Before I get started on this, I should probably preface my ownership of this car with a bit of a disclaimer: This car was never meant to be a Speedhunters project car, and it isn’t a particularly nice example, either.
If you want to see an incredibly clean, complete, and well thought-out project have a look at Paddy’s Project GTI. If you want to see a proper Japanese performance car that’s sees the track and has been modified with great care and a plethora of fantastic JDM parts, head to Blake’s Project NSX.
On the other hand, if you want to see a sub-$5,000 project that pretty much anyone could get their hands on, look no further.
The story of this 10AE starts a few years back when I was heavily involved in shooting track days and started to get an itch to pick up a track car of my own. The idea was to buy something cheap that wouldn’t ruin my life if I binned it, but something that was fun and educational at the same time. I didn’t need to be fast, but if it felt fast that would be a plus.
Well, you know what they say: Miata is always the answer. The only question was ‘which one’, so the research began.
Budget ultimately constrained me to one of the first three models: the NA, the NB, or the NC. Seeing as how the NC is widely regarded as a boat (despite secretly being superior in several ways) as well as more expensive, this left me with either an NA or NB as the ideal choice.
While pop-up headlights are a good time, the rear of the NA never sat right with me anyway, and after advice from several friends who’ve owned a handful of Miatas I set out on a search for an NB. Ideally I’d find one with a hard top — actually this item was more of a requirement — as well as a limited-slip differential.
Eventually, a near-perfect car with a few apparent cosmetic defects — and many more unapparent defects — came along. It was a ’99 10th Anniversary Edition, so it had come from the factory with a 6-speed manual gearbox, LSD, Bilstein shocks, ABS, and a few other goodies. The seller was initially asking an outrageous price for the car, but after a bit of chit-chat he begrudgingly sold it for a relatively fair amount.
I have to say, the worst part of the car was the choice of wheels: 16-inch Sparco Assetto Garas, which had been Plasti Dip’d black. It was a worst-case scenario as some of the coating was peeling, revealing the wheels’ original bright green paint in places. They just looked awful. Honestly, if buying this car with no wheels was an option, I would have.
There were tons of other little odds and ends, like the questionable headlight reinstall and radiator support repair — both of which I assume were casualties in the damage that earned the car its salvage title — that would eventually need to be addressed as well. But as-is, it was an incredibly fun little car on the backroads and I finally owned a decent driver’s car again.
40mph never felt so fast…
Initially I just did some routine maintenance and made Miata friends like Andres, pictured here cleaning his far nicer NA. But after a couple of track days, I rebuilt the shifter using the 5X Racing bronze bushing – which I highly recommend by the way – and set out to shove my large Western-style body into a small Eastern-style seat. The main issue was, and still is, that despite not being that tall, my torso is approximately the same length someone who is 7-feet tall.
Having access to CAD software at school and a friend’s CNC plasma cutter and gargantuan press, I decided to mock up some side mounts which might get me on the floor. The initial idea was to release a small run of these, but ultimately the design would need to be broken up into multiple pieces and welded, so I abandoned this plan as there are plenty of decent options on the market that would get you nearly as low.
Still, my mock-up went well and I was ultimately able to get my seating position a good inch or two lower than what you see in this photo. So, I had a set made for myself which just barely served to tuck my helmet under the roll bar if I removed the seat cushions. A relative success.
Boom Boom Baby
I tracked the car some more, graduated from school, and accepted a job offer in Fremont. Much to the chagrin of my landlord, I moved the Miata into our backyard and final prep for a track day at Buttonwillow Raceway commenced. Do you like my buttons for nitrous?
I don’t have any photos from that track day, but you’ll realize that shortly after I picked up another car.
A parts car, to be exact, as apparently these BP engines do better when there’s oil in them. I actually found a lot of said oil later, caked to the bell-housing.
At any rate, my good friend AJ Curutchet came in clutch and we swapped the 87,000-mile engine from the frame-damaged parts car into my 10AE.
While we were in there I opted for a new OEM-spec clutch, but upgraded the flywheel to a lightweight unit. I also moved over the silicone hoses from my original engine to the new one, and poached a couple of other parts from the donor car as well.
We made a mess of the shop we were in — which was sort of a mess when we started — but the job was done in one day, with a bit of tidying up left for me to do.
There was also the matter of the other chassis I’d picked up, and I called on my good friend AJ again many times during the part-out process. You can see him here after lending an experienced hand and posing like a proper trophy hunter with the open diff that went off to a local friend.
My shed in the back turned into a used parts store, and I actually ended up breaking even on the parts car (excluding all of the sushi and pizza AJ and I ate along the way), which meant that the engine and other upgrades only cost 4,000,000 hours of my time dealing with nutters on Craigslist and forums.
Anyway, I also salvaged some 15-inch Kosei wheels, a Borla muffler, and a Racing Beat intake from the parts car and installed them on mine. I should have figured out a way to run the Racing Beat kit — they make a special strut brace bracket that doesn’t interfere with the large cast unit — but I ended up trading it for a AEM Induction Systems setup.
Honestly, I was mostly concerned with intake sound than any power gains, but I did eventually want to build a little heat shield for the filter area. Actually, there were tons of little things I wanted to do, but life got in the way. Sara and I moved to the Santa Cruz area, and I never spent much time working on the car.
I did drive it often though, and I tore up the local mountain roads outside Santa Cruz with my friends as often as I could.
And, finally, the car was approaching some form of being visually acceptable, although it still needed a lot of love.
I also went back to Thunderhill West a couple more times and drove at Laguna Seca twice, where I ran the horrendous green wheels again since I still had them. Their 16-inch diameter proved to be a bit better on the main straight with the gearing in my 6-speed.
Fast forward a few months and I had just picked up a set of very old, original, and discontinued 5-spoke wheels which I wanted to restore. I was also getting ready to upgrade the brakes, get some coilovers, and tidy everything up. Then, life situations started changing very quickly when our landlords sold the house we were living in.
Sara and I decided to start fresh and move to Portland, Oregon and I settled on leaving the car behind as it was California smog compliant and didn’t want to deal with moving the car up North with us. Ultimately, I let it go to a guy in town who wanted to use it for his daily commute over Highway 17, the perfect road for this car.
I just wish I’d cleaned up and repainted those horrid green wheels, fixed the gaps in the headlights, and made time to upgrade a few other parts during my ownership. Months after the car has been in the new owner’s care, these things still bother me. At least I eventually got the interior on track and replaced those green wheels, but in retrospect I’m not sure why they lasted as long as they did.
Regardless, the 10AE served its main purpose. It was loads of fun for the few years I owned it and I learned quite a lot about driving the FR layout. This was good, especially as my only previous experience in this arena involved a ’66 Mustang coupe which was quite different and often tried to kill me. More importantly, the Miata taught me what I wanted in a car.
Now, all I own is that Mustang (which is still parked up in a friend’s backyard in California) and a reliable but very boring daily driver for me and Sara which will remain unnamed.
With this in mind, we’re all settled in up North in Portland now and I’m back on the hunt for another fun car. I do have a couple of basic requirements, though. Again, the FR layout is preferred and this time around I’d like to spend under $10,000 initially. For the right car I might break either rule, but we’ll see what happens…
There are some obvious answers in this space, some better than others. If you were in my shoes today, with the market as it is right now, what would you pick up around the $10K mark?
Let me know in the comments below.
Trevor Yale Ryan
The SH Garage on Speedhunters