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.
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
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.
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.
(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.
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
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!
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.
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.