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Project Miata: New Year, New Garage, New Challenges and Opportunities

Bryce Womeldurf January 7, 2016 All Things Hoon, Project Cars 30 Comments

Miata in the new garage

Do you ever miss an old friend who you haven’t spoken to in a long time? That’s how I’ve felt about my Miata for the past two months. Every time I drive that car, my hands have a wonderful chat with the steering wheel and shifter. I can’t help but smile as pedal meets floor. For weeks, we had a blast together flying across the Howard Frankland Bridge to St Petersburg, Florida, for Monday night classes; but then one night, my old friend developed a cough. 

Coming home, the car was accelerating all right, but when we’d come to a stop the engine would choke and struggle to maintain a steady idle. The unsteady surging idle had been a problem for months, but never to this extent. I had to rev the engine to keep it running on the way home, confusing a BMW driver who thought I wanted to race. The Miata and I limped home to Tampa, where the car would mostly stay parked for the time being.

Miata driving into the sunset

With previous cars I’ve owned, I used to love it when something would break. It would seem like a great opportunity to upgrade something. “For just a little bit more, I could get a part that adjusts” was the logic that followed. Okay, to be honest, that still the case but only when things can be fixed right away. For now, I’ve had to wait. Before we get into that, I’ll catch you up on what’s been going on for the past eight months.

Hoses: All of Them

Miata up on jackstands

It all started back in May, when The Miata had been having a regular condition since shortly after the head gasket change in 2013. I could have fun driving it hard and fast for a good half hour or perhaps 45 minutes at a time, and then I’d either need to keep moving without getting stuck at a long red light or I’d have to stop somewhere and let the car cool down. If I didn’t, the temperature gauge would start to creep past the 12:00 position, closer to 12:30. That’s the last thing you want to see, well… ever, but especially after you’ve changed a head gasket. So for a long time, I just drove it that way, working around the problem, because most everywhere I drove was within half an hour’s drive.

Streaming 24 Hours of Lemans
I was working on switching out the trim on the weekend of LeMans 24, so I streamed it while I worked.

After saying forever on here that I’d change the hoses, then ordering them and driving around with them in the trunk for months, I resolved to finally change the old coolant hoses out, all of them. Why stop with just the easiest ones to get to? Those will never fail. It’s always the one that’s hard to get to, that you don’t see, that causes a problem. The kit I ordered had all new OEM Mazda hoses, for the sake of maximum longevity, so it only made sense to switch them all out for peace of mind. I’d never done this type of work before, so the work was clumsy and slow going. As with most things in this project, what probably could have been knocked out in an afternoon by more experienced hands took two weekends, but better to be slow and safe than to risk another overheat, being in a hurry with reassembly.

Coolant and hoses being changed
(Left) These are known by Miata enthusiasts as the “devil hoses” because of how hard they are to get to. (Right) I was relieved to see nothing but a pure green tint to both the coolant coming out and in the edges of the drips from this leak, since it was about to be fixed. When the previous head gasket blew, this all looked like a dirty milkshake. Not fun times.

After previously changing the leaky and difficult to reach cam seals, a slow and small leak seemed to continue. It wasn’t until this hose change that I was relieved to find that it was a slow coolant leak; all of my work to make this car leak-free was not in vain. Sure enough, when I got a closer look at the drip, it was green. What a relief! Not only that, but the coolant thankfully came out clean with no oil floating on its surface. The leak, which had eluded me for the past two years, was hiding below the air box. The last two small hoses behind the oil filter would prove to be the most challenging to get to, as the filter had to be removed to get to them while the garage was already a huge mess. I managed to change all of the hoses out and only stabbed myself once, providing the shade tree mechanic gods their mandatory blood sacrifice.

For the first time since I bought the car in 2013, I could drive and drive and drive some more without worrying about overheating. Nearly the entire cooling system is now just 2 years old or less. My right foot was on fire the first day out as I discovered the thin heat insulation in the floor really becomes noticeable after an hour of the header baking away under there.

