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Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 8:49 p.m.

Back in April, I posted about Miata #338 turning 30.

Happy birthday Miata 338

Short version: My dad bought it in 1999. He and Mom took it on a number of road trips, including traveling out to visit me in Colorado. After he passed away this spring, the plan was to put it up for sale.


I couldn't do it. I really don't need another Miata. I don't need another 1990 Miata. Heck, I don't even need another Canadian 1990 Miata. But as Janel pointed out, I can always decide to let it go later but I'll never get it back if I let it go now. 

The car is a driver-quality time capsule. It's not perfect - it had some history before Dad bought it, and has been repainted on a couple of panels. It had significant oil use at a pretty early age, leading to my rebuilding the engine back in 2002 or so. But it's been well cared-for over the last 20 years and it never fell into rat level. It's just been driven. 

Today, it's almost completely stock. It has a set of Koni shocks, some FM sway bars and some FM frame rails. A shock tower brace as well as a replacement radiator. But it's got a completely stock engine and exhaust. I think even the top might be original, it's certainly the one that was on the car when Dad got the car in 1999. It's on a set of stock wheels from my original 1990 - I accidentally gave away the 3/89 production non-Enkei wheels this spring when I was cleaning out a bunch of stuff, don't tell anyone. It's as close as you can get to driving an (almost) new 1990 Miata.

So the plan was hatched for a fly and drive. Three weeks ago, I drove to SLC to pick up our Tesla. Two weeks ago, I took the Tesla on an overnight road trip. Last week, I drove the big Dodge diesel to Monterey and back with a two-car trailer. So of course, the best thing to do this week is drive a 30 year sports car from Ottawa to Colorado. That's 2000 miles.

What could go wrong?

maj75 HalfDork
10/21/19 8:53 p.m.


a_florida_man Reader
10/21/19 8:55 p.m.

Sorry to hear of your father's passing.

Keeping it is the right thing to do for now.

Give it at least a year.



Great car, enjoy the trip.

pimpm3 UltraDork
10/21/19 9:03 p.m.

Sorry to hear about your dad.  Spend some time with your mom while you are up there.  Have a safe trip.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:11 p.m.

Warning, I've been by myself in the car for a few days so you might get a novel. 

The car's in pretty darn good shape. I've been driving it around Ottawa, reminding myself just why we all fell in love with these things. It hasn't been driven much the past few years, but it has been reliable. The only problem is a high idle behavior that's worst when the car is cold, then it settles down. Usually.

Mom wasn't in town when I had an open window to make the trip, so I essentially flew into town and stole her car. About 13 hours in Ottawa. I'm basically an optimist, so I raided the basement workshop for a basic Miata disassembly kit (metric wrenches, metric socket set, philips screwdriver), threw a few more things in the car and headed out.

Little guy looks pretty good. Dad always took good care of his cars, so the challenge will be for me to do as well.

I accidentally picked a wonderful time of year to drive through Ontario.

I was running with the top up, though. 1.6 Miatas are pretty hectic on the highway and I was planning on some long days, so I had the top up and earplugs in.

Canada road food.

The first day, I stopped off at a friend's house for lunch and managed to get all the way across Ontario and into Michigan. The border crossing was quick with no traffic at all - not always a given.

The second day was the I states. Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and, uhh, mIchigan. Not exciting. I made it to the far side of Omaha so I wouldn't have traffic to deal with. The little car was pounding along nicely although people do seem to like to tailgate it. I just slow down 5 mph and they decide to pass.

I did make one modification. The window winder on the driver's side was poking me in the knee when the window was up. I popped it off and reclocked it so the handle was out of my way. Otherwise, it was just drive and put in fuel and drive.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:19 p.m.

Thanks for the kind words about Dad, guys. It wasn't a surprise, we had a couple of years to get ready and my very understanding employer let me spend a lot of time up north. 

I decided to leave Omaha early in the morning so I could hit Denver before there was any chance of rush hour. I got to watch the sun come up in my rear view mirror.

But it was a little windy. 60 mph head/cross winds. The little Miata was moving around more than it should have, so I checked the tire pressures and found them all at 25 psi. Mazda says they should be at 26 psi cold, and I always ran at about 32 cold. So I put them up to 34 hor and that helped. 

I also found out that the driver's mirror was not a fan of 100+ mph airspeed and so it would auto-retract gradually. Couldn't do a lot about that.

Got to Denver around 1:30 and I was feeling good, so I decided to push on. There was a storm in the mountains and the traction law was in effect, which means that you have to have M+S or snow tires or AWD or chains. The Tiger Claw tires did have a M+S sign on the side even if they did feel a little hard, and the traffic cameras on the route looked more wet than snowy so I decided to go for it.

First, I checked to make sure I had washer fluid. I'd forgotten how big the Canadian bottles were. And thanks for keeping everything topped up, Dad.

Not so bad.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:21 p.m.

Well, maybe a little bad.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:23 p.m.

And then, right at the top of Vail pass, we stopped. Vail is the second of two high passes I had to get over.

Ah poop. It must have just happened, and I got stopped about four car lengths past the off-ramp that would let me turn around.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:27 p.m.

