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Fleet Update: 1991 Mazda MX-5 Miata BRG – “The Placeholder”

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The first car my wife and I bought together with co-mingled funds was a 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It was September, 1996,  just weeks before we were to be married, and had enough equity in her trade-in Honda Accord to make the monthly payments palatable. It was a great little car, and everything I’d heard about it was true: handled like it was on rails, shifted positively and quickly, and had adequate power for the kind of back roads driving that I loved – in my case about 10 miles of up and down twisty-turny byways between our first apartment and my parents’ house in Northern Virginia.

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That black on black 1.8 liter went on to be our wedding car and we both angled for the keys when we weren’t riding together. It was neither her car nor my car – it was our car. And it was a party on wheels.  Unfortunately, what it offered in driving pleasure it utterly lacked in practicality. These being the days before we had either the space or the means for multiple cars, coupled with fairly frequent visits from friends and family from up north to our new home just outside the nation’s Capitol, reality ultimately set in and after about 18 months ownership we decided it was time to sell it and get something that at least had a back seat. Happenstance being what it is, my mother-in-law, who was reared as sibling to a bona-fide car nut and spent her college days in a ’62 Corvette (just for example), was at a point in her life where a convertible as a fair weather car was just what she wanted. Cash was exchanged and the car went to live in a carpeted garage in southeastern Connecticut. But we’ll come back to that later.

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I’d been a Miata fan from the time they were first introduced in 1989 for the 1990 model year. At the time I was a graduating high school senior and my everyday car was a 1977 Alfa Romeo Spider – in Verde Ingles (which is Alfa for “British Racing Green) on tan interior. It was a rusty thing, but with the top down and the engine humming there was no greater joy in the world than puttering around North Stamford, Connecticut year round. New England winter? Fuhgeddaboudit! Windows up, heater blowing,  gloves on, and top down it was just as good as a spring day. Although my ears did get mighty cold.. But I digress. The Miata was the first attempt anyone had made to build a proper old school rear wheel drive, two seat, reasonably priced roadster using the concepts from the classics like the Alfa, Lotus Elan, Triumph Spitfire, MGB, Fiat 124, and so on but with modern chassis design, materials and powertrain. I was kind of disappointed when my Dad and I went to look at one as a potential replacement for his company car, but he ultimately decided that he wasn’t quite ready to give up having a station wagon. Besides, we *did* still have the Alfa..  For a bit.

BRG adPerformance-wise, while no drag race king, the original Miata’s 1.6 liter inline-4 put out 115 horsepower and could propel the car from 0-60mph in just 8.6 seconds. That compared to about 11 seconds in my Alfa, for reference, so for me it was downright sprightly. Early Miatas were available only in Classic Red (of course), Crystal White, and Mariner (Smurf) Blue. After a bit they rolled-out Silverstone as well. Frankly, if you like Miatas they look good in any of these colors, so long as they’re not trashed. Still, it wasn’t until the first special edition Miata that I really fell head over heels. Here was this great little brand new sports car in what to me was the best possible combination: British Racing Green over Camel leather.  The fact that they limited production to just 4,000 units made me want it that much more!  It was like the best of my Alfa, without being a rusty, mildly temperamental, and utterly worn-out old car. Sure, Alfa still sold Spiders through 1994, but technologically they were right out of the 1960s. Great if that’s what you’re looking for – and I still love Alfas – but Miatas can frankly drive circles around them in terms of tossability, performance, and reliability. Cue the hatred of the Alfisti – but you guys know it’s true.

So although it took me a few years from when I first saw and drove a Miata (1989, Mount Kisco, NY, Mariner Blue/Black) and when I first fell in love with one (1991, BRG SE) until I got one of my own (1996, Fairfax, VA, 1994 Black/Black A-package), I finally got my Miata – even if just for a while. On the plus side, the deal with my in-laws was a pretty good one: I could drive it any time I was visiting, and if they ever wanted to sell it we would have first right of refusal. After all, it WAS our wedding car…

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As the years went by and my car fetish went from hobby to money-earning pseudo-career, I started buying and selling cars pretty regularly. As a regular writer for Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, you can imagine that it was far easier to justify buying and selling Mercedes more than, well, just about anything else. Still, I’d venture down the occasional nostalgic rabbit hole from time to time, and found myself in another green Alfa for a spell, had a few BMWs, and played with a handful of cars, but I didn’t get up to Connecticut as much as life took over, so didn’t get much of my Miata fix in as the years moved along. Finally, in 2008 I convinced my wife that we should just get a beater Miata – a solid car with some miles on it – to have as a fourth car and play with during the nice months. I probably persisted and she relented, and I brought home this red on black 1990. It had about 140,000 miles on it, and I paid $2,800 for it. All the fun was still as I remembered, but it had this smell of cigarettes and death that I just could not exorcise, so it didn’t stay more than a few months. 

