The Mazda MX-5 Miata has become one of the world’s most loved and popular sports cars. The first generation model reintroduced the British-style “wind-in-your hair” style motoring and it was such a hit that the MX-5 has become the best-selling two-seater convertible sports car of all time.
This buyer’s guide will give you all the information you need to know about buying a first generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. We will look at topics such as common problems to watch out for, where to buy one, how to set up and inspection and much more.
How to Use This Guide
This Mazda MX-5 buying guide is broken up into a number of different sections. Firstly, we will be covering the history and specifications of the MX-5 NA and then we will be looking at the buyer’s guide section. We will also be looking at how to import a Mazda MX-5 and how to get the best deal.
Table of Contents
First Generation MX-5 Miata (NA) History
The Mk1 MX-5 Miata marked a new era for Mazda. Its goal was to capture the magic and pleasures of driving a sports car, with the reliability and engineering excellence of Japanese manufacturing. The idea of the MX-5 was originally planted in Kenichi Yamamoto’s mind (Mazda’s head of R&D and future chairman) by Bob Hall in 1978.
Over the next decade the design of the car was refined and developed and eventually in 1989, the first generation MX-5 was introduced to the world. The car featured only a few components recycled from existing models and weighed in at well under 1,000kg. It featured front and rear independent control arm suspensions, a first for Mazda, and a tidy body with smooth lines. The 1.6-litre 16-valve four-cylinder engine produced around 115bhp, enough to move the lightweight sports car with sufficient pep.
At launch, the MX-5 was highly praised for its fun driving characteristics and price. Motoring journalists appreciated the special attention paid to cockpit ergonomics, the short-throw shifter, the precise handling and its ability to be easily controlled beyond the limit of traction.
Just two years into the MX-5’s existence, Mazda introduced the first special edition version. Painted in British Racing Green, the car featured a tan leather interior and a tan tonneau cover (but still a black roof). A Nardi-branded wood gear shift knob and wood handbrake finished of the look.
The next special edition was introduced in 1993. Dubbed the LE (Limited Edition), the car stood out with its black paint job and blood-red leather interior. Mazda also fitted a neat set of BBS aluminium wheels, Bilstein dampers, a subtle body kit, polished aluminium grilles for the door speakers, red seatbelts and the company’s own Sensory Sound System.
The biggest change for the 1994 model year came in the form of a larger 128bhp 1.8-litre four banger. Larger brake rotors also became part of the deal, and the optional limited-slip differential went from a viscous unit to a more durable Torsen diff.
Along with the updates to the MX-5 in 1994, Mazda also adopted a new nomenclature for its special-edition models: the M Edition. This naming convention would go on through to 1997. The 1994 M Edition MX-5 was painted in Montego Blue Mica and came with every available option package. It also featured polished aluminium wheels, a wooden shift knob, special mats and badging.
In the same year, Mazda also introduced an R package, which was fitted with Bilstein dampers, a lower ride height, a Torsen limited-slip differential, a subtle body kit and lightweight aluminium wheels.
The 1995 M Edition received larger 15-inch BBS wheels and Merlot Mica paint. It features a tan leather interior, a fancier audio system, special doorsill kick plates, and M Edition badges.
Power was increased once again in 1996, this time to 133bhp and Mazda released another M Edition.
For the MX-5 NA’s final year before being replaced by the second gen, Mazda launched two special edition models: the STO and another M Edition. The former, which stands for Special Touring Option, featured Twilight Blue paint, 15-inch five-spoke Enkei wheels, a tan interior and top, and STO badging. Only 1,500 STO models were produced, making it one of the rarer special editions.
Mazda MX-5 NA Specifications
|Model||MX-5 NA 1.6||MX-5 NA 1.8|
|Year of production||1989 – 1997||1989 – 1997|
|Layout||Front-engine, rear-wheel drive||Front-engine, rear-wheel drive|
|Engine/Engines||B6-ZE 1.6-litre Inline 4||BP DOHC 1.8-litre Inline 4|
|Power||115 PS (113.5 bhp/85 kW) – (1989 1.6) 106 PS (105 bhp/78 kW) – (automatic 1.6)||131 PS (129 bhp/96 kW) – (1994 1.8)|
|Torque||135 Nm (100 lb-ft) @ 5,500 rpm (1989 1.6) 135 Nm (100 lb-ft) @ 4,000 rpm (automatic 1.6)||152 Nm (112 lb-ft) @ 5,000 rpm (1994 1.8)|
|Transmission||5-speed M526 manual 4-speed Jatco automatic||5-speed M526 manual 4-speed Jatco automatic|
|Brakes Front||Vented 235 mm (9.25 inch) discs (1989 – 1993) Vented 254 mm (10 inch) discs (1994 – 1997)||Vented 235 mm (9.25 inch) discs (1989 – 1993) Vented 254 mm (10 inch) discs (1994 – 1997)|
|Brakes Rear||Vented 231 mm (9.09 inch) discs (1989 – 1993) Vented 251 mm (9.9 inch) discs (1994 – 1997)||Vented 231 mm (9.09 inch) discs (1989 – 1993) Vented 251 mm (9.9 inch) discs (1994 – 1997)|
|Tyres Front||185/60 R 14||185/60 R 14|
|Tyres Rear||185/60 R 14||185/60 R 14|
|Suspension Front||Independent. Double Wishbones. coil springs. anti-roll bar||Independent. Double Wishbones. coil springs. anti-roll bar|
|Suspension Rear||Independent. Double Wishbones. anti-roll bar||Independent. Double Wishbones. anti-roll bar|
|Weight||950 – 1,020 kg (2,094 – 2,249 lbs)||950 – 1,020 kg (2,094 – 2,249 lbs)|
|Top speed||188 km/h (117 mph) – (1989 1.6)||197 km/h (122 mph) – (1994 1.8)|
|0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)||8.8 seconds (1989 1.6)||8.7 seconds (1994 1.8)|
Mazda MX-5 NA Buying Guide (1990 – 1997)
While, the first generation MX-5 is getting a bit long in the tooth it is still an excellent car. The NA MX-5 is fast becoming a classic, so prices are starting to creep up on good condition models with low mileage. Let’s take a look at some things to watch out for when looking to buy a Mk1 MX-5.
Arranging an Inspection of a Mazda MX-5 NA
Here are some tips when setting up an inspection of any used Mazda MX-5/Miata (or any used car for that matter):
- Look at the MX-5 in person or get a reliable friend or third party to do so for you – Purchasing a used car sight unseen is becoming more popular with the rise of websites and services such as Bring a Trailer, Cars & Bids and even the classifieds section on this website, Garage Dreams. However, if you can physically inspect a used MX-5 NA prior to purchase we recommend that you do. This is because a proper inspection may reveal some hidden issues that you wouldn’t have noticed by just looking at the vehicle’s listing photos. If you can’t look at the MX-5 yourself, we recommend that you try to get a reliable friend or third party to do so for you.
- Take somebody with you to the inspection – Bringing along a friend or helper to an inspection of a used MX-5 is always a good idea as they may be able to spot something you missed. They can also help you test the Mazda and give you their thoughts on whether or not it is a good buy.
- Inspect the first generation Mazda MX-5 at the seller’s house or place of business – While this isn’t always possible, it is always something we recommend. This is because you can see how and where the Mazda MX-5 Mk1 is regularly stored. If it is always left out on the streets it is far more likely to have bodywork problems such as rust, paint fade, etc. Additionally, when you go to the seller’s house you can also check what sort of roads the car is regularly driven on. If they are really rough and full of potholes, the suspension, wheels and tyres may have taken a beating.
- View the Mazda MX-5 NA in the morning if possible – We recommend this as it gives the seller less time to warm up the MX-5 and clean up any potential issues such as a big oil leak.
- Ask the seller not to drive or pre-warm their Mazda MX-5 prior to your arrival if possible – A warm engine can cover a multitude of sins, so check that the motor is cold when you begin the inspection.
- If the Mazda MX-5 NA is being sold at a dealer, don’t let them know you are coming to see it – While this is not always possible depending on how the dealer operates, it can be a good idea. If the dealer knows you are coming it gives them more of a chance to clean up any potential issues and pre-warm the engine.
- Try not to inspect a used Mazda MX-5 in the rain – Water can cover up a number of different issues with the bodywork and paint. If it does happen to be raining when you inspect/test drive an MX-5, try to go back for a second viewing before making a decision on the car.
- Be cautious if the seller has just washed the car – This is largely for the same reason as above, but some sellers will also wash the engine bay and underside of a vehicle to hide an issue (or anywhere a leak/issue may occur).
- Get the seller to move their Mazda MX-5 outside if it is in a garage or showroom – Lighting in places such as garages and showrooms can cover up issues that direct sunlight may have revealed.
