Wheeler Dealers inspired William Magrath’s love of cars but owning one of the best roadsters ever built has made him realise he’ll never make it as a hot-shot salesman. Here, he tells Charlotte Vowden why it’s a perky little runaround worth holding on to.
With pop-up headlamps capable of warming the heart of the grumpiest traffic warden, the Mk1 MX-5 is one of the most popular and best-selling sports cars ever built. The original made its debut in 1989 and more than three decades, 30-year-old William Magrath is here to tell the next generation of drivers why this roadster has a winning formula…
“Is there a particular kind of car that I go for? I like something cheap, simple, economical and fun; that’s why I love my Mazda Mk1 MX-5. It’s my pride and joy.
I grew up obsessed with Top Gear and watched a lot of Wheeler Dealers. I could barely talk when I started naming cars that I saw drive past the window at home, which really confused my parents because they aren’t interested in cars at all. It’s a passion that came from nowhere but I think TV programmes have got a lot to answer for!
I’ve always wanted to flip cars so that I can afford to move on and try something new, but I get too emotionally attached. The MX-5 is a keeper and my girlfriend Cat (who also wasn’t interested in cars when we first met) doesn’t want me to get rid of it either because her grandma had an almost identical Mk1 that she remembers going out in when she was younger. It’s sentimental for her too which is really nice.
The MX-5 scene is massive, there are people involved all over the world, but I’d hate to think that it’s just because they are going up in value and becoming more collectible. It was quite a competitive market when I bought mine, a 1990 model, for a thousand pounds in 2019 but prices are rising so it’s even more competitive now; my friend just sold a MK1 for three and a half grand that he bought for 800 quid in 2017 and he hardly put any money into it.
I’d always wanted an MX-5, a few people I know have got one, and after driving a friend’s Mk2 during a road trip around Europe (which is pretty much the same car but faster) I thought I’ve got to do it – I felt left out! I found mine, a 1.6 UK car with 115bhp and no real extras, on eBay and it was definitely a heart over head decision when I saw the shiny red car in the pictures; I think the seller knew he already had me when I went to see it in real life.
It was a bit rattly when I took it for a test drive, the seller was kind of pushing me to put my foot down and drive it harder, but it had an MOT and was in half decent condition so I put a deposit down there and then. It had to be done, but don’t do what I did; if you’re going to buy a particular kind of car, see a few and drive them in quick succession (or ask the owner if you can go out in it as a passenger) so that you can get a feel for them and hear the clunks and noises they make. That way you can then compare them and make a decision based on that. It was only when I got it home and had a good look around that I realised mine had a few little gremlins!
I’d only had it for four weeks when the head gasket went. Replacing the engine, which had 150,000 miles on it, was a bit beyond me so I sourced a younger used 1.6 engine with 80,000 miles on it for £150 and found an MX-5 specialist to fit it. The procedure was like a transplant and only took them five hours. While they were there they also fitted a new clutch but those are the only jobs I haven’t done myself.
After buying the MX-5, which was one of the first 10,000 made, I re-watched the Wheeler Dealers episode where they had a MK1 MX-5 to pick up some tips and it helped me spot a patch of rust on the bottom of the A-pillar – I would have never seen it unless I’d known where to look – but I did automotive engineering as a degree so that’s helped a lot.
When something goes wrong it’s stressful but it strengthens your relationship with the car because once you’ve fixed it you know that it probably won’t go wrong again… in the near future. Plus, spares are cheap and readily available; MX-5 Parts in Portsmouth have been lifesavers. I’ve had full breakdowns that have cost me 30-40 quid to sort out, whereas on any modern car it’d be hundreds, maybe thousands. The trials and tribulations do get you down and you think ‘why am I doing this?’ but it’s worth it in the end.
The suspension was another issue, it was borderline dangerous because I think it was original so it was completely knackered and wallowy. I fitted a bit of an upgrade but wanted to keep a standard-ish ride height to make it usable because I drive it to work (I’m a manufacturing engineer) and don’t want to be scraping on speed bumps. Some people put turbo chargers and massive body kits on their MX-5s but I’ve tried to steer away from that and keep it as standard, although it has got a stainless steel exhaust and red tartan door cars. When it’s parked I see people look in and laugh but they’re laughing with me, not at me, because I don’t take myself very seriously and neither does the MX-5.
The cabin is basic but it’s a really nice place to be. It’s well designed and laid out, you feel cocooned in a good way, even with the roof down, because the centre console sits quite high and you sit very low; when you’re driving along you can rest your arm on it. Sitting there in the tombstone seats (so called because they’re grey and shaped like little tombstones) you do feel like you’ve got a lot more car in front of you than there actually is because you can see the full bonnet but when you get out and look back at the MX-5 it’s tiny. Driving past big lorries doesn’t scare me but my first track day did, that’s why I fitted a roll bar.
My dad is a volunteer Blood Biker so I borrowed his full face helmet for the occasion, which is mandatory for anyone in a convertible, and managed to nudge 100mph. I was surrounded by cars that were going a lot faster so I tried to keep out of their way and with no ABS I had to be careful coming in and out of corners. I was really proud of the car because I pushed it hard and had no problems, I felt a bit smug.
I took the MX-5 on a skidpan when it was -4°C and it was so easy to control (the more powerful cars, including an AMG Mercedes, were slithering around) but I chickened out of doing it with the roof down, even though it’s one of my favourite things to do. Take the roof down and the MX-5 becomes a completely different car and gives you a completely different experience because you feel more of what is going on around you. It’s also handy when the boot is full.
Cat and I took a 200-mile trip from Reading, where I live, to my parents house in Norfolk one summer’s evening with a blowup kayak in the back and the ores sticking up behind the seats. It’s a standout memory because the car made it there faultlessly and we arrived just as the sun was going down. I’d like to get Cat insured and take the MX-5 up to show her grandma in Yorkshire. It would be a great road trip and a test of the car, but it’s also sentimental for her and the family so I think it’d be really good fun.”
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