Faith restored

WHAT 30TH GIFT DO YOU GIVE THE CAR THAT HAS EVERYTHING? HOW ABOUT BEING BORN AGAIN?

DANIEL GARDNER

LIVING TO THE age of 30 is a fairly simple process. First you need to be born without any major underlying genetic defects, avoid BASE jumping as a pastime and look up from your phone when you cross the road. But it’s not such an easy ride in car years.

For a single nameplate to maintain largely unfaltering sales in virtually every corner of the planet for more than three decades requires something Herculean. That’s why turning up to your cousin’s 30th with a bottle of something fizzy and a hug is fine, but doing the equivalent for the world’s favourite sportscar is not.

Over its four generations, the Mazda MX-5 has had more special editions than Tim Tams, including one to celebrate its 10th anniversary and another when it turned 20. True to form, the Japanese car maker has rolled out another – the cryptically named 30th Anniversary Edition. And, at its Hiroshima HQ, Mazda has been quietly working on something a bit more special – possibly the best present you could ever give someone who is feeling their age – rejuvenation.

In 2017, Mazda began putting the word out to Japanese owners of original NA MX-5s that if they fulfil certain stringent criteria, it would give a handful the chance to have their cars restored to as-new condition. Think of it as Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, without the fat kid, and the Wonka Bars cost more than a new MX-5. That is the Mazda Clinic.

An initial pool of 1000 online applicants was whittled down to 44 eligible candidates. For now, the restoration is only for NA6 models (the very first examples, characterised by their 1.6-litre engine). No special editions are accepted, due to unavailable parts, while any crash-repaired or modified cars are ineligible. To create perfection, Mazda wants to start with something close to it.

Successful applicants are then invited to choose from ‘the menu’, or the extent to which their car will be restored. The ‘basic’ option is the most affordable at Ą2.5m (about $31,000), which will return the entire exterior, including panels, paint, light fittings and soft top, to better than new. Beyond that, customers are offered optional modules to include other key areas (see separate full menu), but if every box is checked the full works will set you back approximately $61,000 – almost double the cost of an entry-level ND. Why would anyone spend more than the most expensive current-gen MX-5 RF on a 30-year-old original? Because you can’t put a price on perfection.

After handing over your NA6, the team of 15 technicians and managers sets about the transformation. Before a single nut is loosened, the army pores over the car, taking hundreds of measurements and recording them. Those measurements are presented to the customer as part of the beautifully bound handover documents and proof that their car is, indeed, perfect.

Resurrection perfection

No fewer than 160 discontinued and out-of-stock parts have been put back into production to make the MX-5 Clinic possible. The original wheel manufacturer constructed new moulds to produce a lighter, better-quality wheel that looks like the OE item. The same roof manufacturer supplies the new tops, now made using more environmentally friendly materials, while Bridgestone has fired up its machines to reproduce the SF-235 tyre. It is visually perfect, but the identical tread pattern hides improved construction with a more consistently performing compound. Everything old is new again...

When it is time to start stripping the car back to a bare shell, every fixing and clip is removed by hand, without power tools – brute force might damage components that will be reused. Although there are few of those. Opt for the full resto package and more than 70 percent of your car will be new when it’s returned. The exact list of inclusions (and exclusions, for that matter) is down to the owner, however.

It’s hard to imagine a sentimental attachment to an aftermarket soft top, but that’s exactly why one customer is not having a new roof fitted as part of an otherwise complete renovation.

The transformation is not rushed and the workshop resembles a small, privately owned garage as the techs go about their business on a single hoist – only one car is restored at a time – and the process takes a clearly very care-filled two months. Everything happens under the same roof, albeit in different parts of the factory, but the main reassembly is in this one very special shrine to the first model.

When it’s time for final inspection, none other than Mazda product division ambassador, and MX-5 program manager, Nobuhiro Yamamoto, has the final say. Except for today, when get behind the wheel. On hand are the first two cars Mazda restored, which now reside in its museum. Piloting an effectively new NA on the company’s test track reveals two startling facts. Firstly, the work that has been completed is utterly flawless and can’t imagine how the original could have been so perfect, but if it was, a second realisation dawns. In the light of modern sportscars 30 years younger and with its ND great-grandchild watching on, the original is still a resoundingly excellent car to drive. Nimble and supple but reassuringly stable at speed. Solid, surprisingly swift and a bantam-weight delight.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but if they’ve somehow been injected with the equivalent of stem cells, or they seem to have been brought back to the future by Marty McFly, there’s absolutely nothing to be feared.

While we browse the brace of new/old MX-5s, Yamamoto tells us the company will soon be inviting owners of later NA8 (1.8-litre) MX-5s to join in, but his response to whether the program will expand to other countries or the equally iconic RX-7 is tantalising.

“Mazda will be sure to meet the expectations of customers, so we want customers to weigh in with high expectations,” he says. That, if you ask me, is a call to action.

DANIEL GARDNER

The work that has been completed is utterly flawless. I can’t imagine how the original could have been so perfect