So we sat for a little while. My biggest fear was that we'd get into a stop and go situation, and I'd get stopped on the last little piece of uphill.

The road opened after less than an hour and traffic started to creep forward smoothly. Lots of truckers, and they really don't want to get stopped on an uphill either so they were smoothing out the flow. Still, on the last little hill to the summit, there was a Texan 2wd pickup in front of me. I was at idle in first gear trying not to stop as I watched his back end sliding around. Luckily, he either knows how to drive or the traction control system kicked in, and we made it to the top.

Now it's all downhill. Here's where that idle problem comes in. With a 2000 rpm idle, you don't have a lot of engine braking to play with and I wasn't keen to play with the notoriously front-biased braking system of a 1.6 Miata on the packed ice/snow. Still, I got down smoothly enough although I did sure make a mess of Dad's little car as the snow turned to slush.

Could have been worse, I could have been towing my airplane through this crap.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 9:32 p.m.

The slush turned into rain turned into clear roads. The rest of the trip was easy enough, and I was treated to a beautiful Colorado sunset as I drove into our valley.

3305 km and 60 hours after leaving Ottawa (60 hours elapsed time, not driving time!), I pulled into the driveway at home. Happy little car other than a hot rubber smell and that high idle. Not a hiccough otherwise, even the mirror problem went away once I got out of the wind. My leg's a little sore from doing cruise control duties for three days, but that's about the extent of my personal wear and tear.

I'll unpack it and clean it up tomorrow and give a full sitrep on the car. Being so early and being Canadian, it's a bit of an interesting critter. More to come!

Hasbro SuperDork
10/21/19 9:40 p.m.

Glad you decided to hang on to it. Sounds like a very special trip.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/21/19 10:25 p.m.

To put this trip in perspective - the car is over 30 years old. It was built in 1989.

When it was introduced, the TR3A and the MGA were 30 years old - as old then as the Miata is now. Can you imagine driving either of those halfway across the country in 1989 without any trouble?


Woody MegaDork
10/22/19 6:15 a.m.

I enjoyed reading that!

Woody MegaDork
10/22/19 6:34 a.m.

Is this car pre-airbag?

Mike924 Reader
10/22/19 6:56 a.m.

Wow great story and write up Keith.  If I had known you would be in my city I would have setup a meet.  

Glad the little car made it, but with most of those small Japanese cars, they don't seem to have many problems and were very well built.  It looks really good for a rust belt car too.

dculberson MegaDork
10/22/19 6:59 a.m.

My sister had an MGB when it was <10 years old. I can't imagine driving it anywhere without trouble. Miatas really were a quantum leap in the roadster game. 

dyintorace PowerDork
10/22/19 7:40 a.m.

Cool story. Thanks for posting. Good thinking not to sell it!

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/22/19 10:09 a.m.
Woody said:

Is this car pre-airbag?

It is! Canadian cars didn't get an airbag until 1992 (1993? I used to know this stuff) so it has a fairly delicate and attractive wheel compared to the frankly ugly NA airbag wheel. I'll get some better pictures of it later but here's a quick snap.

This has surprisingly far-reaching implications. The knee panel under the column is plastic instead of steel, which knocks a noticeable amount of weight off. The combo switches are different as well - they're slim and straight instead of the lumpier, angled airbagged version. For some reason, the cars don't have a headlight relay and run the full load through the switches so they have big hefty contacts. The result is a switch that feels delicate but robust at the same time - from a tactile standpoint, they're much nicer than the later versions. I've been collecting these for retrofitting into other Miatas :) Oddly, the wiring to the wiper motor is also different. It's like there was a generational change at the same time the airbags were installed - maybe the non-airbag Miatas inherited some wiring from the 323.

Canadian Miatas were also some of the first cars on the road to come with DRLs, and they used the turn indicators to do it. This made them really easy to spot in traffic for a long time with those two bright amber lights up front. They were initially built so that if you triggered the turn indicator, one side would flash while the other stayed on. This was changed to one side flashing with the other one off, then they'd both come back on again. IIRC there was a recall for this. I'd never realized it, but this car has the first behavior so either I don't remember the recall properly or this car missed it. I'll check that against my other Canadian 1990 reference Miata, which was built a full 12 months after this one.

Fun fact: because of the airbag thing, you couldn't import early Canadian Miatas into the US until they were 25 years old...unless they were built before Sept 1989. This meant that my own Canadian 1990 (April 1990) was not welcome in the States when I moved here but 338 (April 1989) would have been even though they were exactly the same when they left the factory. Dad offered to trade but the cars had diverged and my car was not the sort of thing Dad would have wanted at the time.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/22/19 10:18 a.m.
Mike924 said:

Wow great story and write up Keith.  If I had known you would be in my city I would have setup a meet.  

Glad the little car made it, but with most of those small Japanese cars, they don't seem to have many problems and were very well built.  It looks really good for a rust belt car too.

