they proved rock-solid as well. The biggest mechanical issue: The clutch slave cylinders will eventually go, but all the parts needed for the fix–including fluid–can be purchased for less than a hundred bucks.–David S. Wallens

Why You Want One

  • Top goes down. Headlights go up.
  • Too common? Consider one of the many special- and limited-edition models and colors–perhaps British Racing Green paired with tan leather, black over red, or Merlot Mica with factory BBS wheels. Mazda introduced a track-focused R Package starting in 1994.
  • Rather reliable and easy to own. Available options included air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes and even cruise control. Most cars came with the slick-shifting five-speed box. Mazda still offers a detachable hardtop, and the trunk is usable, too. 
  • Long competition pedigree, especially in SCCA autocross and club racing.
  • Huge aftermarket support, from restoration and hop-up parts to turbo kits and even V8 swaps. Lots of cars built also means lots of good, used items on the market. 

Shopping Advice

Our Experts:
Ryan Passey and Greg Lee
Good-Win Racing

You change the oil and keep it full of coolant, and they’ll pretty much run forever. You really have to try to blow one up. The timing belts do seem to go, on the clock, at 100,000 miles, but it’s a non-interference motor. They don’t have those gotchas.

There’s nothing on the car that, if it wears out, you can’t get it. It’s sort of the classic car that’s future-proofed.

There are no tricky things like, “You better go to school for a while before touching this.” No special tools required.

The 1.6 has the smaller bits, so it’s lighter. Some people like that simplicity. They say that the very early short nose crank can be an Achilles’ heel, but it’s not a death sentence.

They had plastic tanks on the radiators. If it’s old and changing color, might want to think about a new radiator.

The lifter tick: They all do it.

A new top is about $600 and about the same to install. 

You never want a car that’s really afflicted by rust. The car has two drain channels around the top, behind the seat belt towers, and those are notorious for getting clogged with debris and leaves. Always check that rear parcel shelf.

The motor was originally designed for a front-drive car, so an oil change is always a mess. My personal car has a remote filter. Or you can make a little catch tray.

What disqualifies a car? An automatic. And swapping transmissions is way more trouble than it’s worth. There are wiring issues. It’s physically possible, but you’ll get a check-engine light.

I’d look for an R Package if looking for the best to drive. If you’re going to collect something, an M Edition. 

There’s the potential out there to find the very cool color, the very cool package. If you have one that’s low-mileage, the right package, that’s a car to hold on to for a long time.

You can have that old, classic, lightweight feel without the reliability issues and mechanical gremlins that come with a lot of the other cars that fall in that category.

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Comments
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BillKeksz
BillKeksz New Reader
5/5/22 12:49 p.m.

Don't forget the other 4 drains, located at the pinch weld jack points. If not crushed, they can be cleaned with a paper clip. 
And check for debris aft of the front,  and forward of the rear wheel wells. Leaves collect there and keep moisture in place...

Oh... Crank end  play on '96 and '97. 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
5/5/22 12:53 p.m.

In reply to BillKeksz :

First I've heard of an end play problem on '96/97. The cars with the thrust bearing problem were 1999 models, and they usually expire within 30k if they have the mismatched parts. Now, stuck oil pressure relief valves dumping all oil pressure, that's something I've seen a few times on 1996 models.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
5/5/22 12:58 p.m.

FYI, GRM published a buyer's guide in 2006 was a lot more in-depth.

https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/articles/mazda-miata/

And if you want to collect something, don't look for the M Edition. Look for a 1993 LE. If you must have an M Edition, the only really notable one is the 1995.

BillKeksz
BillKeksz New Reader
5/5/22 10:32 p.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

Ah, forgot about the relief valve... which happened on my second 97, the thrust bearing having killed my first.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
5/5/22 10:38 p.m.

Not going to say it can't happen, but I don't think it's a widespread problem. 

You've been in the game for a while :)

Gary
Gary UberDork
5/6/22 4:16 p.m.

To anyone who doesn't have one:

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