1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Electronic Surprise
October 18, 2012
Project Miata was recently sidelined by a electronic surprise, courtesy not of a rodent per se, but of a squirrelly little bastard nonetheless.
Here's how it went down. During Project Miata's seat installation, Moti of Blackbird Fabworx needed to use the welder, natch. He disconnected the car's battery (his normal welding-on-a-car protocol) and went to work.
When the work was complete, he reconnected the battery and discovered the car wouldn't start. There was power, but no crank from the starter or even a click from the solenoid. Moti surmised it had something to with an immobilizer and so called me to ask how to disable it.
"Uh, immobilizer?" was my reply.
It turns out Project Miata indeed had an aftermarket immobilizer/alarm installed at the behest of the previous (original) owner. Said owner neglected to inform us of its existence at the time of purchase, probably because he'd forgotten it was there. The alarm horn was long gone, but the starter interlock remained. Dormant. Waiting. And disconnecting the battery was its signal to awaken (I swear I've disconnected this car's battery before... haven't I?).
No problem, I said, I'll just pop over to your shop, locate and disconnect the wiring to the immobilizer and drive the car away.
Silly me. When I removed the kick panel beneath the steering column I was confronted by the most insane rat's nest of wires I've ever seen in a car. Knots of wires, loops, bad splices, bare wire ends dangling about, mystery black boxes, taped-off cut wires... just a ghastly, godforsaken hellish nightmare of cheap '90s electronics installed -- apparently -- by an amphetamine-fueled bonobo. It was like peering into David Lynch's mind.
It was hopeless to even attempt to figure out how to euthanize the wiring disaster. But maybe there was a workaround, a way to get the car started without removing the immobilizer -- a push start. Sure enough, push starting the car in gear and popping the clutch brought the engine to life, with one caveat -- all of the exterior lights were flashing. Of course the immobilizer people thought of this; they created this stuff back when there was something called the manual transmission.
So I drove 25 miles from Blackbird Fabworx down to our studio in Marina Del Rey with the lights flashing the whole way. Nobody even blinked, not even the cop car I passed on the freeway.
Once parked, it'd have to be push started again, so whomever was going to remove this immobilizer -- not me -- would have to come to us. After several logistical snafus, our guy Rex was able to convince Richard Dang, a talented wiring guru friend that happens to work at Al & Ed's in West Hollywood, to come over after hours and remove the mess and restore the car's normalcy.
Now, Richard has seen a few wires in his day. So when he exclaimed, "Holy sh#t! Who did this?" while holding up the giant electronic tumor he'd just excised from the Miata's dashboard, you know it was bad.
Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor