TO OEM OR NOT TO OEM

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By Jesse Adams

I’m torn. Half of me wants to believe I’m daily driving a genuine classic. A little red roadster turning heads and inciting finger points wherever it goes. The other part of me wants to admit it’s just an early ʼ90s Japanese sports car of little value and desire.

Fact is, a first-generation Mazda MX-5, or ‘NA’ for those codename inclined, is really nothing special. It’s not rare, or Italian, or particularly sought after. Nearly half a million were made between 1989 and 1997 after all, and in foreign markets where they were more popular, these cars now trade hands for a case of beer and pack of jerky.

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But hear me out. My 1991 model comes with many of the attributes and foibles of a true classic. I sometimes get a whiff of fuel for unknown reasons. It gets grumpy and occasionally low-idles at red robots, and it certainly rattles and squeaks with the best Alfa Spider. It’s the kind of car where you must be in tune with new noises and funny behaviour so you can hopefully catch an ailing component before the problem turns to something much more expensive. If that doesn’t define ‘classic’, I don’t know what does.

The beauty of an MX-5 (or Miata or Eunos for those in the Northern Hemisphere) is that they were sold in such high numbers that parts support isn’t really a challenge. There are American and English websites with enough stock that you could just about build a brand new one from scratch. Anything from body panels to engine bits to the tiny plastic clips that hold the boot lining in are but a keyboard click away.

Problem is these sites, including Amazon and eBay, also sell an unlimited supply of aftermarket hop-up tuning bits. Body kits? No problem. 36-way adjustable coilover suspension? Easy. LED headlight units with a bazillion lumens and retina-piercing mood rings? A dime a dozen.

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Now, as a car lover with full appreciation of preserving history, I need to tread carefully with this cornucopia of online parts. The sight of a box-shaped Beemer with 19-inch rims makes me queasy, and heaven forbid I spot a Cortina with a poorly welded-on hood scoop and airbrushed flames. Sure, taste is subjective and one man’s trash is another’s treasure, but I think most reading this story would agree that some modifications are just plain off limits.

The Internet is a trove of information and ideas for car guys and gals of all varieties, so of course I spend a lot of time trawling YouTube and Instagram pages for all things Miata. And some of the modded stuff out there is actually pretty cool. One Japanese dude I follow has a car very similar to mine but lowered with wide Watanabe rims (a sort of JDM Minilite) and beefy rubber that fills the arches to perfection. I find myself envious of his style and wonder if my quest for factory-correctness and strictly OEM parts is really necessary. Again, it’s just an early ʼ90s sports car, not a Giulia Sprint GTA.

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It was on one of these Insta pages where I came across a motoring term I hadn’t heard before. ‘OEM plus’. Please excuse my ignorance if this phrase is more common than I know, but it hit me like a Buddhist who’s finally found enlightenment. I now have a compass to follow when scrolling through site after site of aftermarket goodies, and I feel better about some of the maintenance decisions I’ve made up until now.

Recently a couple of my MX-5’s cooling hoses perished to the point that antifreeze was squirting around the engine bay like water pistols at a kid’s pool party. I had the choice to replace them with original equipment Mazda parts or buy a complete silicone hose kit like those under the hoods of cars in a Fast & Furious flick. I chose the less expensive silicone kit (in black of course, I’m not a complete muppet) and have felt guilty that Toshihiko Hirai, the original MX-5’s project boss, has been sneering from Hiroshima ever since.

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But hey! I’m sure mister Hirai would accept OEM plus. Any non-OEM parts I put in will be strictly to improve on original design, and I would never consider making any irreversible alterations. Under no circumstances would I cut the fender liners to accommodate a set of large-diameter TSWs, but a nice set of 14×7 Watanabes would go down a treat. That is, if they didn’t cost more than the car’s value. Which they do.

This Mazda is sentimental to me. It was my father’s car for 20 years and, because his daily journey was all of 5km, it’s amassed only 82 000 miles in its 30-year life. Its condition is too good to go completely AWOL with eBay trinkets, and if its fuel pump dies, I’ll definitely spend extra to get the correct replacement instead of wiring in a cheaper Midas generic part.

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My insatiable quest for originality, mixed with a big dash of obsessive-compulsive disorder, has been soothed by my discovery of ‘OEM plus’. Sure, the bee-sting aerial we put in a decade or so ago will eventually make way for a factory-correct retractable unit, and the dodgy centre box welded into the exhaust system will need to be rectified.  

I must say, however, that if I was a wealthy collector with a garage full of classics and another garage full of daily drivers to choose from, things would be different. Genuine parts would be non-negotiable. The key here is that this is a daily driver, and I believe that term and OEM plus go hand-in-hand. It needs to be reliable and comfortable.

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A modern Sony head unit with which I can listen to podcasts on my home-to-office trips makes travel a little more enjoyable. That said, if I find an original Grundig radio at a swop meet, it’ll go in a box of parts so one day when NA Miatas are worth millions, I can make it right.

Don’t laugh. It’s possible. Early 1990s Japanese sport cars are the next classic Porsches. Right?

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