Buying a Used Mazda MX-5 With Problems
Most of the information in this guide relates to trying to source the cleanest Mazda MX-5 possible. However, there is nothing wrong with buying a used car with problems as long as you know what you are getting yourself into. In fact, pretty much all used NAs will have some sort of issue/issues, so you are never going to get a perfect example (even a car that has been garaged its whole life will come with its own set of problems).
This is why it is important to try and find out what problems a particular MX-5 has prior to purchase. If there aren’t a lot or they are relatively insignificant problems, that’s great. However, if there are more serious problems it is a good idea to work out roughly how much it will cost to fix them before purchasing the vehicle.
Use this guide work out what common issues to look out for, and if you do find any problems use them to get a discount. Be mindful of the fact that the problems you find could be more extensive and expensive to repair than first envisioned, so it can be a good idea to add a bit more to any quote you receive.
Where to Buy a Used Mazda MX-5?
Standard auction/classifieds sites such as AutoTrader, cars.com, eBay, GumTree and TradeMe are going to be your best place to start your hunt for a used Mazda MX-5. Most private sellers and dealers will list their MX-5s on these sorts of sites. If you are looking for a really clean example you may be better of checking out more specialist auction/classifieds sites such as Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids.
Mazda dealers can often be a good place to check as well as they may have some good examples for sale (at a higher price usually) or they may be able to point you in the direction of somebody who is looking to sell their one.
Lastly, we recommend that you check to see if there are any Mazda/MX-5 clubs in your area. These sorts of clubs tend to consist of enthusiastic and knowledgeable owners who look after their cars a bit better. Here are a few examples of some clubs:
MX-5 Owners Club UK – Established in 1994 and now with over 7,000 the MX-5 Owners Club is one of the world’s largest MX-5 Club.
Mazda MX-5 Miata US Club – Facebook group dedicated to the MX-5 Miata for United States based owners. Has over 11,000 members.
Mazda Forum – Club dedicated to all Mazda cars with a section for the MX-5 Miata.
MX-5 Car Club NZ – New Zealand based club for MX-5 owners.
How Much Does a Used Mazda MX-5 Cost to Buy?
This is going to depend on a range of different factors from what model you are looking at, what specs the car has (1.6 vs 1.8 for example), the condition of the car, what year it is, where it is being sold, and much more. For example, a last year NA MX-5 in great condition with a 1.8-litre engine is going to be worth more than an earlier 1.6 model in bad condition with an automatic transmission.
With the above being the case, we recommend that you jump on your local auction/classifieds sites and search for Mazda MX-5s for sale. You can then use these prices to work out roughly what you need to spend to get an MX-5 in a condition and spec level you are happy with. Remember, it can also be a good idea to add around 5 to 10% of the purchase price to your budget for any unexpected expenses.
We also recommend that you check out Bring a Trailer’s auction results for the MX-5 here as you can see what prices cars have sold for in the past (This is more relevant to USA based buyers).
Checking the VIN/Chassis Number
It is always a good idea to check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of a car prior to purchase. The VIN is a series of 17 characters and numbers that manufacturers such as Mazda assign to a vehicle at production. It can be used to find out information about a particular car, such as where it was manufactured, the model, year of manufacturer and more.
The VIN can also be entered into a VIN checkup/decoder website that may contain information such as whether or not the Mazda MX-5 you are inspecting has any money owing on it or if it has been written off at any point. Most of these VIN checkup websites/services are region limited, so keep that in mind.
A Mazda MX-5 NA’s VIN number should look something like this – JM0NA306100XXXXXX.
Japanese domestic market MX-5s have a slightly different VIN that is commonly referred to as a “chassis number”. The Japanese chassis number is 10 characters long and tends to look like this – NA6C-XXXXXX (NA 1.6) or NA8C- XXXXXX (NA 1.8).
Where are the VIN Locations on an MX-5 Miata NA?
- Back of the engine bay on the fire wall (plate)
- Bonnet/hood (sticker)
- Front drivers’ side dash under the windshield (plate)
- Door jamb on both sides (sticker)
- Next to latch on both doors (sticker)
- Front fender in water run-off gully on both sides (sticker)
- Inside front bumper, passenger side, just under the turn signal (sticker)
- Boot/trunk (sticker)
There are a few more places you can find the VIN, but the above should cover most of what you need. Try to locate as many VINs as possible and make sure they match. If they don’t it could be a sign that the MX-5 has been repaired in a chop shop (parts from different MX-5s put together). Additionally, if the VINs aren’t locatable it could indicate that the vehicle has been stolen at some point.
Both the 1.6-litre B6ZE and the 1.8-litre BP are very strong engines, and if maintained properly they are capable of some insane mileage (This one has travelled nearly 500,000 miles with almost no work on the engine!). However, it is important that they are maintained correctly, so inspect the engine thoroughly for any problems!
Starting Your Engine Inspection
Position yourself at the front of the MX-5 and lift the bonnet/hood. Make sure it opens smoothly and that there are no problems with the hinges, catch, etc. If you do notice a problem or they look new, it could be a sign that the Mazda has been in an accident or had some other sort of repair. Once you have done that do a quick check for the following before moving onto a more thorough inspection:
- Cleanliness – Is the engine bay spotless or does it look like a bomb went off in there? A really dirty engine bay could be a sign of an owner who doesn’t care much for their Mk1 MX-5. However, don’t be fooled by a super clean engine as this could be a sign of somebody trying to cover something up (an oil leak for example).
- Obvious Issues – Do a quick general check for any immediately noticeable issues such as leaks, broken or missing components and more.
- Modifications – Lots and lots of first generation Mazda MX-5s have modifications both major and minor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a modified MX-5 NA (unless you are looking for a completely stock model of course), but modifications can cause issues if they are not suitable for the car or have not been carried out correctly. It may be worth noting down any modifications and checking online to see what other Mk1 MX-5 owners say about them.
Check the Fluids
It is important that the engine oil is changed at least every 12,000 km(7,000 miles), but many owners do it much earlier with some doing it as soon as 5,000 km (3,000 miles). If the MX-5 does not get much use the oil should have been replaced every six to twelve months. Something like Mobil 1 or Castrol 5W-30 or 0W-40 is perfect for a first generation MX-5.
If the engine oil and other fluids have not been changed regularly and/or the wrong fluids have been used it can lead to premature wear and possibly even component/engine failure.
Make sure that the oil level is at the right height and that the end of the dipstick has not broken off (quite a common problem on NAs). If the oil level is too low or too high, we would be cautious of the NA MX-5 as you simply won’t know how long the car has been run for on an incorrect oil level. It can be handy to bring along some paper towels/kitchen roll when checking the oil level.
Remember to inspect the engine oil itself, keeping an eye out for any metallic particles or grit which may indicate a serious engine problem such as bearing failure. Metallic particles can also be a sign of other things such as a recent rebuild, so bear that in mind.
Make sure you check for any foam, froth or milky looking oil. If you notice any of these issues it could be a sign of a number of different problems from condensation in the oil, an engine that has been overfilled with oil, or possibly even a blown head gasket.
While not always necessary, it can be a good idea to get the oil analysed prior to purchase. This can help you determine whether or not there are any foreign particles in the oil. Additionally, it can also tell you if the vehicle needs more frequent changes or if it can go further between servicing. Once again, this isn’t completely necessary, and we only really recommend it if you are looking for the cleanest example possible.
Oil Leaks on a Mk1 Mazda MX-5
Oil leaks are fairly common on NAs, especially on older models. Here are some things to watch out for:
O-ring on the CAS sensor – Located on the back of the cylinder head, this O-ring can perish and start to leak. This is arguably the most common leak to occur on first generation MX-5s and if it does occur, oil can leak all over the heater hoses and other components at the rear of the engine. The CAS sensor is located on the intake CAM on the 1.6 and on the exhaust CAM on the 1.8. Replacing the O-ring is an easy fix, and the part is cheap. However, if you notice this problem your biggest concern should be whether or not the MX-5 has been run low on oil. CashedOutCars has an excellent video on this problem which you can view below.
Timing/valve/cam cover gasket – This is a common leak on a lot of cars and is definitely one to watch out for. Once again it is not a major issue to fix as the parts and labour aren’t too bad. We have included another video from CashedOutCars explaining the replacement process below (for both NA and NB cars).
Front crank seal or cam seals – If you notice any oil leaking from the front of the engine it could be caused by the timing cover, but it could also be caused by the front crank seal or the cam seals. If the leak is bad enough oil can get onto the timing belt. It is recommended that the front crankshaft bolt be replaced along with the seal if the crank seal has started leaking.
Rear main seal leak – This is another one to watch out for. A leak from the rear main seal often starts out slow, but will usually get quicker overtime. If the leak is quite bad the clutch disk can become covered in oil and start slipping (by this point the leak will be fairly rapid and you will probably want to get it done anyway). It is often recommended that you replace the rear main seal when installing a new clutch, so check to see if this has been done.
Oil pan – This isn’t a very common leak on these cars, but a number of owners have experienced it over the years. Fixing an oil pan seal leak can be quite expensive as it requires either dropping the subframe or pulling the engine.