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It wasn’t until four years later, in 2011, that the bug bit me again. This time it was quite by accident: I was doing my normal perusal of online classifieds – in this case CraigsList-  and just happened on this very clean, one owner Miata with about 60,000 miles and a remarkably reasonable $3,800 asking price. Thinking something must be wrong with it, I packed my 10 year-old daughter in the car and went to check it out. It was a case of first-come, first-served and I lucked into what was as close to a new Miata as I’d seen in a long time. That one I played with for several months, and ultimately sold just because my eyes wandered on to the next shiny toy. Yay short attention span!! Still, because I’d bought it so well, I made a hefty profit on that one, selling it for a then-remarkable $6K.

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And then a few more years went by. Then, in yet another bout of online daydreaming in early 2016 (probably not long after the F40 photo above was taken), I happened on a 1991 BRG Miata for sale in Nebraska. It was cheap at just $4,500, and had some needs like paint, tires, and general sorting, but it reminded me how much I really liked the BRG. Sure, it was no longer a new, advanced sportscar but rather was officially 25 years old that year – designating it a classic by most guides. Still, it offered the car I’d always wanted and had some things for me to play with to get it up to snuff. Add about a thousand dollars for shipping, and it was here, and it was mine. 

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So I had the paint and convertible top done and bought new Chaparral minilite-style wheels for it. I drove it for a few months (read: spring and early summer) but sadly it had a couple of issues I just didn’t have the energy to tend to.  So even though it was the Miata I’d wanted for literally 25 years, I decided to cut bait on it.  Old cars and a wandering eye can be a toxic cocktail.

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Fast-forward a few more years to 2019, and I had the chance to go with motoring journalist friend and overall bad influence Dan Trent to California on a writing/shooting trip that would include some Mercedes content for me and some Porsche content for him – but he also had the assignment to cover the 30th anniversary of the Miata. We spent a good day tooling around the hills east of Orange County in the original Mariner Blue Miata from the 1989 car show circuit, and I was again reminded how much fun a Miata really is. It didn’t hurt that we also got to see the special Miatas that Mazda keeps safely tucked away in their Irvine basement – cars like the M Coupe, Speedster, and the Club Miata. Want to get into Miatas? Just spend a few hours with the guys that manage this collection and the guys who still work on the MX-5 team. Their enthusiasm is contagious like you wouldn’t believe. And for good reason, because they really are great little cars, if you like that sort of thing. At heart I very much do – it was the way I was raised!

Around the same time, in the background, our black Miata came back into the picture. Through a series of unfortunate events, the engine ran dry and seized. My mother-in-law, with two other vehicles, told us that the car was ours again if we wanted it. In need of an engine and in Connecticut, a family friend with a restoration shop towed it there and asked us what we wanted to do with it. I asked him point blank, not having really examined it upclose in a few years, whether it was worth sourcing a new engine for it (to the tune of about $2,500 installed) or we should junk it. His response was that the car is definitely worth it, condition-wise, but that being a one-man shop with a backlog of work it would be some time before he’d be able to get to it. I found a replacement 1.8 liter (being a 1994) with a warranty and just 55,000 miles on it and had it shipped to him. And the COVID, coupled with some health issues of his own, put the project on seemingly indefinite hold. Sure, we could have had it pulled-out towed here or someplace else up there, but trying to manage or pay for that mess remotely in the midst of a pandemic (even prior to it) was daunting to say the least, so I uttered the words you should never say to a repair shop: “Whenever you can get to it is fine. We’re in no hurry.”

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Meanwhile, perusing classified ads for cars that interest me or can serve as fodder for this blog is one of my regular pastimes, and on a recent scan of Facebook Marketplace I came across this little gem. Yes, folks, it’s another 1991 BRG Miata and yes, it needs a little love. Paint is just OK, interior is a little faded, but mechanically it’s been looked after and it seems like a happy car. Besides, not knowing when (or IF?) we’ll ever get the Black 1994 back, I thought that maybe another Miata – just like this one – could serve as a “placeholder” in the garage. You know, until the Black car is done. Meanwhile, there are some upgrades (like wheels) that I may want to put on this car for now but switch over to the Black car later. Unfortunately, since the BRG is a 1991 (NA6) and the Black car is a 1994 (NA8), a lot  – mainly mechanical – doesn’t translate. No matter: I am looking forward to sorting the BRG and getting it to a place where I AND the next owner can enjoy it for years to come. Let me know if you’d like a spot on the waiting list…!

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One thought on “Fleet Update: 1991 Mazda MX-5 Miata BRG – “The Placeholder” Leave a comment

  1. Hello Reed, Great article. I owned a red 90 w/ hardtop back in 95. It was my dream car, especially since my love for mall British and Italian sport cars were always on my radar. Though it got to point were being 6 ft 3 made it hard to hang on to it, plus the New England winters made things difficult as you mentioned I also got tired of keeping fwd winter crashers running during the off season , so I sold it to my Dad in 98 with the agreement he would hang on to it until I was ready; house, garage, and financially stability. Any way a few years passed and he sold it ahead of schedule. Pressure from his wife! So I am currently waiting on a fixer upper I got running for a patron of the Library my wife works at. It sat for 10 plus years in her garage.I plan on doing few interior mods to it, to make it make comfortable for my long legs
    To make a long story a bit shorter, I too always had an affinity for the BRG. If it’s available someday, and in my budget, give me a shout. Thanks Toddd

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