5 Months, 1 Day – Why I Spent Nearly Half A Year Without My Car

By now, I’ve introduced you to Sakura the MX-5. In the little more than 2 years that I’ve had my NB MX-5, I’ve come to love the experience. Getting back into an old MX-5 after a slew of modern test cars simply cements in my mind that I bought the right car. But, for all my love of driving her, I’ve yet to take her to a race track – which is something I’ve wanted to do since day 1. This hasn’t been for a lack of trying though, and the journey thus far certainly hasn’t been without its difficulties.

After a year of ownership and a year of street driving, I made my mind up that I was going to finally track my car. In order to do this, I needed a few things done on the car. Priority number one was upgrading the brakes, so I brought in a full set of EBC GreenStuff pads to improve my stopping power. Along with that, I decided to give the car a full service, including flushing of all fluids, and while I was at it, fixing a couple of oil leaks. It’s been a while since I’d owned a car of my own before this – circumstances didn’t quite permit – so I didn’t have a regular mechanic. However, I had used a local guy, and my father-in-law had regularly used the same workshop with great results. So, naturally, I took my car there.

The service went off without a hitch, the brakes went in, and the shop even machined me a new shifter bushing to get rid of the excess play I had on my six-speed shifter. All seemed great and the feedback I got seemed good. However, when I’d sent my car in, I had 6 forward gears, but when I got my car back, it might have been shifting smoother, but my 6th gear was gone. I’m not talking about an inability to squeeze it into the gate – there was no gate. Naturally, I took the car back, and that was when the trouble started. I was told that they’d serviced the gearbox (something I hadn’t asked for) and that they must’ve inadvertently assembled the ‘box wrong. They said they’d call in a favour with a gearbox guy to get it all sorted – which was good news for me as it meant I wasn’t paying for it. But when you’re not paying for something, shortcuts get taken.

I got my car back a few days later, with 6 forward gears and one reverse, but suddenly, the slick shift that had been there a few days earlier was gone. Suddenly, the ‘box was stiff into the gates, was grinding from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd, and to get into 6th wasn’t a straight shot down from 5th. I had to go into neutral, release the clutch, re-press the clutch, and then select 6th with a very rough action. All of this happened right before Uncle Cyril plunged the country into a hard lockdown, which also happened the weekend I was supposed to attend my first-ever track day in my own car. Not only were my track day hopes dashed, but my car was now worse off than before, and I wasn’t even able to drive it anywhere.

Because the country was shut down, I was able to forget about the issues. After all, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a real thing. But as the world opened back up again, I wanted to fix my car. After the issues I’d had with the last mechanic, I refused to take Sakura back there, and never again will I take my car to a certain RMI-approved mechanic in Wierda Park located next to a particular Midas. Instead, I took my car to someone who knows the vehicles well. Over lockdown, I was able to spend more time talking to fellow MX-5 owners, a pair of which happen to run a workshop on Marlboro Drive in Sandton. A few friends had taken their cars there for minor work, so I figured I’d take mine in too. What did I have to lose?

From the moment I dropped my car off at Elite Performance Centre CC, I felt she was in good hands. Wayne was not only extremely professional, but he was communicative and gave me regular updates on the car. As he stripped everything, he gave me status updates, photos, and let me know of potential items that might need to be looked at in time. He also had a plan to try and find the problem without jumping to the most expensive solution first, which in the present climate was very welcome. Unfortunately, the easy solutions didn’t work, which meant out came Sakura’s 6-speed manual gearbox, and off it was shipped to a gearbox specialist to strip it and find the issue.

I was in no rush to get my car back. I had 6 weeks of test cars lined up, and I wanted her fixed right, not fast. However the gearbox guy was taking his time, and as the end of November 2020 rolled around, it still wasn’t fixed. Then came news of a hub clutch with a broken tooth. This was the culprit of the broken 5th-6th shift. Immediately, I wanted to know if something like this could be broken by inappropriate driving, so I could see whether I was at fault. Curiously, I was told that a piece like that which is made from hardened steel does not break from the force applied to the shifter and that for that to have broken, someone must’ve forced something into a place it didn’t fit. I was irate, but at least we’d found the culprit. The next step was to find a replacement.