Checking for PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation Issues)
Keep an eye out for the following symptoms as it could be a sign of a bad PCV valve:
- Rough/lumpy idle (this could also be spark plug issues, etc.)
- Hesitation during acceleration
- Excessive oil consumption and worse fuel/gas mileage (probably not going to be able to tell during a short test drive)
- Leaks from the PCV hose assembly
Below we have listed some steps you can take to check the PCV system:
- Try remove the oil cap with the engine running – the oil cap should be easy to remove
- Check how the engine is running – with the oil cap off the engine should start stumbling due to there being a vacuum leak. If the engine starts surging immediately it could have a PCV issue.
- Put a rubber glove, plastic/cling wrap or a post-it-note over the valve cover – If the glove inflates or other item you are using gets blown off forcibly or sucked in, the car probably has a PCV issue. A normal functioning system should provide some light suction against the valve cover.
The PCV is connected to the tube/hose on the left of the valve cover on an MX-5 Miata NA and is an easy part to replace (see the video below). When buying a replacement PCV valve it is generally recommended that you either go with an original one or an upgraded one from a Mazda 323 Turbo (highly recommended for turbo/modified MX-5s). Most owners recommend avoiding PCV valves from the likes of NAPA, Advance or whatever your local shop sells.
If there is a problem with the PCV system and it is not sorted it can lead to a build-up of pressure in the engine’s crankcase. This can eventually lead to more serious problems such as failure of the engine seals (rear main seal, etc.). It can be a good idea to check when the valve was last replaced as if it was over 50,000 km (30,000 miles) ago, a precautionary replacement could be a good idea.
When Does an MX-5 Miata’s Timing Belt Need Replacing?
It is generally recommended that the timing belt on a first gen MX-5 be replaced every 100,000 km (60,000 miles) or so, but some owners go a bit further between changes (around 160,000 km/100,000 miles). This extended change interval is because the belt doesn’t often fail that early and, in some areas, Mazda even recommended the 160,000 km (100,000 mile) interval (California for example).
If you notice a whining noise from the front of the engine it could be a sign of an overtightened timing belt (could also be a worn water pump pulley bearing as well, but more on this later).
What if the belt breaks?
Luckily, both the 1.6 and 1.8-litre engines inside the Mazda MX-5 NA are non-interference engines, so if the belt breaks it shouldn’t do any catastrophic damage. However, this doesn’t mean it is a good idea to just wait until the belt breaks before replacing it. If the MX-5 NA you are looking at has not had a belt change in a long time (over 160,000 km), it suggests that the vehicle has not been maintained properly (ask yourself what other things haven’t been changed).
Hydraulic Tappet Rattle
A hydraulic tappet rattle is quite common on 1.8-litre models when starting the car. While this is completely normal for the first few moments after start up, it can be a cause for concern if it continues. Changing the oil will usually solve this problem, but it can be a sign of damaged or worn lifters.
Misfires are usually caused by worn ignition leads or the coil packs. Early 1.6-litre MX-5s have the weakest coil packs, so pay particular attention to them. If it is not the ignition leads or coil packs it could be something like a faulty injector, bad spark plug or some other sort of issue.
Keep an eye out for a ‘short nose’ crank pulley as these are known to fail early. In addition to this, the crank pulley key and keyway can wear, and be sure to check that the crank pulley doesn’t wobble when the engine is running.
A problem with an MX-5 NA’s cooling system can lead to catastrophic engine damage, so keep an eye out for the following things:
Coolant Level and Condition
When the engine is cold, remove the coolant tank lid and inspect the coolant (don’t do this when the engine is warm and/or running). Make sure it is in good condition and not brown or muddy in colour. Some owners fit aftermarket expansion tanks made from materials such as aluminium. These tanks won’t be see through so you will have to take off the lid to see what is inside (once again only do this when the engine is cold).
It is essential that the coolant is changed on schedule, and it should be drained and refreshed every five years. There should be about a 50:50 water/anti-freeze mix and it is advisable to use a top quality product.
While you are doing this, don’t forget to check the coolant level as well. If the coolant level is low, it is most likely due to a leak somewhere in the system, but sometimes can be caused by something like an air lock in the heater matrix. Recheck the level after a test drive.
Have a good leak around the expansion tank, coolant lines and other parts of the engine bay for any coolant leaks. The Mazda MX-5 NA’s cooling hoses are particularly prone to going hard and brittle with age. Once this happens they can crack and leak coolant. Replacing the lines isn’t a major problem, but expect to set aside an afternoon to change them on your first attempt.
Make sure you check for leaks both before and after a test drive. When you finish a test drive, turn the MX-5 NA off and let it sit for around 10 to 15 minutes. Once you have done this, recheck for any leaking coolant (or any other leaks for that matter). If you don’t see any coolant but notice a sweet aroma, the MX-5 is probably leaking from somewhere but it just isn’t visible.
Failing Water Pump
A Mk1 MX-5’s water can and will eventually fail, so keep an eye out for the following symptoms:
- Coolant leaks – the water pump is probably going to be your most likely cause of a leak
- Slight knocking noise at idle
- Whining and/or chuffing sounds
- Overheating – It is a good idea to go for a reasonably long test drive as you may not notice the Mazda MX-5 NA overheating during a short test drive. Note: Overheating could also be a sign of something like a bad thermostat, radiator issues and much more, so keep that in mind.
- Steam or smoke – Be on the lookout for any steam or smoke from the front of the car. If you notice this problem, it is best to walk away.
Testing the Water Pump
You can do a bit of a test of the water pump by switching on the heater as high as possible. The heater core requires proper function of the water pump for it to work correctly. If the pump isn’t working, fluid won’t be forced through the system.
When you switch on the heater you should feel a blast of hot air. This hot air should continue to come out of the vents if the Mazda MX-5’s water pump is functioning correctly. If the warm air stops/gradually reduces it is a sign that hot fluid is not being cycled through the system and the NA MX-5’s water pump is not functioning correctly.
Replacing the water pump isn’t too much of an issue, but be cautious if you notice a problem as the car may have overheated at some point in the past. Below you can watch a video from GrievousGarage on replacing the water pump on a 1991 Miata/MX-5.
The plastic top of the radiator should be black in colour. However, with age they can go brittle and turn a more brownish colour. If this has happened the top is more likely to crack and fail. Factor this into the price of the car if you notice that the radiator top has gone brown (radiator may need to be replaced).
If you notice an erratically behaving temperature gauge there is a good chance it is down to the thermostat (but don’t count on it). When the thermostat fails or sticks it often leads to issues such as the temperature gauge reading too cold or taking a long time to get up to temperature. If the temperature gauge is on the hotter end, it is probably due to some other sort of issue such as a failed water pump, low coolant, etc. (could still be the thermostat however).
Christian Lopez has a good video on replacing the thermostat on an MX-5 Miata NA, which you can view below.
Look for Air Bubbles in the Coolant
It is a good idea to check for bubbles in the coolant (once again, do not open the coolant tank when the car is running or when it is hot). A few bubbles when the engine is warming up is quite normal, but there should be none once the Mazda MX-5 Mk1 is up to temperature. Bubbles indicate that air has entered the system at some point, which can lead to overheating.
Air can get into the cooling system through several different ways from something like a bad radiator cap to air pockets in the radiator and possibly even a blown head gasket, so be cautious if you notice this problem.
Head Gasket/Cooling System Failure
Head gasket failure is a possibility on these cars, so it is important to keep on eye out for the following issues:
- Bubbles in the radiator or coolant expansion tank
- White and milky oil
- Spark plugs that are fouled (if you or a mechanic can get a look at them)
- Low cooling system integrity
- Smell of coolant from the oil
- Sweet smelling exhaust
- White smoke from the exhaust pipe (especially if you see lots of it)
- Steam from the front of the Mk1 MX-5
If the head gasket has been replaced at any point try to find out what it was replaced with. The original OEM Mazda gaskets are considered to be the best for almost all engines (both naturally aspirated and turbo or supercharged). Aftermarket head gaskets can be quite “hit or miss” with these cars, but there are situations where a slightly thicker gasket may be preferable. Some aftermarket gaskets don’t have the holes needed for water passage, which can quickly lead to overheating and a blown gasket.
Have a good look at as much of the exhaust system as possible as these cars are getting on a bit. Repairing and replacing exhaust parts can be quite expensive, especially if you go to a dealer. Exhaust/muffler shops and builders will often be quite a bit cheaper, so it might be worth investing in a quality aftermarket system unless you want the car to be completely original.
Rust is probably going to be one of your biggest areas of concern with the original system, especially if you live in a country like the United Kingdom or an area such as Minnesota, Iowa, etc. A high quality aftermarket exhaust made from something like stainless steel shouldn’t rust, but you may see some surface corrosion.