A Trip to the Salvage Yard

For the following weeks, I was back to driving the Miata at every chance I could get.  One day, I got a feeling, almost like Spiderman’s “spidey sense,” that a Miata was in the junkyard. This is a pretty rare occasion, as they usually get picked clean very quickly around here, so they’re pretty few and far between. I searched the local LKQ and oddly enough, one had just arrived that week. In that one trip, for just $24, I was able to salvage the driver’s side door seal (which had been damaged on my car since I bought it), newer, non-rusty and better cared-for belt line door trim (the black pieces below the side windows), a striker plate, windshield washers from a Mazda Tribute (a popular upgrade due to the better spray pattern), and a functioning front turn signal socket! From the dealership, all of that new would have cost me over $200.

1997 Miata in the salvage yard
Sad to see a ’97 go out this way, but I scored some great deals on trim that would have otherwise been pretty expensive to buy from a dealership. 

Since then, I’ve gone ahead and changed the striker plate (a hook that the top latches to), and both of the door belt line trim pieces, and went ahead and lubed the window mechanisms while I had them out. The windshield washers sit, waiting to be painted black, since they’re currently silver, and I still have not gotten around to reassembling the passenger side mirror that fell to pieces in my hand about a year ago. But I keep working away at things when I have time.

GarageStar Delrin Door Bushings

GarageStar Delrin door bushings

In September, my wife bought me a new upgrade, the Delrin door bushings, from Garage Star. These little rectangles don’t look like much, but they’ve helped quiet down the noise, vibration, and harshness, and stiffened the car up, improving the immediacy of the car’s handling. You don’t really notice how noisy an old Miata is when you drive it most days until it’s suddenly quieter. It’s really made the car more comfortable to drive. If you don’t know what these are, they basically wedge between each door and the body of the car.

The factory pieces have some play in them that these do not, keeping everything tight and together. The only tricky part that I have experienced with them is that the fit of them is a little bit individual to each car. The passenger side on my car fit perfectly. The door doesn’t seem to require any additional force to close it. The driver’s side, however, requires a little bit more of a slam than usual. I’ve been slowly sanding away at the back of the bushing, when I have time, to improve the fitment, and it’s gotten better and better. Though, honestly, for the price, this is just nit picking. This has been a great upgrade for very little money. I recommend it to anyone with an old NA sitting around. Cheap, easy to install, and immediately rewarding.

The New Garage!

The new garage
Oh, the possibilities…

By the time I’d repainted and replaced the belt line trim and the door seal, the fall semester had started; a semester that would prove incredibly stressful. Over the summer break, my wife and I had been looking at houses, trying to buy our first home.  We looked through many homes in our area. It’s a long developed area, so the prices for homes were a little too high. Eventually we began to look further away, further across town or in adjacent towns. The weeks ticked by, and it seemed like we might either end up in a place with no garage, or just giving up and renting a cheap apartment. A post by my friend Patrick Frawley kept coming to mind where he said “If you have a garage, you have space for things and processes. You have a place defined by activities and creations that can’t really be done or kept in other places.”

I’d previously shrugged it off and thought that if I didn’t continue to have access to a garage, I could get away with just sneakily working on my cars in an apartment parking lot when no one was looking, but as the weeks went on, doubt began to creep into my mind about that. Would it really be safe working on things in a parking lot? Would I get hassled about it by apartment officials? Would the Miata get broken into, or worse, stolen, sitting outside all of the time? Granted, it’s all a first world problem, not really mattering much in the grand scheme of things, but I realized that if a good house with a garage could not be found, it could be the end of my Miata project for the foreseeable future. That thought honestly made me sad.

It’s going to take some time to organize this, but it should be fun.

After all of this hard work, my wife and I decided that we would not let that happen. Well, I’m still writing about this, so you know something good must have come of it. At the end of September, a month into the semester, we closed on a house with an allegedly “two car” garage. It’s going to take some creative storage solutions to fit both of our cars in there, but I’m willing to make it work… once I sort through all of my tools that are scattered everywhere from the move. Everything will have its place, eventually.

Then the Cat Clogged…

The rest of the semester was filled with hard work making up lost time to moving with lots of anxiety, very little sleep, and terrible fast food, but every day when I went home, it was all worth it. And that’s where we return to the Miata’s current situation. After that night of the Miata choking, it sat in the garage for most of the past two months as we moved house and I slowly researched the symptoms.