Had I tried to meet up with everyone on the way through, it would have turned into a year-long odyssey :)

At the time that Dad bought this car, the 1990 models were just starting to show the sill rust that has become well known in the rusty areas of the world. It had a little bit of it but he had it properly repaired. It hasn't seen snow since, being a fun summer car that went into hibernation every winter. A lot of Miatas got this use in places with real winter. That trip over the mountains was the first time it's been in snow this century. I haven't been under the car in the while but it should look like a 10 year old Canadian car instead of a 30 year old one thanks to this.

338 was actually the first Miata I remember seeing that was in danger of turning into a rat. Miata values stayed really, really strong in Canada in the 90's - to the point where they were basically immune to depreciation. We found this car at a Hyundai dealership who had owned it for close to a year and between some badly oxidized paint, blown rear shocks and that sill rust it was about as bad an example as you could see. I spotted the VIN and Dad rescued the car for that reason, because it gave the car some backstory and a little more interest. We suspect it may have been in Mazda Canada's press fleet in the early days based on what we've been able to glean of the ownership history.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/23/19 5:58 p.m.

So the car is now in Colorado. I gave it a wash because it's what Dad would have done. He loved washing cars. I did not inherit that, but I'll try to do him justice. This car will not be allowed to get chalky with oxidation.

I had to run some errands today, and this is what met me when I walked out. Who could resist?

Of course, I had to drop the top. All of my other Miatas have permanently installed hardtops. Two of them don't even have soft tops. But why not. It seemed right.

Ol' 338 looks pretty darn good. I even made sure to install the top boot, which brought back all the details on how to attach the side straps (no, not around THAT bar on the top, the one below it). 

It's been a while since I drove such a stock early car. Well, other than a few drives in 338 last summer. Even being without a rollbar feels a little foreign. The car's definitely down on power from sea level, but the stock exhaust still has just the right amount of snarl to put a smile on your face. This is the Miata interior I grew up with, and it's still my favorite - especially in non-airbag form. I have a suspicion that the Canadian cars have something different about the steering, my car always had fantastic steering and this one has an echo of that. It also has that amazingly firm brake pedal that I only ever seem to find on 1.6s.

The car feels a little loose in the structure. It always has, enough to make me wonder how accurate the 227k km on the odometer is. One of the things I found while cleaning out the garage was a full set of OE Mazda suspension bushings - apparently I had plans. It does have a fluidity down the road that I try to duplicate with all my suspension setups. I'll have to drive this thing back to back with my modified 1990 and see how well I've done over the years. It's not razor-sharp, tall 185/60-14 generic tires will do that. But it's friendly and eager.

I accidentally took the long way to the store - it's been a LONG time since I've done that.

I also realized that Dad was with me the first time I drove a Miata. We took one for a drive at a dealership in 1992, I think. It was a car just like this, but it was either yellow or white. Man, nothing like getting nostalgic while driving an old car that you remember being new. I am old.

mazdeuce - Seth
mazdeuce - Seth Mod Squad
10/23/19 6:15 p.m.

Gotta be careful with Fly and Drives through CO this time of year. laugh

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/23/19 6:18 p.m.

What's next? Warning, if you thought there was self-indulgent rambling before, I have some bad news for you.

This car is a blank slate. I think it's got too many miles under the wheels to be a Pebble Beach show car - different sections have been repainted at different times. So absolute purist restoration is unlikely. If I hadn't given away those wheels, though...

I have the tools to build something nuts out of this car, but BTDT. I have a 1990 with the engine from a 2005 and a turbo and top-end suspension etc. I have a 1994 that has a fancy paint job and a really noisy exhaust. I don't need another. It also seems wrong. It's just too good. That's one of the reasons I had trouble selling it, I couldn't bear seeing this car descend into rattery or get badly modified by someone without a clear vision of what they wanted to build.

I've been kicking around the idea of the Pure Edition Miata - an idealized NA that could have plausibly been made by Mazda. I've only told friends about it so far, but here you go. Think Singer, but without the megadollar fluffery. Closer to the LE50 MGs. FM's "Captain Bob" was a lite version of that, a way to try out the concept without a big investment. I told Dad about it and he liked the idea, so if I ever go that route 338 might make for a good base. It wouldn't be necessarily what he'd do with his own car, but I think he'd be cool with his car being used for it. But do I have the energy for another Miata build?

Anyhow, before we go there I have some work to do. I need to track down that high idle somehow. I have a set of suspension bushings that need to be installed, and I'll probably make a couple of small changes to the suspension based on what we've learned over the years. Then it's a matter of a stem to stern service - greased caliper sliders, all new fluids, a timing belt (I think it's due), etc. Make the car the best it can be as it is, then look at what it might be going forward.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/23/19 6:37 p.m.
mazdeuce - Seth said:

Gotta be careful with Fly and Drives through CO this time of year. laugh

The voice of experience :) And you had traction control!

I would have picked it up earlier, but that just wasn't possible. 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/23/19 7:29 p.m.

Fun fact - three of these cars were made in the same year. One of them is four years older. And then there's the truck.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
10/23/19 9:17 p.m.

One thing I forgot to mention on the drive - I got a rabidly enthusiastic thumbs up on the interstate from a guy in a red Prius. Dude, I don't know exactly why you were so excited, but it put a smile on my face for a good long time. Thanks.

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