Rust problems on exhausts usually occur due to corrosive unburnt fuel or exhaust gases mixed with water vapour in the system. This is why cars that are driven on shorter trips tend to suffer from rusted exhausts more than those that do a lot of highway miles. The moisture and corrosive substances remain in the muffler as they are not burnt off during a short trip, leading to rust formation from the inside out.
If you hear any low rumbling, scraping or rattling noises it could be a sign of exhaust issues. Ticking noises are often a sign of a leak, especially if they change with an increase or decrease in rpms.
Catalytic Converter (CAT) Issues
The Mk1 Mazda MX-5 features one catalytic converter. If it fails you may notice some of the following issues:
- Smell of sulphur or rotten eggs from the exhaust
- Reduced acceleration and sluggish engine performance
- Excessive heat under the Mazda MX-5 NA
- Dark smoke from the car’s exhaust
- CEL (Check Engine Light)
- Emission test failure
- Louder sounding exhaust (probably won’t be able to notice this during a test drive)
Unlike some other cars, replacing the CAT on a first generation MX-5 doesn’t tend to be too expensive. Some owners run their MX-5s without a catalytic converter, but depending on where you live in the world the car may fail emissions tests and not be road legal. Additionally, if you are looking at an MX-5 with an aftermarket exhaust, check to see if it has a CAT or not for the reason we just stated.
While the OEM Mazda exhaust tends to be very well regarded amongst MX-5 NA owners, aftermarket exhausts are quite popular. Aftermarket exhausts tend to be fitted to improve or change the exhaust note, but some owners may have installed one as sourcing an original OEM exhaust can be expensive. Alternatively, they may have opted for a more durable aftermarket exhaust if they live in an area with rust problems.
There is no real consensus on what aftermarket exhaust system is the best, but some are better than others. What we recommend you do is try to find out what aftermarket exhaust system the car is running and then check any reviews/feedback on the product to make sure it is a good one. A poor quality exhaust could be a sign that the owner or a previous owner has cheaped out on modifications.
Short Nose Crank Pully Failure (1990 and 1991)
The short nose crank pulley fitted to MX-5 Miatas produced until about the middle of 1991 is known to fail prematurely (VIN numbers after 209447 should be alright). This is a factory issue and it was initially believed that the problem was caused by the fact that it was incredibly easy to reassemble the engine incorrectly when replacing the timing belt (so much so that Mazda dealers and specialists weren’t immune to the problem as well). However, it was later found that MX-5 NAs that had never had timing belt changes were succumbing to the problem as well as the design of the crank pulley was simply not up to scratch. If there is a problem, you may notice the following symptoms:
- The MX-5 NA feels slower than it should be and/or it hesitates during acceleration (this could be caused by other issues as well)
- The crankshaft pulley wobbles (this can indicate a failed crankshaft or a worn crank keyway)
This problem is very serious, but there are some preventive measures that can go along way to delaying or stopping the issue. The crankshaft pulley bolt should be replaced with a new one that has received an application of Loctite and is torqued properly. This bolt should then be replaced every 65,000 km (40,000 miles) or so to prevent the problem from occurring.
Note: the torque spec for the bolt is different on the short nose crank pulleyed 1990/91 MX-5s than later models.
For more on this problem we suggest that you check out this fantastic article on miata.net.
Checking for Knocking Sounds
Once the motor has warmed up a bit, grab the throttle valve or get a helper to apply some throttle. Let the rpms build slowly and listen for knocking noises that come and go as the engine climbs through the rev range. If you do hear any noises like this, it could be a sign of a problem such as main bearing failure or rod issues. This sort of knocking is a very serious issue, and we would probably walk away from the MX-5 if it is producing such noises.
What Should the Idle Speed Be on a MX-5 Miata NA?
Once warm you should expect the idle speed to be around 850 rpm (+ or – 50 rpm). Don’t worry if the idle is higher when the engine is first started and cold (could be as much as 1,800 rpm). This is perfectly normal, however, it should soon drop to the 850 rpm range once the MX-5 is up to temperature.
If you do notice any particular issues with the car’s idle (hunting, low engine speed, etc.), you are probably not going to be able to work out the exact cause of the issue during a short inspection. If the idle issue was a simple fix, the owner of the MX-5 NA probably would have got it sorted before putting the car on the market. A good test can actually be finding some stop-start traffic as problems such as engine stutter, misfiring, and more can often appear in this sort of situation.
Bad Engine Mounts
The first generation Mazda MX-5 features two engine and two differential mounts. Engine mounts can and will eventually fail, which can lead to a number of problems. Most mounts typically last anywhere up to around 160,000 km/100,000 miles, but they may need to be replaced earlier or they may go on longer. Here are some symptoms to watch out for that may indicate mount failure:
- Engine movement – Rev the engine and see if it moves excessively. Also check how the engine is at idle and check for any movement while looking from underneath the car.
- Excessive vibrations/shaking – Often most noticeable at idle. In some cases, you may even notice the body of the car moving.
- Clunking, banging or other impact sounds – These sorts of noises could indicate that the engine is moving slightly due to a failed mount
- Incorrect shifting – transmission shifts to fifthwhen trying to shift under hard throttle from second to third. This is a classic example of bad motor mounts in a Mk1 MX-5 (it could also be another problem, but the engine mounts are without a doubt the most likely cause).
Sourcing and replacing the engine mounts isn’t too pricey, but it is always worth using problems like this as a way to get a discount. Additionally, keep in mind that the vibrations could also be caused by some sort of other issue as well.
Mazda Competition engine mounts are a popular upgrade over the standard ones for MX-5 Miata’s running more horsepower and/or are driven more aggressively. They are around 40% stiffer than the stock ones and many owners report that they sharpen up the feel of the drivetrain.
However, installing the Mazda Competition mounts (or any stiffer performance orientated mounts for that matter) normally leads to an increase in vibrations throughout the whole car over the standard ones. Some owners also report higher noise levels from post installation as well. For these reasons it is generally recommended that you go with the stock mounts if the car is a daily driver, while the Mazda Competition mounts are better if it is your second car and/or you like to drive aggressively. Additionally, some owners with the hardtop roof state that the Mazda Competition mounts lead to an even greater amount of vibrations/noise with the roof installed.
If you notice a loud knocking noise when the air conditioning comes on (if the MX-5 has it), it is probably the compressor. Make sure that both A/C fans behind the radiator are working as well and that the A/C belt isn’t squealing as this indicates it is loose.
Cold air should come out of the vents relatively quickly once the air conditioning is turned on. If you don’t notice any cold air or the A/C seems very weak it could be caused by a range of different issues. While the system may simply need a new refrigerant, the lack of cold air could be caused by a more serious problem such as a failed compressor.
Smoke from a MX-5 Miata NA
Get the seller/owner to start the Mk1 MX-5 for you for the first time (do some starts yourself later). This way you can position yourself at the rear of the vehicle and check what comes out the back of the MX-5 NA’s exhaust. If you notice a whole load of smoke or steam, we would thank the owner for their time and walk away (unless you are really interested in a bit of a project). A very small amount of vapour when the engine is first started is perfectly normal. This is just condensation in the exhaust and will be more noticeable during colder weather.
Another reason we recommend that you get the seller to start the car for you is so you can see if they rev the nuts of it when it is cold. If they do you know the MX-5 Miata probably hasn’t been treated well. Below we have listed what the different colours of smoke may indicate:
As we have already mentioned above, a small amount of white vapour on engine start is usually just condensation in the exhaust.
If you notice lots of white/greyish smoke it is usually a sign that water/coolant has made its way into the cylinders due to a blown or leaking head gasket. Give the exhaust a good whiff and if it smells sweet, it is probably coolant. If the smoke is very thick and doesn’t dissipate quickly it could be sign that the block or cylinder head is cracked/broken.
White smoke can also be a sign that the turbo seals have gone bad if the MX-5 NA is fitted with one.
This colour smoke could be caused by a whole range of things including warn pistons rings, valve seals, and more. To test for this colour smoke during a drive, get somebody to follow you while you are driving the Mazda MX-5 NA. Take the engine through its rev range and see what comes out the back. If you don’t have a helper, get the owner to drive for a bit while you look out the back (good chance to see how they drive as well).
This sort of smoke is usually a sign that the engine is running too rich and burning too much fuel. There are quite a few things that could be causing this issue from something like dirty intake components to incorrect spark timing, problems with the injectors, and more. If the exhaust smells of fuel, the engine is almost certainly running too rich. Unburnt fuel being sent through the exhaust system can also lead to premature catalytic converter failure as well, so keep that in mind.
If the Mk1 MX-5 has been modified and a remap has not been done (or not done properly) it is more likely to produce a bit of black smoke.
Turbo or Supercharger Conversions
A number of turbo and supercharger kits were offered (and are still offered) for the Mk1 MX-5. These were quite common and shouldn’t cause too many problems if the work is done correctly. If you are looking at a modified Mk1 MX-5, make sure you check any paperwork or receipts to see who carried out the work.