At first, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had thought that the idle speed control valve might be faulty or dirty, or perhaps the intake itself had become dirty or developed a vacuum leak. I tried superficially cleaning it out with some intake cleaner spray but that only seemed to make things run the same or mildly worse. Later, on a night a few weeks back while I was driving the car on a short trip to the grocery to keep the battery from going kaput, I realized that for all of the noise that the car was making while accelerating, it was having a harder time getting up to just 4000rpm. Plus there was no power when it eventually got there. That’s typically where early Miatas make most of the little power that they have. With some additional research from those symptoms, I think I’ve finally found the problem, a bad catalytic converter. Two years ago, I had to drive the car with a bad oxygen sensor and it just makes sense that all of that extra fuel running through the exhaust would eventually kill the cat.  Weekly driving at high engine speed over the bridge likely just pushed it past the breaking point. So now I know the problem, I’m just saving up for a new catalytic converter. The holidays and typical new home problems have made that take a little longer than usual, but it’ll be back on the road very soon.

Sunset in the rearview mirror

So, with 2015 in the rearview, I’m excited for what 2016 will bring. This year, I’m hoping to finally get out to an autocross course, get some professional driver training, fix the AC, and refresh the brakes, maybe even the shocks if the funds are available. With time, this project will be updated more often as I’ll soon be starting my last semester in grad school. I can’t wait to get back on the road and to share more of this project as it continues.



  • dukeisduke

    Oh man, I so want an early Miata. Someday.

    • The NA is relatively cheap to get into right now. The only downside is that they’re getting old enough now to need about a grand in maintenance right off the bat if they’re still on their original timing belt, seals, and radiator. As long as you keep good coolant and oil in them, they’ll run forever. NB is probably the best bargain right now. We’re still probably a few years away from big maintenance costs on most of those.

      • crank_case

        Don’t forget new sills and and other corrosion related repairs if you live anywhere where it rains every so often. NBs too unfortunately.

        I reckon a good NB with the 1.8, six speed box, Torsen LSD and some bracing (as close to JDM RS spec as you can get it) is probably a better car than any stock NA, but that’s the beauty of these two generations, mix and match.

        • It rains pretty constantly here, but with no salt on the roads, rust is less of an issue. My car does have a few spots that need to be touched up eventually, but they haven’t grown at all from what I can tell and they’re mostly out of sight most of the time. It’s old damage from previous owners not knowing to clean out the front drains and a spot in the trunk from what was likely a leaky rain rail in the past. I still bought it though, because of the 1.8, reasonable miles, and straight body. The 1.8 was what I was really after, but they seemed harder to come by at the time, so it required some time to find one within my budget that wasn’t a wreck.

    • stigshift

      Yes. You do.

  • stigshift

    My 90 has hit everything but the lottery. It has 210K on it. It has dents, a wooky passenger headlight motor, misiing instrument panel hood, no drivers window, and nearly no top. I got caught in the rain coming home from Largo to Dunedin yesterday. With the top down. It was a great drive anyway. If I won the Lotto, I’d still keep it. It owns my heart and soul. Most enjoyable car I’ve ever had.

    • That’s the best way to have a Miata. Don’t have to worry about where you park or people bumping into your doors. Dunedin, FL? It sounds like you’re pretty close by.

      • stigshift

        Yep. That Dunedin.

        • Nice, my in laws are just north of there. I’m over in New Tampa now, but I visit Palm Harbor and Dunedin Causeway pretty frequently.

          • stigshift

            Just sent you a Fb request. When you see John Wayne wearing a Devo energy dome, that’d be me…

  • discontinuuity

    This makes me think that maybe my Miata has a bad catalytic converter. It feels down on power and it’s getting terrible mileage. I’m planning to turbocharge it this year, so I’ll likely add a high-flow cat.

    • It could be. Is it throwing any check engine codes? The mileage has me thinking bad oxygen sensor, but it would throw a code if that’s the case.

      • discontinuuity

        It’s a ’95 with the OBD1.5 connector, so I’m not really sure of any engine codes. I haven’t tried with a code reader or the blinking LED method. The “check engine” light hasn’t lit up. The PO claimed to have replaced the O2 sensor about 20,000 miles ago, but I have no records of this.

        So far I’ve tried replacing the coolant temp sensor (mild improvement in power and economy) and the throttle position sensor (much better throttle response). Next up is cleaning the idle air valve, since it currently idles at 2,000 rpm.

        I also suspect that the timing belt has slipped a tooth, since the valve cover gasket is leaking oil all over, probably onto the timing belt too. That might account for the bad compression (about 145 psi across all cylinders, not much better with oil).

