You might think that a discussion regarding which car Edmunds.com should take on as our next project car would be filled with hours of heated point-counterpoint arguments, passionate pontifications and lots of beer.
Instead, it went something like this:
"We should do a Miata project."
"Yeah, you're right."
When the Mazda MX-5 Miata debuted in 1990, there was a waiting list to get one and people would stop on the street and stare at them. There was nothing like the Lotus Elan-inspired roadster on the road at the time. The Miata proved to be a simple, affordable sports car with a small, robust engine, terrific double-wishbone suspension and correct-wheel drive. Mazda sold 50 trillion of the things.
Today, a first-gen Miata is just another P.O.S. for sale on Craigslist. Yet time has only magnified the car's fundamental strengths, which creates something of a perfect storm for an enthusiast seeking to create his own personal interpretation of fun.
What We Bought
A couple months of searching and a few near-misses turned up a white 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata optioned with the C-package, which includes a limited-slip differential, cruise control, air-conditioning, power mirrors and windows, power steering and a rather gauche interior with tan leather upholstery. When new, its DOHC 1.8-liter inline-4 engine generated 128 horsepower and 110 pound-feet torque, which seemed plenty since the durable little motor was saddled with just 2,300 pounds.
Though this Miata had been touted by its owner as an accident-free example, it had evidence of numerous minor shunts, plus countless scratches and dings and a generous serving of apathy. It reeked inside. Fortunately there was no evidence of any kind of major wreck, despite 174,000 miles on the clock. It was also completely stock.
If there's a downside to the Miata's inherent toughness, it's that the car can limp along for years with little if any maintenance, and this can breed neglect. This particular car had an engine with a rough idle and which pinged and occasionally misfired at part throttle, while the convertible top was literally in shreds, the ribbons of which were pinned to a beach towel in a hundred places and the whole mess duct-taped to the windshield header. A tacky film of tarlike grime covered the entire cabin. You could watch the pavement whiz by through the giant hole in the shifter boot of its five-speed manual transmission. Did we already mention that it stunk like a gorgonzola-stuffed gym sock?
It was perfect. After a short drive, we bought it on the spot for $1,750.
A basic DIY tune-up — new spark plug wires, adjusting the idle bypass and setting the ignition timing — cured the drivability issues. The shifter boots were replaced and the stench was largely chased out by a comprehensive de-filthing of the cabin with a bristle brush and a half-dozen potent household cleaners (we wore rubber gloves, although a Hazmat suit might have been in order).
We also threw on a later-model soft top that had been left lying in a friend's driveway after he replaced it with a hardtop. It's got a couple of small tears, but it'll do for now while we locate a hardtop of our own.
When it comes to Miata shopping, it helps to understand the changes that Mazda made to the first-generation car, which was in production from 1990-'97. The first cars had a 1.6-liter engine and a differential with a 6-inch ring gear.
In 1994 the Miata sprouted a new 1.8-liter engine, more chassis bracing, a stronger differential with a 7-inch ring gear, increased fuel tank capacity, bigger brakes and a somewhat revised interior with an added airbag on the passenger side.
The larger engine and optional Torsen limited-slip differential of these 1.8-liter cars makes them particularly attractive for guys who want to get all nutty with modifications. Guys like us.
Though the later parts can be retrofitted to an early car, your knuckles will thank you if they're already installed, which is why we limited our search to a 1994-'97 Miata. We figured a slightly ratty car would command less money than a nice one, but more important, its imperfections would make us less leery about molesting it.
It turns out that we're not the only ones who have stumbled upon this combination as the ideal Miata project car. Any rough Miata with a Torsen diff is snapped up literally within hours of being posted to the classifieds. You've got to be on your game to land the right car.
Why We Bought It
We're not going to do a year-long test of a tired 16-year-old stock 1994 Mazda Miata, that's for sure. This ratty roadster's getting a new lease on life, and its pale shade of white paint is a convenient metaphor for the blank canvas for innovation that this car represents.
Extensive modifications will be fully embraced. Faster and cooler, it will be built with an eye toward track durability while remaining a street car at heart. If it can cut a respectable lap in our local Miata time-trial series, then that's fine, too. But it's got to be cool. Think mini-Cobra, not poodle chariot. Function takes precedence over polish. You won't see Project Miata getting a custom pinstripe job or teeth in its grille opening.
With some help from the aftermarket and motorsports worlds, Project Miata will serve as a platform for sharing with you a lot of very cool hardware and tech along the way. At this point, everything is on the table — forced induction, an engine swap, a built motor. Heck, maybe all the above.
A Year of Fun
A cheap sports car has psychological implications. If you keep reminding yourself of the hobo-cup value of a used 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata, each nickel spent making it faster will make you wince.
You've got to flip that mindset. Lubricate the brain-wallet interface by envisioning a used Miata as something more like a Porsche Boxster Spyder with $59,000 on the hood.
It's got to grow into those shoes, though, and that's part of the fun.
Current Odometer: 174,145
Maintenance Costs: $112.67
Problems: 2nd-gear synchro grinds; broken outside rearview mirror; brake pads feel like plywood; dampers are a bit tired. But, hey, it's a project car.
Edmunds purchased this odorous vehicle for the purposes of evaluation and to make it cooler and really, really fast.