For the love of the drive: the Mazda MX-5
From lawnmower to Gulfkart…
I guess it all started as a discussion with Narelle, my long-suffering wife, about how not having a project car (something to look at, wash, tinker with, curse at and drive on weekends) was starting to effect my mental health. You see, mowing two acres of lawn each weekend didn’t turn out to be the barrel of laughs I thought it would.
Winding back 10 years sees me waving my ‘Old Girl’ goodbye. No, I’m not talking about my mother. I’m talking about my beautiful 1967 XR-series Ford Falcon 500; a car that over the previous 20 years I’d lovingly taken from a lethargic 200ci ‘six’ to a warmed 302 Windsor V8-powered sleeper.
You know the type of car I mean: no external chrome, no look-at-me stripes; just low and mean. I sold it for a song... which my Masters Degree in hindsight tells me was a really stupid move.
Fast forward to 2014 and it’s my birthday. Narelle hands me a copy of Classic Car magazine with a card that reads: “Happy Birthday! Use this for inspiration!”. No more encouragement was required because in anticipation of the nod of approval from the Minister of Finance, I had already gone online to find a replacement for the Old Girl.
Another V8-powered Falcon, right? Ummm, no. In the decade since I sold my Falcon 500 prices had gone stratospheric. My budget was $5,000 (yep, the last of the big spenders), and I really had no choice but to stick to it.
So what does one buy for a measly five grand? Only the world’s most-popular two-seat convertible sports car – complete with pop-up headlights.
You guessed it, my new baby was a 1990 NA-series Mazda MX-5.
I’d been introduced to the MX-5 a few months prior by a mate who had one. He encouraged me to have a drive knowing that I was a “big V8 sedan fan” and was interested to gauge my reaction.
I’ve never had so much fun behind the wheel of a road car.
I could wax lyrical about Go-Kart handling or steering, the snickity gearshift, the lack of power of the smiles per gallon – that’s been done by enough car magazines over the past 30 years. But I will say the experience behind the wheel of the MX-5 is very hard to beat. For me, it’s the best car in its class bar none; and at $5,000 an absolute bargain.
I’m going to keep it stock...
It took a month to find the MX-5 I’d end up brining home. A Crystal White 1990 model that was completely standard and had just two previous owners. With 275,000km on the odometer it was a little “long in the tooth”, or at least it was by the standard measure.
The MX-5 is known for being bullet-proof. I’ve heard stories of some owners bolting turbochargers on to older 1.6-litre engines and getting another 100,000km out of them before they expire.
“I’m going to keep it stock,” I told Nacelle. That lasted all of six weeks.
Modifying an MX-5 is so easy it’s laughable. Dedicated MX-5 specialists and countless online stockists mean sourcing parts can be done with a stroke of the keyboard. The car’s simple and well-thought-out design means swinging spanners is child’s play, and before I knew it the modifications had begun in earnest.
First came the wheels (Performance Superlites), then the roll bar, the strut braces and the steering wheel. Then it was the custom-made exhaust, the Koni springs and dampers, and before I knew it, I was too far down the road to look back.
I started thinking that the MX-5 was adopting an “old school” personality. I’d noticed the Japanese MX-5 scene had an overwhelming 1960s-style mod culture, and I wanted in!
Companies like ZOOM Engineering were manufacturing bespoke alloy fuel-filler caps and bullet-style mirrors reminiscent of the AC Cobra. Nakame brand makes beautiful (but expensive) traditional bucket seats and quilted floors, and depending where you look there are myriad chrome flourishes for the interior and exterior.
It become a real passion. A new love. As a kid my father spoke of the Mille Miglia road race, and the idea must have stuck. I guess you could say it was in my blood and I didn’t know it.
I think that era of racing also inspired my MX-5’s livery. Walking through the Big Shed Pavilion at the Phillips Island Classic with TRACK & TARMAC guide Randy Stagno Navarra some years back we noticed vendors selling Gulf Racing jackets. The white with orange and pale blue striped Steve McQueen jacket prompted the notion for the MX-5’s colours. I bought that jacket. I decorated the car, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A friend named the MX-5 ‘Gulfkart’, and the name kind of stuck.
Old-school cool under the bonnet
The most recent mod I carried out is controversial to some. I didn’t want to turbocharged the MX-5 as I feel it detracts from the original concept. I loved the idea of electronic ITBs (individual throttle bodies), but the cost of a tuneable after-market ECU – plus finding someone capable of tuning it – was all too hard.
I began researching the DCOE carburettor option… Removing the factory ECU and fuel-injection setup seemed crazy at first, but after studying all the options, and having a clear picture of what I wanted, it all just came together.
Call me romantic, or dumb. I really don’t mind. The sound of two side-draft 40mm DCOE Weber carbs at 6500rpm is the stuff dreams are made of. The note is addictive, intoxicating even. The throttle response is sharper than the fuel injection ever was – even if it does come at the cost of good fuel economy.
But for me, it’s the best modification I’ve made on the MX-5. I just love it. I love how you have to pump the throttle on a cold start. I love the little rasps and pops on over-run. I love the way it makes the engine bay look. And I absolutely love tinkering and tuning the whole setup with the change of each new season, just to keep it at its best.
It gives me a feeling like some of that inspiration of my late father is with me in the Gulfkart. It’s become a part of the family; a part of who we are. It was a project my wife and I agreed upon together; and I really think that makes it special.
A joy forever
I’m really hoping to continue the retro-mod theme for the Gulfkart. I want to try and combine the ideas Tom Matano and Bob Hall (two of the original MX-5’s designers) had for the MX-5 with more 1960s influence. I’ll channel the Lotus Elan, or even the Jaguar E-Type, and pop a centre-exit exhaust on the Gulfkart; just as a nod to the ideas those guys realised in the original MX-5.
The Gulfkart hasn’t replaced what the XR Falcon meant to me. That car gave me a lot of great memories, and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. But I have to admit, this little Japanese sports car (with my dash of old-school Euro cool) has given me more smiles-per-mile over the past six years than driving that Falcon did in 20.
In closing, I also have to mention the great club and community that surrounds the MX-5. I’ve made some wonderful friends, and even influenced a few others to lay down their hard earned on an MX-5 of their own. My big brother now has two of them, I have two cousins with one each, and two other mates who’ve done the same.
I’d recommend an MX-5 to anyone who enjoys driving. It’s what this car was made for.
Images by Lisa Burge and John Poletti