        Mostly, this car has been a huge headache. I’m almost sorry I bought it.

        • If it’s a ’95, you can read codes with just a simple paperclip. I’ve run across that LED method as well, but the paper clip is easier. You can read about it here: http://www.miata.net/garage/faultcodes.html My car is a ’95 as well and that’s how I’ve diagnosed things along the way. If there are no check engine lights coming on, they probably did change the oxygen sensor. Though if it was driven around enough when the sensor was bad, you could be right, it could have clogged the cat. I think that’s my current situation. It sounds like you’re dealing with similar symptoms of what I was. If cleaning out the idle air valve doesn’t help your idle situation, you may want to see if a local fellow Miata owner with a good running Miata could let you borrow their valve to see if it’s bad. Rough idle could also be a dirty intake, but that high idle would make me want to check out the valve first. If it is a bad valve, you can find a used one for less that $100 online. I’m sorry you’re having difficulty with the car, but at least there is very large troubleshooting knowledge base out there for it. I’ve had some trouble myself. Already blew the head gasket just bringing it home, so it immediately became a much more expensive project. But it’s been great to learn from.

          • discontinuuity

            Thanks for the info. I might try to take out the idle valve and clean it up this weekend.

            I’m also thinking that the car was running rich for a long time since I had a bad water temp sensor, which could’ve clogged up the cat.

  • JBsC6

    In May of 2015 I bought a mint 60k mile black miata to serve as my winter vehicle….it was fun for the summer but as fall approached I came to my senses and sold the little sports car for 50perent more than I paid for it and wished it well. First guy who came to see it bought it and I don’t miss it at all.

    21 years as a unit body convertible…even with the flyin miata butterfly and frame braces and the Delren door bushings …the weak structur….just made annoyed as I drove it in the fall with the roof on…the car was flat out all the time just keeping up with traffic and I just lost interest,…

    I did put four those and miles on it in four months so that’s made me smile…

    I use my sports cars or I dump them…

    I don’t go for the garage queen dealeo….did that once many years ago and all I did was give a guy a brand new sports car that was four years old for half of what I paid for it…

    I thought that was stupid…so now I just use a dedicated set of snow tires and rims…

    Your in florida? So what’s your excuse?

    • 21 years as a unitbody convertible? That’s nothin’ 😀


      She’s a very flexible flyer, even compared to the floppiest of Miatas, but it’s a different kind of summer fun. Someday I’ll get the moderately rusty rockers patched up and that’ll improve things a bit.

  • JBsC6

    Your projects cool….enjoy…sorry for the previous post of negativity,,,

    Happy new year and a beautiful car. Thanks for sharing…

    • No worries. It’s not really a garage queen by any means. I just don’t want to have to deal with things like theft and I want to have a place to work on it. Plus, if it’s kept in the garage, I can leave the top down pretty much all the time. The top isn’t in the best condition, but since it’s in the garage, I don’t have to worry about leaks.

  • Alff

    Two words… cat delete. Not that I’D ever do such a thing.

    • bigredcavetroll

      It’s, er, a “test pipe…” You know, to TEST how it runs without a catalytic converter… Yeah…

    • It’s been very tempting lately.

      • a friend of mine that maintains a truck fleet will take them off and jamb a broom stick inside to clear the plugged honeycomb and reinstall. better flow so better power, and cheap. just sayin

        • The tricky part there is that many places that sell catalytic converters charge a core charge, and if you hollow out the cat, it isn’t worth anything. I can’t lie though, if it were going to be a really long time, I’d probably consider this.

      • wunno sev

        i’ve got no cat on my volvo.

        not recommended. parking in the garage means the whole house will smell like your car. i need to get some repairs done on the exhaust, and when i do i’m thinking maybe getting it reacquainted with emissions controls may be a good thing to do.

    • None of my vehicles have ever motivated me in this way.

      • Alff

        It’s fairly remarkable that they’ve motivated you at all.

        • Sometimes finding that motivation has come down to really pushing it.

          • Texlenin

            “Hey, Uncle Owen, this Highway HPV has a bad motivator! Look!….”

  • I had forgotten to link this in the article, but the Patrick Frawley piece I mentioned can be read at http://statesofmotion.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-room-of-ones-own.html