Have Miata, Will Travel: A Cross-Country Mazda MX-5 Purchase
What was I thinking? I’d just flown across the country, and was about to meet a stranger in a strange town, to take delivery of a car I bought online… and then drive it home.
A few scenarios played through my head: I was about to fall victim to a kidnapping syndicate; the deal would go sour, and I’d have to leap over the bonnet into the bushes as Steve Buscemi opened fire; or the engine would implode halfway through the Karoo, and I’d hitch a ride back to Joburg in a tow truck.
It suddenly felt like a series of bad decisions had landed me here.
Just forty-eight hours earlier I was at a conference, browsing Autotrader during a lull in the morning session. I had finally convinced myself that a two seater would make the most practical commuter—not taking up much room on the road, while sipping fuel and reducing my carbon footprint.
My daily driver, a Land Rover Discovery V8, was impractically thirsty—and the repair bills were adding up. Besides, I deserved some more fun on the daily commute, didn’t I?
There were three cars on my shortlist: the Jeep TJ Wrangler, Mazda MX-5 and BMW Z4.
I parked the idea after a few bad experiences with car salesmen. There was the ‘mint’ Z4, with evidence that a gaggle of toddlers had tried to repair accident damage with wooden mallets and play dough. Then the ‘one careful driver’ TJ with trail rash, rough idle and dodgy wiring. And the ‘low miler’ MX-5—a treat to drive, but with a tatty brown roof, badly stained carpets and ‘Ms Kitty’ plates.
Then—while clicking through the now too familiar ads for the umpteenth time—a new one suddenly popped up: a 2006 MX-5, silver, tan leather, black roof. It was right on budget and looked great in the pictures—near perfect, except for the worn driver’s seat. I phoned right away and, after the usual Q and A, the seller sent me over twenty more photos of all the bits I wanted to see more of.
I was smitten. A slight glitch was that the car was a mere 1 200kms away, in George. But by the end of the day I’d finalised the deal, arranged insurance and booked a one way flight to the coast.
I landed in bright sunshine that Saturday morning, buzzing from too little sleep and too much coffee. As I walked out the airport building, the little Mazda pulled up to the kerb ahead of me. She was a beauty—freshly washed and waxed, sporting new tyres and gleaming paintwork; the classic roadster shape even more aggressive in the flesh.
Rudi (the seller) greeted me with a big smile. He could tell by my expression that I was over the moon. After a quick walk-around, he handed me the key fob and I threw my bag into the boot. Rudi insisted on keeping the hood up on the way into town. (With him at seven feet tall and built like a rugby forward—and me at six feet and made of mostly relaxed muscle—it would have been a comical sight otherwise.)
The drive from the airport back to the dealership was short, but thrilling. A satisfying growl from the two litre engine, and the notchy gear shift, made me think I was on the race track. Rudi showed me how the manual roof mechanism works (top down in ten seconds or less) and the fuel cap release between the seats, then left me alone while sorting out the paperwork.
After another coffee it was time to get going—thrilled at the prospect of having a convertible with a full tank, and the open road, all to myself. Driving out of picturesque George on a warm summer’s morning, in a new-to-me convertible, is a memory that will stay with me.
I pointed the nose north and, within minutes, I was in the mountains. The beautiful Outeniqua Pass was the perfect initiation into MX-5 ownership. I sped along the winding road through an amazing landscape, with the mist closing in and no other cars in sight.
The MX5 clung to the tarmac—the acceleration brisk—with cool misty air whipping at my shirt. I’m sure I was smiling daftly the entire time. After stopping for some photos and a quick call home (to let my wife, Caron, know there was no need to raise ransom), I descended down the pass into the hot dry air of the Karoo.
The road was straight as far as I could see. Driving a convertible is an immersive experience. I could smell the freshly turned farmland and the scent of blossoms; I could hear the cicadas chirping in each roadside shrub and the birds singing above.
As the morning wore on and the temperature rose, I headed into the small village of Uniondale and drove down the main road looking for a Coke sign. Groups of children hooted and pointed at the Mazda, shouting and laughing as I passed.
The friendly reception was the same in Willowmore and Aberdeen. On the road, trucks would blow their horns as I passed, friendly waves would come from packed family sedans. A convertible has a certain element that everyone responds to—a shared joy.