Buying a Mazda MX-5 Miata NA with a Rebuilt or Replaced Engine
An engine rebuild or replacement is eventually going to be required for almost all MX-5 NAs that last a long time. While some people get a bit funny about engine rebuilds or replacements, we don’t have a problem as long as the work was carried out by somebody competent.
Home rebuild jobs are okay, but be extra cautious as many home mechanics have more ambition than skill (however, there are some very good ones out there who put professionals to shame). If the work was done by a business/specialist, find out exactly who did the work and check any reviews (give them a call as well if you are really serious about the car as they may be able to tell you a bit more about it).
We generally prefer rebuilds over replacements as there is a higher chance of knowing the history of the engine. A swapped engine could have come from any MX-5 NA and you probably won’t be able to find its history.
Radical engine swaps can be okay, but they are more likely to be an absolute nightmare and you don’t want to buy somebody else’s unfinished project. There are a whole load of the different 4, 6 and 8-cylinder engines that have been swapped into the Mk1 MX-5 and you can get a better idea of some of the most popular ones in the video embedded below:
We tend to recommend that you avoid fresh rebuilds or engine swaps with only a couple of hundred miles on them. This is because a Mazda MX-5 NA that has travelled 10,000 km (6,200 miles) on a rebuild or swap is more of a known than one that has only travelled a short distance since the work was carried out.
If possible, we suggest that you get a compression test done prior to purchase. A compression test can help you determine whether or not there is problem with the engine, however, it won’t necessarily tell you exactly what the problem is. If the owner doesn’t want a compression test to go ahead it could be a sign that they are trying to hide something from you.
Some owners will get a compression test done before sale and put the results in the advertisement. When new, compression spec was around 185 psi on 1.8-litre models and 193 psi on 1.6-litre models, with around 130 being the low psi limit. However, most important thing with the results is to make sure that they are all roughly the same (within around 10 to 15% of each other).
Transmission & Differential
The first generation Mazda MX-5 was fitted with either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Overall, both transmissions should not cause any significant problems and are fairly robust. Automatic MX-5s are usually more difficult to sell and as a result are cheaper than their manual counterparts.
Manual MX-5 NAs
As mentioned in the “Engine” section of this article, check to make sure that the transmission doesn’t jump into 5th when shifting from 2nd to 3rd under heavy load. If it does, the engine mounts probably need replacing.
When shifting, make sure that the gearbox is not overly loose or sloppy. A loose gear shifter is usually caused by worn or failed bushes that connect the shifter to the transmission. Alternatively, if it is really hard to change gears the problem could be anything from old fluid that needs changing, to a much more serious issue that could be expensive to fix.
Test the gearbox at both low and high engine speeds. Some owners have found that their Mk1 MX-5s pop out of first or fifth gear under moderate to hard acceleration (can occur on other gears but seems to be much less common). This problem could be caused by something relatively simple like low fluid or it could be caused by a problem that requires extensive transmission repairs (transmission/gear rebuild, etc.).
Grinding/notchiness on both upshifts and downshifts could be a sign of synchro wear, especially if the Mazda MX-5 NA has been owned by somebody who likes to give it a good thrashing. Modified MX-5 Miatas running more power are more likely to suffer from this problem due to increased power levels and the fact that the owner is probably more likely to have driven the car fast (hence the modifications).
It is a good idea to see how the clutch and transmission performs during a hill start. Additionally, lift off after accelerating hard in second, third, fourth and fifth. If you notice any strange rattling noises it could be a sign that the gearbox bearings are in a bad way.
Remember to check for leaks from the transmission. The drain bolt, fill bolt (pretty unlikely), front seal, and rear seal are all places where transmission fluid can leak. Additionally, fluid can also leak from where the rear section of the transmission connects to the gearbox, however, this is a pretty uncommon failure.
If you hear any whines or grinding noises when the clutch is engaged, it could be a sign that the Spigot and throwout/clutch-release bearings are on their way out. While the parts aren’t expensive, the whole gearbox will need to be removed to access them.
The slave cylinder for the clutch is prone to leaking and failure, which will cause the clutch pedal to sink to the floor. Replacements are fairly cheap and will take around 30 minutes to fit. Remember to check the condition and level of the clutch fluid as well. Some owners like to replace the clutch fluid with every change of the brake fluid or every 4/5 years or so, but there is no hard and fast rule on this.
The clutch itself is a wear item and will eventually need to be replaced. Depending on how the MX-5 is treated and driven, a clutch may last anywhere from as little as 48,000 km (30,000 miles) or go on more than triple that distance. Below we have listed some things to check when testing the clutch on a Mk1 MX-5 Miata:
Clutch Engagement – The first step is to make sure the engagement is good. To do this put the Mazda MX-5 NA you are inspecting into gear on a level surface and let the clutch out slowly. It should engage around 7 to 10 cm (2.5 to 4 inches) from the floor. Engagement that is early or too late indicates a problem.
Clutch Slippage – The best way to test for this problem is to shift into a gear that is too high for the speed you are going. You should notice that the engine bogs down a bit (don’t do this on a regular basis). The next thing to do is to accelerate. If you notice that the tachometer goes up out of relation to the speedometer and/or you notice jerkiness it suggests that the clutch is slipping.
Clutch Drag – Get the Mk1 MX-5 Miata on a flat surface and press the clutch pedal to the floor (do this while you are stationary). Rev the car hard (once it is warm) and see If it moves. If the car does move, the clutch is not disengaging when you shift and parts will wear prematurely.
Clutch Shudder – This is usually noticeable when you accelerate from a stop. A small amount is perfectly normal, but an excessive amount is a sign that the release bearings need to be lubricated.
Automatic MX-5 NAs
There were way more manual MX-5 NAs produced than automatic ones, and even then, a lot of automatic cars have received manual conversions. The main thing to watch out for with automatic MX-5 NAs is the vacuum modulator. If there is a problem with this component it can often lead to symptoms such as late upshifts, hard shifts, fluid loss and more. Luckily, the vacuum modulator is a relatively inexpensive part to source and takes about five minutes to replace with the car lifted.
Remember to check the fluid level. The dipstick is located on the passenger side (left hand drive) at the very back of the engine bay. The level should be checked with the MX-5 warmed up on level ground with the car running in park. Be very cautious if the level is low as serious damage may have occurred. A complete rebuild will cost you well into the four figures, so make sure everything works as intended. If maintained properly, the Jatco automatic transmission in these cars should easily hit 300,000 km (186,00 miles) plus.
Another thing to check is the overdrive system. There is one relay directly related with the MX-5 Miata’s overdrive system. This Kickdown Relay is part of a fairly complex electrical system and if any one of the components in this system fails it can lead to improper function of the overdrive. Determining what is exactly at fault can require a bit of trial and error, so fixing the overdrive/overdrive button can be surprisingly expensive.
The differential requires new lubricant every 48,000 km (30,000 miles) or so. If the diff does have a problem, you may notice the following symptoms:
- Whining/whirring m noises that change with road speed but not engine speed – This may also be indicative of a bad wheel bearing at the rear.
- Strange vibrations that change with road speed
- Unusual burning oil smells
- Leaking differential fluid – The video below shows you how to replace the output shaft seal on a Miata and where to look for leaks (Note: video is of an NB MX-5 Miata, but it is the same for the NA).
The price to repair and replace a Mk1 MX-5’s differential can vary from a couple of hundred dollars for something like a seal, to upwards of four figures for a fully blown diff that needs replacement (obviously things will be cheaper if you can do them yourself).
Body and Exterior
The first generation Mazda MX-5 Miata is getting old and even one with a well maintained engine and drivetrain can succumb to bodywork issues. Here are some of the main things to keep an eye out for when looking at the exterior and body of a Mk1 MX-5.
Rust is your number one enemy when it comes to NA MX-5s. While rust can occur pretty much anywhere on the body, here are some of the main areas to watch out for (body and some other areas):
- Windscreen frame – Particularly around the lower area of the frame.
- Wheel arches and wells – Main area to look is around the rear arches but have a good look at the front ones as well as they can rust quite badly. The problem usually occurs on the inner sections of the arches and the liner will need to be removed to have a proper look. Rust here usually occurs from the inside and often follows soon after rusted sills (see next point).
- Rocker panels and door sills – Check for dusty, bubbly or blistering paint along the sills and the rocker panels, particularly at the rear. If you hear a sloshing sound when out on a test drive or notice that the footwells are damp it is a sign of water in the sills, which will eventually lead to rust formation (if it hasn’t already). The rocker panels/sills typically rust from the inside out, so if you notice a problem it is probably already quite bad.
- Door edges – Pay particular attention to the bottom of the doors and the edge closest to the hinges, especially if you notice rust around the sills and fenders.
- Floor – This is going to be difficult to check for during a quick inspection as you really need to remove the carpets to get a proper look. If the problem is really bad you may notice holes in the floor pan. You can lift the carpet a bit by removing the door trim by the sills (requires the removal of a couple of screws).