Unfortunately, the MX-5 is an older car that wasn’t exactly a hot seller in South Africa. That means that Mazda SA no longer carries parts all too accessibly. Worse still, after a few inquiries, I found out that Mazda no longer produces the part I needed, so it couldn’t be shipped in either. I’d have to find the part overseas, and with the help from a few friends, I found it in the USA. I organised shipping, I paid for my package, and delivery was supposed to happen before the Christmas shutdown. But COVID had slowed the world down, and Aramex painfully took 3 weeks to clear my shipment through customs, despite having pre-clearance and having paid customs already upon ordering the part.

The part arrived early in January of this year, and I immediately rushed off to drop the part with Wayne at Elite Performance Centre. Stupidly, I remember saying, “Knowing my luck, this will be the wrong part.” It was. But I didn’t find this out until a month later when after incessant nagging, the gearbox guy finally admitted the part was wrong. He insisted that the part was still usable, but that we needed another hub clutch, and we immediately got to finding the correct part number. We found it, but like before, the part wasn’t in production. eBay became my best friend, and after finally finding the part, I hatched a plan to get it here ASAP. That involved shipping it to a friend stateside and having him courier the part to me as quickly as possible – at a ludicrous price. However, a little more than a week later, the part arrived, and this time it was the right one.

We were back on track, and with the ‘box now being assembled, I did some more sleuthing and found out that the part I was originally told to order by the gearbox guy was for a 5-speed NB transmission – SA never got the 5 speed. My irritation with the gearbox guy aside (I have some choice words for him if I ever see him face-to-face), the gearbox went back to Wayne, went into the car, and a service was performed. She started up for the first time in 5 months, and all looked to be going well. 5 months and 1 day after I took her in, and nearly a year on since the day I took her to the first mechanic that promptly fucked her up, Sakura was back, with all gears operating as they should.

One issue remained – a misfire on cylinder 4 that had been steadily getting worse in my tenure as owner. These cars are notorious for failing coil packs, so I thought for sure this was the issue. The remedy, or rather the most obvious way to diagnose the coil pack, would be to swap the coil from cylinder 2 to 4 and see if the misfire moved with it. But cars are funny creatures, and while in the real world, just as 2+4=6 and 4+2=6, it would seem swapping coil packs does not equal the misfire moving cylinders. Instead, that simple little switch has seemingly eradicated my misfire entirely, and I presume the issue was a loose cable connection all along.

And that’s where things are now. Sakura has 6 forward gears that engage properly and without any funny clutchwork necessary, and she’s revving out cleaner than ever before. It’s been a journey of nearly half a year that has now taught me more than I’d care to know about Mazda part numbers and the process of sourcing parts overseas, but it’s also taught me that some mechanics are worth their weight in gold.

The previous mechanics have a special reserved spot in my own personal idea of hell for what was done – or rather not done – to my car, and there’s still a little bug in my mind that I can’t let go of that I suspect they may have swapped my gearbox for another and thought I wouldn’t notice. Likewise, I have a similar spot in mind for the gearbox guy that sent me on a wild goose chase ordering the wrong parts for my car. However, for Wayne and the team at Elite Performance Centre CC, I have nothing but praise. At every turn, Wayne communicated with me, sent me photos, gave me advice, and didn’t drop any surprises on me. His knowledge of these cars is superb, and his quick turnaround times, attention to detail, and meticulous work ethic have truly been top class.

It’s been a long journey to this point, and during the last half a year I’ve gone through some personal stuff that was made worse by all the cost and frustration associated with this car. But I now have a car in better condition than it’s ever been, and I now know where this car, and any other car I might own in the future, will be taken for any work. If you’re in the Johannesburg region and are looking for a mechanic, I can’t recommend Wayne highly enough.

As for what’s next? Well, I was expecting to have to spend a lot more money on fixing the coil pack issue, so with that now seemingly sorted, I can turn my attention elsewhere. What does that mean? Well, I’ve been dying to get a MiataRoadster short shifter kit for some time, so I think that might be high on my priority list, but I also want to start working on some of the aesthetic elements. To that end, new wheels are in Sakura’s future, as are a few classy body bits I want to add. Inside, I’m looking at getting an Android Auto-equipped touchscreen radio, and at some point, even, a set of bucket seats. But first things first, Sakura needs a proper shakedown, so you can bet I’ll be at the next available track day to finally enjoy her in all her glory. It might be a year later than originally intended, but better late than never.

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