By now I was getting properly sunburnt—my shirt was drenched and I was getting a headache. It was over thirty degrees, but I doggedly refused to raise the hood. After a few more kilometres common sense prevailed—the top went up in seconds and the air conditioning kicked in. Yet another impressive feature on this little sports car: air-con that actually works!
The open road was a pleasure—the steering wheel felt firm and familiar, the indicator stalk had a satisfying, taut click, and the seat was comfortable. Even the lack of cruise control didn’t bother me—the six speed ‘box meant I could cruise effortlessly all day. The odometer was ticking over, and my fears of catastrophic engine failure were now pretty much set aside.
Until I suddenly noticed the oil pressure gauge dropping rapidly. “Here we go,” I thought. The gauge would raise again, then drop rapidly. Mild panic set in.
In a cold sweat, I phoned Trevor: a petrolhead, more knowledgeable about these things than I am. “Doesn’t sound right,” he said. We pondered a few scenarios while he Googled for answers. Then the realisation hit: the needle rose on acceleration, and dropped when I depressed the clutch. Perfectly normal, according to Google.
The hot sun gave way to clouds, and I was soon able to drop the top again. The thrill had not worn off. Lathered in suntan lotion I sped along, singing along to the CD player (the 2006 MX-5 doesn’t have any new-fangled USB or Bluetooth features).
Rolling into Graaff Reinet—the ‘Gem of the Karoo’—I pulled up in front of Reinet House, a museum built in the 1800s, for a photo-op and leg-stretch. “Nice car,” said two policemen as they drove past. By now the sky was darkening and I was anxious to get going.
The storm hit just passed Nieu-Bethesda. I braved the first few drops, then pulled over to close the hood. The rain came down hard and fast. Relentless and violent, the downpour continued for a good half an hour. I searched for leaks in the roof and, again, I was surprised at how well this car was put together.
I felt confident in the car’s handling too. Plumes of spray from passing cars and trucks had little effect on my nerves. There was a certain magic to the sound of raindrops on the canvas roof.
By the time I passed Colesburg it was late afternoon. The frequent photo stops and heavy rain had slowed my progress, and I was properly knackered after a day in the sun. The thought of driving any further in the dark made me weary. At sunset I drove into Bloemfontein, and followed the GPS to the City Lodge, a hot shower and cool sheets.
The next morning I was up later than planned; the sunburn causing me to question my sanity two days in a row. I headed north—the skies were clearing and the roof came down again. The chill in the air was nothing a fleece jacket couldn’t sort.
The N1 had very little traffic on this Sunday morning, and cloud cover was better than blazing sun! With the roof down I heard the sound of swallows as they flitted in and out under bridges over the highway.
A few short hours later I saw the Joburg skyline—a little sad that my trip had come to an end. It had been impulsive, but I had enjoyed every moment. The MX5 had performed flawlessly—especially for a ten-year-old car.
After pulling into the driveway at home, mom and the boys came out to see. “It’s so small,” said the missus; “it’s cool,” said four-year old Jake; little one-year-old Luke jumped onto the front seat and wouldn’t let go of the wheel.
I’ve had the MX5 for ten months now and driven nearly 13 000kms. It’s my daily driver, and I’ve not had a moment’s hassle with it (aside from damaging two tyres after hitting a pothole). It’s built like a Swiss Army Knife—everything clicks into place. The doors close with that reassuring thud, the gear changes are deliberate and the boot lid feels solid. The roof is a feat of engineering.
Everything about this car impresses me.
More importantly, it looks good and it’s a lot of fun to drive. After a tough day at the office, I take a spirited drive home and my mood improves. I have the top down ninety percent of the time, straight through our recent mild winter. With a fleece and the seat warmer on, off I go—with a Donegal tweed cap to top it off.
It’s good for romantic drives with the wife, shooting to the shops with the boys and—when they’re older—adventures across the country.
I take the Land Rover out occasionally when the need arises—like trips to the hardware store or simply to head off road. I end up appreciating its purpose-built ruggedness more these days.
But the MX5 remains my favourite car. Possibly my favourite ever.