- Boot/trunk – This is often overlooked but is definitely something to check for as if it goes unnoticed you can wind up with holes in the boot floor. What usually happens is that the boot seals fail and then water pools in the area of the spare tyre. Lift up the carpets/floor to see if there is any water or rust.
- Undercarriage – While checking for rust on the bodywork and exterior, make sure you have a look at the undercarriage and suspension components. Surface rust here is quite common, but it can turn into something more serious if left unattended. If the subframe has rusted it is important to get it fixed as soon as possible as it may lead to a weakened structure. Check the frame rails as well as they can rust, especially if they have been damaged/scrapped at some point.
- Shelf behind the seat – This can be an issue of the hood/roof leaks
- Metal parts in the engine bay – Some of the metal components in the engine bay can rust. This is usually just cosmetic but something to be aware of.
Rust problems are often more serious than they first appear on the surface, so don’t buy the car unless you can get a quote on what it will be to repair the rust (or just move onto another MX-5 NA).
Factors That Can Make Rust More Likely on a MX-5 Miata NA
- The Mk1 MX-5 has spent time in countries or areas with salted roads (UK for example)
- The vehicle has spent time in countries or areas with very harsh winters (often linked with the above)
- Vehicle is often parked/stored by the sea for significant periods of time
- Always kept outside (never garaged)
- The MX-5 is regularly driven in winter (garaging the car and not driving it in the winter will reduce the likelihood of rust issues)
- Accident damage (stone chips or more significant damage)
- Rubbing body parts
- Old or no underseal
It is a good idea to check with the owner to see if rust protection has been applied at fairly regular intervals, especially if the first generation MX-5 is located in a country with salted roads.
We also recommend that you ask the seller/owner if regular washes of the underbody have been carried out during winter if you live in a country with salted roads. This can go a long way to prevent rust formation and if they have done it, it shows that they probably care quite a bit about preventative maintenance
Looking for Rust Repairs
It is not only important to look for present rust, but you should also keep an eye out for signs of past rust repair (mismatched paint, paint overspray etc.). Watch out for any areas that may have been resprayed or cut out and replaced. You should also check the service history and with the owner (however, don’t trust what the owner says completely as they may be trying to hide something from you).
Use a magnet on steel sections of the car (cover it with a cloth so you don’t damage the paintwork) or a coating gauge thickness tool such as this one to find any areas that may have been repaired.
Signs That a MX-5 NA Has Been Stored Outside
Storing a car outside will increase the chances of rust appearing. Below we have listed some tell-tale signs of an MX-5 NA being left outside:
- Faded paint
- Heavily discoloured badges
- Worn soft-top roof/faded material
- Cracking on the plastic parts
- Obvious rust or corrosion
- Hard rubber window seals
- Excess water in the engine bay or cabin
- Faded plastic rear window (on earlier models)
Crash Damage and Other Repair Work
Accident damage is always something to be on the lookout for when inspecting a used car. This is especially so for sports cars that promote enthusiastic driving like the first generation Mazda MX-5 NA. Here are some things to watch out for when it comes to looking for crash damage and repairs:
- Misaligned panels or large panel gaps – Inspect around the bonnet/hood and make sure everything lines up correctly. Check the door, bumper and boot/trunk panel gaps. If the panel gaps on one side look quite different to the other side, it could be a sign that the Mazda MX-5 NA has been in an accident.
- Doors that drop or don’t close properly – If the doors drop or don’t open/close properly the Mk1 MX-5 you are looking at may have been in an accident or there may be some other sort of other issue with the door hinges.
- Inconsistencies such as waving, rippling or different coloured panels – Indicates a respray which may have been conducted as a result of accident damage or rust.
- If the bonnet/hood looks like it is popped when it is not – This may indicate that the MX-5 you are inspecting at has been crashed into something (even a light knock can cause this problem).
- Damage to the mounting supports for the headlights or surrounds of the taillights – This can be very difficult to fix on any car and is a good place to check for any accident damage.
- Bent or broken parts underneath the car – While inspecting the underside, check to make sure everything is straight. Look at the suspension and steering components as well. If the parts are different on one side compared to the other or much newer, it may be a sign that the Mazda MX-5 has been in an accident.
- Rust in strange locations – Can be a sign of accident damage.
- Paint runs or overspray – Could be a factory issue but is far more likely to be caused by a respray job. Check the seller’s shoes as well as we went to look at a used car once and the terrible respray job matched the specks of paint on the owner’s boots (more of a joke, but once you’ve seen it once you can’t help yourself during future inspections).
- Missing badges or trim – Could be due to repair work (body shop couldn’t find replacements) or a number of other things (stolen, etc.).
Be cautious of sellers who try to cover up accident damage. While most people will try to downplay an incident and the resultant repairs, some may even claim their Mazda MX-5 Miata hasn’t been in a crash when it clearly has.
If there has been some accident damage and/or repairs, try to get an idea of the severity of the incident. Light to moderate damage that has been repaired by a skilled body shop/panel beater is normally fine. However, if the MX-5 NA has been in a serious incident and received major damage it is probably best to walk away.
If the owner can’t tell you much about the accident/damage it may have happened when a previous person owned the vehicle. Lastly, don’t rely on the seller to tell you the car has been in an accident. You are going to have to use your inspection skills and knowledge to work out for yourself.
Other Bodywork Problems on the Mazda MX-5 Mk1
Check to see if the roof goes up and down correctly, and fits properly. The soft top latches can wear and may need adjusting. Check for any holes or tears in the roof, and if the car has a plastic rear window, check that it is still clear and not cloudy. Dampness in the cabin can be a sign that the hood needs to be replaced. The roof usually lasts about 5 years (will last much longer if it is stored inside), so ask the owner when it was last replaced. Additionally, make sure the roof goes up and down smoothly as well. If the roof needs to be replaced it can cost well into the four figures depending on where you source it from.
The interior drain holes can often become clogged, which will trap water inside the rear sills and around the rear parcel area. Regular cleaning will prevent this from happening.
Water inside the boot is usually caused by a perished rain rail – the plastic channel that seals the lower edge of the roof and guides water to the drainage holes. These can be replaced easily.
The Brakes shouldn’t cause too many problems, but make sure you examine the front and rear discs and pads. Pay particular attention to the calipers as these can corrode and seize up with age. There are plenty of kits available to rebuild the caliper. Ensure that the dust boots are in good working order and make sure there is lube on the sliders. If the pads are at the end of their life, try to get a discount on the car.
You should find that the standard brakes are more than adequate for regular road driving. If the brakes feel weak or spongy it is a sign of an issue, which could be anything from a bad bleed, pad problems and more.
A shuddering or shaking through the Mazda MX-5 NA’s steering wheel when the brakes are applied is probably a sign that one or more of the discs are warped. This usually becomes first apparent under high-speed braking and is more likely to occur if the MX-5 Miata has been regularly tracked/driven hard (keep this in mind when looking at modified cars).
Make sure the handbrake works as intended and see how if it holds the car well on a steep incline (if you can find one). If you can’t find an incline, apply some light throttle and see if the handbrake holds the car in place.
Seized calipers are a possibility, so watch out for the following on the Mazda MX-5 Na you are looking at:
- Car pulls to one side (may even happen when the brakes are not in use)
- Car feels low on power as if the parking/handbrake is on (could also be a sign of diff issues)
- Brakes get extremely hot and produce a distinctive acrid smell and in some cases smoke
- You find that the MX-5 Mk1 doesn’t want to move at all
- Loud thud-like noise when pulling away for the first time
Don’t forget to check the brake fluid condition and level. If it is dark it is a sign that it hasn’t been replaced in a long time.
There is a wide range of brake upgrades available for the first generation Mazda MX-5. The easiest way to increase braking performance is to install some aftermarket pads from the likes of EBC, StopTech or Carbotech. More extensive brake upgrades are available as well, but for this we recommend that you find out what upgrades have been done and then check online to see if they are suitable.
Suspension & Steering
Take a look under the car and check the front wishbones as they are prone to corroding. While you are there, make sure you check the condition of the front crossmember as well. Check for any obvious bushing failures or leaky shocks, and take a look at the ball joint boots as these can become brittle and crack. Check all swaybar endlinks as these have a bushing in them that can fail. Apart from that, do a general check for the following:
- Dipping and swerving when the brakes are applied
- Excessive Rear-end squat during acceleration and rear end wobble over bumps
- Tipping during cornering
- High speed instability or floaty/nervous feeling through the steering wheel
- Delayed or longer stopping distances
- Uneven tyre wear
- Excessive bounce after hitting a bump or when pushing down on the suspension
- Sagging or uneven suspension
- Knocking, clunking or creaking sounds during a test drive – as mentioned above this is usually the shocks, top mounts and or drop links
- Rattles – drive over some bumps – there should be no noise from the suspension components (however, you may hear some rattles from something in the cabin).
- Clicking sounds (especially at full lock)
Check the Wheel Alignment
Don’t forget to check that the wheel alignment is good on the MX-5 NA you are test driving. Locate a nice flat and straight section of road and see if the car pulls to one side or the other. Incorrect wheel alignment can lead to excessive and/or tyre wear and more frequent tyre changes. Additionally, it can make an MX-5 NA’s driving experience less enjoyable and even less safe.
If the wheel alignment is really bad it is a sign of an owner who probably doesn’t care much for their first gen Mazda MX-5 Miata as they probably should have got it sorted before putting the car on the market.
Most of the time a simple realignment is all that is needed, however, in some cases bad wheel alignment can be a sign of serious suspension/steering issues or even accident damage.
Inspecting the wheels closely for curb damage as lots of it indicates that the MX-5 NA has been owned by a careless driver. However, some curb damage is expected unless the MX-5 has been garaged its whole life and has minimal mileage.
Make sure you also check for any dents, cracking or buckling on the wheels as these sorts of problems often require a new wheel.
Aftermarket wheels larger than 15-inches can ruin the ride and handling balance of the MX-5, so check to see what the car you are interested in is running on. If the MX-5 NA has aftermarket wheels, ask the owner if they have the originals.Having the originals will only add value to the MX-5 if you decide to sell it in the future.
Good tyres can be expensive, so check for the following issues:
- Amount of tread – If there is minimal tread left try to get a discount as you will need to get the tyres replaced in the near future.
- Uneven wear – Wear should be even between the right and left tyres of the Mazda MX-5 NA. Additionally, make sure wear is even across the tyre itself.
- Brand – They should be from a good or well-reviewed brand – if they are from a poorly reviewed brand it suggests that the owner has cheaped out on maintenance.
- Same tyre – In terms of tyre make, type and tread pattern on each axle (preferably on all four wheels) – mismatched tyres can lead to poor handling performance, increased wear and may even be dangerous.
- Pressure – It can be a good idea to check tyre pressures when conducting an inspection. If the tyre pressures are wrong it can cause the car to pull to the left or right during acceleration. Incorrect tyre pressures can also lead to increased wear and fuel consumption as well.
Tears and wear on the seats will be common, especially on higher mileage MX-5s or those that have not been cared for properly. The vinyl material on the doors is known to wear and it is not uncommon to find custom trims fitted to Mk1 MX-5s. Additionally, check the steering wheel and shifter knob, carpets and pedals for wear as it is a good indicator of how far a car has travelled (if you suspect the mileage is not legitimate).
Pay particular attention to the seat bolsters for wear and make sure the seats have not collapsed. If the seats move during acceleration or braking it is incredibly dangerous and will be an MOT/WOF failure.
Make sure you check the carpets and rest of the cabin for any dampness or signs of a leak, especially if you notice any problems with the roof. Water can play havoc with the electronics if it gets in the wrong place and can lead to a nasty smell as well. Feel around the carpets and turn over the floor mats. If you see water residue on the bottom of the floor mats it could be a sign of a past of present leak. Make sure you check in the boot/trunk under the floor as this area can fill up with water if there is a bad leak.
Have a look at the bottom of the door cards for damage due to people climbing in and out. See if the complete toolkit and spare tyre parts are present as many MX-5 NAs are now missing them.
Electronics, Locks and Other Things
The Mk1 MX-5’s electronics are fairly robust and shouldn’t cause you too many problems. Make sure all the switches and buttons work and check to see if the lights work as intended.
The electric windows can become slow or even stick. If they still go up and down completely, it may simply be a case of lubricating the runners with white lithium grease or silicone spray. Rattling from the windows is probably a sign that the bushes have failed or are failing.
If no warning lights appear during start-up it may be a sign of an issue or that they have been disconnected. Alternatively, if they stay on you need to investigate the issue further and possibly take the car to a Mazda specialist or mechanic to find out what is causing the warning light before purchase.
A Word on Modified Mk1 MX-5s
A good number of Mk1 MX-5s have been modified in some way. Some of these modifications will be minor, while some will major. Turbocharger and supercharger conversions are perfectly fine if they have been carried out correctly – just remember that parts may wear out quicker due to the increase in power.
Be careful of cars that have modified suspension or have been lowered, as this usually ruins the MX-5’s handling and ride characteristics. We also recommend that you steer clear of track cars and those that have been modified by multiple owners.
General Car Buying Advice for a Mk1 MX-5 Miata
How to Get the Best Deal on a Mazda MX-5 NA
This information applies to both dealers and private sealers. Knowledge is power and it can save you a lot of money when purchasing a vehicle.
1. Research heavily – Prior to starting your search for a Mazda MX-5, figure out what specs and condition you are happy with. Do you want a low mileage, late model 1.8 or do you not mind an older automatic MX-5 that has travelled a bit further.
2. Shop around – It is always best to shop around a bit before you make a purchase. While good MX-5 NAs are becoming harder to source, Mazda did sell a fair few of these cars, so don’t limit yourself to one seller, dealer, area or auction platform.
3. Go look at and test drive multiple first gen MX-5s – It is a good idea to test drive a many cars as possible, so you know what makes a good and what makes a bad Mazda MX-5 Mk1.
4. Adjust your attitude – Never rush into a purchase. If you are desperate to buy a car you are more likely to get ripped off. Take your time when looking for an MX-5 for sale and only go for promising looking cars (unless you are looking for a project).
5. Use any issues with the car to your advantage – Take a mental note of any issues you find with the vehicle. When it comes to discussing the price, use these problems to try and drive down the price. For example, if the car needs new tyres or brake pads or tyres make a point of it and try to get the seller to reduce the price.
6. Don’t trust the owner – While some owners/sellers are honest about their cars, many will lie to get a quick sale. Take in what the owner has to say but back it up with a thorough inspection.
7. Go between sellers/dealers – If you are looking at multiple MX-5s, let the owner/seller know. This way they will know that you have other options and they may try to undercut the price.
8. Be prepared to walk away – If you are not happy with the deal, simply walk away. You may miss out on the car or the seller may get back to you with a better offer.
Mileage vs Condition
Mileage vs condition is always a hot topic for debate, but we feel that it is always better to buy on condition and then on mileage. Lots of owners make the mistake of believing that they are preserving their car by not driving it. In reality, this is completely false and not driving a vehicle can actually do more damage than good.
Short distance trips do not allow the engine to warm up properly, which can lead to increased component wear and reduced engine life.
Rubber seals and plastic parts will fail regardless of mileage and can even deteriorate quicker on cars that don’t get used often. Letting a car sit will not prevent rust or stop the electronics from failing.
Service History and Other Documentation
It is incredibly important to check any vehicle’s service history and any additional paperwork that goes along with it. While the servicing doesn’t need to be done at a dealer, it should be carried out by a competent Mazda specialist or mechanic (especially for major repair work). Home mechanic work is okay, but it is much harder to gauge the competence of a home mechanic than checking reviews for established businesses.
The service history will give you a good idea of how the Mazda MX-5 Miata NA you are inspecting has been maintained. In addition to this, receipts and paperwork for modifications (if the car has any) can help you determine whether they have been done by an experienced tuner or a bad one.
If the owner can’t or won’t let you see the service history, you should probably pass on the vehicle. A complete service history will only add value to any vehicle your purchase and will make it easier to sell the car in the future.
Additionally, you can check websites such as CarFax (USA) and CarJam (NZ) for more information about the car you are thinking of purchasing. These sort of websites can be incredibly useful, but there is usually a cost associated with them.
Questions That You Should Ask the Seller/Owner
- How often do you drive the car?
- When was the last service and who was it serviced by?
- How much oil does it use?
- What oil do you use in the car?
- What parts have been replaced?
- When were the coils, spark plugs, leads changed?
- What’s the compression like?
- What modifications have been made to the vehicle?
- Has the vehicle overheated at any point or has the head gasket failed?
- Has the car been in any major or minor accidents? Is so, what repairs were made?
- Is there any money owing on the car?
- Have you got any information on the previous owners and how they treated the vehicle?
- Is there any rust?
- Has rust been removed at any point?
- When were the brake pads replaced and have the calipers seized at any point in time?
- Where do you store/park the car usually?
There are loads more questions you can ask the seller, but we feel these are some of the most important.
Things That Would Make Us Walk Away from a Mazda MX-5
Here are some things that would make as walk away from one of these cars. While you may be happy with a vehicle with these problems, we are not.
- Overheating problems or significant past overheating problems
- Poor compression
- Significant Crash Damage or poorly repaired roof
- Money owing on the car
- Modifications with no paperwork or carried out by a poorly reviewed tuner
- Excessive amounts of power
- Bad resprays
- Significant rust problems
- Engine swaps with non-standard engines
- Significant track use
- Major engine or transmission issues
- Owner who is not forthcoming with information (could be trying to hide something)
Notes on the Owner
The owner is one of the most important things to think about when viewing any vehicle. You need to ask them plenty of questions when inspecting their Mazda MX-5 NA (however, don’t trust their answers completely). Remember, it is your problem if you wind up buying an absolute lemon. Here are some things to watch out for.
- How long have they owned the vehicle? If it is less than 6 months it tends to suggest that the car needs major work done to it that they can’t afford. It also could be a sign that they deal cars as well.
- Do they thrash the car when it is cold or continually launch the vehicle? If so, you are better to walk away.
- Why are they selling the vehicle? Could be a genuine reason or they may be trying to offload their problem onto an unsuspecting buyer.
- What sort of area do they live in? Is it a good area or a complete dump?
- How do they respond when you ask them simple questions?
- Do they know anything about the MX-5 and the model they are selling (1.8 vs 1.6, etc.)
- What can they tell you about previous owners?
- Do they have lots of cars on their drive? If they do it may mean they are a dealer.
- What is their reaction when you ask them about money owing on the car? Tell them you are going to do a check and see how they respond.
- What is their reaction to you asking for details for HPi check?
- How do they react if you ask to do a compression test on the vehicle?
- How do they respond when you ask them to show you the service history and paperwork for the car?
If you get a bad feeling about the owner, you are better off moving onto another first generation Mazda MX-5.
Importing a Mazda/Eunos MX-5 NA from Japan
The MX-5 NA was incredibly popular in Japan and despite many already being exported, there is still quite a large number in the land of the rising sun.
How to Import a Mk1 MX-5 from Japan
While importing a Mazda MX-5 from Japan may seem a bit daunting, it is actually relatively simple. The first thing we recommend you do is to Google search something like “import Mazda MX-5 NA” or “import MX-5 Mk1”. You will be greeted with loads of different websites to choose from. These websites will let you search for one of these cars based on their age, generation, condition, price and more.
Most of the websites/companies you encounter should be based in Japan, but you may find some other ones that are located in different parts of the world.
Make sure you check reviews/feedback of any website or auction house you want to use. While you are unlikely to get completely scammed, many of these websites will be economical with the truth about a vehicle. We have listed a few examples of Japanese importers/exporters below:
JDM Expo – Is an independent subsidiary of Nikko Auto Co., which is recognized as on the most reliable exporters of Japanese cars in the country.
Car From Japan – is another large portal for connecting overseas buyers with Japanese second hand cars.
Japan Partner – Is one of the fastest growing exporters of used Japanese vehicles.
Note: many of these sorts of websites do not provide a grade or auction check sheet. The grade, auction check sheet, and car map are vital to picking a good car. Buyer beware!
Use a Private Importer
While the websites above are a handy way to give you a general idea of what to expect when importing a first gen MX-5, we recommend that you go with a private importer. A trusted private importer will be able to find a suitable Mazda MX-5 NA for you and import it, saving you the hassle. While it may cost you a bit more (sometimes it is cheaper) you are more likely to get a better vehicle.
You can get a full explanation of why we recommend using a private importer here.
How Does the Japanese Car Grading System Work?
The auction houses and car exporters in Japan all get their vehicles in roughly the same way. The difference between them is how much support they are willing to provide, how honest they are, and how they grade their vehicles
They will provide what is known as an ‘auction check sheet’ – a document that contains most of what you need to know about the vehicle. As you can’t see the vehicle personally, you will have to rely on the check sheet and other information on the listing to make a decision. If the seller/website is not willing to provide you with an auction check sheet or additional information on the car, don’t proceed any further.
Before you make a purchase you need to learn how to read an auction check sheet. The sheet contains information on the make, model, condition, specifications and any other notes. There will be a grade on the sheet that denotes the overall grade of the vehicle.
While the grade on a check sheet is important, you should not rely on it to make a final decision. Different companies have different methods for grading their vehicles, so a grade 4 for one company may be a grade 3.5 for another.
Some websites may use a different grading system and if you can’t view the auction check sheet, you should contact the seller/exporter.
Use the grade to reduce the number of Mazda MX-5 NAs you are looking at and then use the check sheet and additionally information to make a decision. We also recommend you pay a third party to check out the car for you if possible (hence the recommendation for a private importer).
The Auction Check Sheet
Below you can see an example of an auction check sheet. The grade is located in the top right corner of the check sheet. You will notice that there is both a letter and a number grade. The number indicates the overall condition of the vehicle, while the letter shows you the interior grade. At the bottom right of the check sheet is the ‘car map’. The car map tells you information about the exterior of a first generation Mazda MX-5 and where any problems are located.
Additionally, the sheet contains information about the specs of the vehicle and any modifications (major or minor). The inspector may also write some additional notes about the car.
What Does the Number Grade Mean?
- Grade 7 to 9 or S – New car with delivery miles.
- Grade 6 – Same as above but with a few more miles.
- Grade 5 – Vehicle is in excellent condition with low miles.
- Grade 4.5 – Overall condition is great, but may have up to 100,000 miles on the clock.
- Grade 4 – Overall condition is good, but can have low or high miles.
- Grade 3.5 – Similar to grade 4, but some work may be needed and they usually have more miles.
- Grade 3 – Can be the same condition as grade 3.5, but with more miles. Alternatively, the car may have lower miles but require more work.
- Grade 2 – Very poor condition car and may have significant mechanical or exterior issues. Not necessarily a right off, but you would have to be a brave buyer to purchase one of these.
- Grade 1 – Is modified in some way (can be extensive or something simple).
- Grade 0, A, R, RA – Some repair history that can be major or minor.
The Letter Grade
As we wrote earlier, the number grade is usually accompanied by a letter that indicates the interior grade. An ‘A’ indicates that the interior is in exceptional or good condition. A ‘B’ indicates that the car is in average condition, while a ‘C’ displays that it is in poor condition. Grades below C show that the car’s interior is in very poor condition.
The Car Map
The check sheet will also contain what is called a “car map”, which tells you all the information you need to know about the exterior condition of the car. It will show the location of any problems or damage to the vehicle. Any problems are indicated by a letter and a number. The letter tells you what the issue is and the number indicates the severity. You can read more about the car map in our “How to Import a Car from Japan” guide.
Our Guidelines for Importing a Mazda MX-5 from Japan
- Always demand to see and have the auction check sheet before making a purchase
- If you can’t read Japanese or the company won’t provide a translated check sheet, get help from somebody who speaks/reads Japanese.
- Try to go through a private importer
- Check that the chassis number on the check sheet matches the one on the frame
- Cross reference the check sheet with other websites
- Don’t rely on the grade (always check the auction sheet thoroughly)
- Investigate each website/service thoroughly (reviews, feedback, etc.)
- Be careful of heavily modified vehicles
- Get someone to inspect the car for you if possible. Ask for photos and get a good run down of the condition.
- Avoid cars with unknown mileages
- Stay away from bargains that seem to be too good to be true
- Stay away from grade 0, A, RA, R vehicles that have been involved in accidents
Know Your Country’s Importation Laws
Always make sure you check your country’s importation laws as you may find you can’t bring the vehicle you want in. For example,some countries have certain restrictions on importing cars under a certain age.
Summary of Buying a First Generation MX-5
As you can see, there are a number of things you need to take note of when buying a Mk1 MX-5. Take your time inspecting every vehicle you look at and don’t rush into purchasing anything. The first generation Mazda MX-5 is a fantastic car and if you treat one well it should still provide plenty of miles of enjoyable driving for years to come.
Marloon (06/07/2015) – Vin Location – VIN location. – MX-5 Miata Forum
2TWISTY (01/11/2001) – What is the “crankshaft pulley problem – What is the “crankshaft pulley problem” – MX-5 Miata Forum
Ifurita143 (30/04/2013) – [NA] [Review] Mazda competition engine mounts – [NA] [Review] Mazda competition engine mounts – MX-5 Miata Forum
Lance Schall – What About Those Crankshafts? –Miata Crankshafts
Jeff Anderson (18/06/2017)- Overdrive Doesn’t work –Overdrive Doesn’t work – MX-5 Miata Forum
Venturous (03/09/2015) – Transmission problem? – Transmission problem? – MX-5 Miata Forum
Jean Knows Cars (10/05/2014) – Mazda MX-5 Miata’s History: Bob Hall – Mazda MX-5 Miata’s History: Bob Hall – YouTube
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Andrew Coles (04//04/2018) – Why we ultimately have Bob Hall to thank for the upcoming MX-5 Spring Rally – Why we ultimately have Bob Hall to thank for the upcoming MX-5 Spring Rally – MX-5 Owners Club (mx5oc.co.uk)
Mazda – HISTORY OF THE MIATA – History of the Miata | Mazda Miata History | Biggers Mazda
Mx5life (02/01/2013) – VIN Numbers – How to understand them – VIN Numbers – How to understand them | Mazda MX5 Forum (mx5life.com)
BTMiata (08/10/2012) – Common oil leaks besides the CAS O-Ring? – Common oil leaks besides the CAS O-Ring? – MX-5 Miata Forum