Few sports cars have suffered from engineswap fever like the first-generation Mazda Miata. Lured by its lightweight design and nimble chassis and seduced by the relatively generous confines of its engine bay, would-be racers have spent years stuffing all manner of mighty motors under its hood in a bid to improve on the 115 to 130-ish horses offered by its stock four-cylinder.
This 1997 Mazda Miata, owned by Montreal, Quebec native Adam Miller, manages to subvert the LS-swap cliché by daring to keep the car’s original 1.8-liter unit tucked snugly between its front fenders. Don’t get us wrong – we’re not polishing the old “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast” chestnut here. No, this particular BP pushes out just under 500 horsepower to the rear wheels, and we’re about to take it out into the wet October asphalt just west of the city in the search for traction, curvy roads, and St-Hubert chicken.
“So when I was in my early 20s, I had a Mazda 323 four-cylinder turbo sedan that had a great engine. At one point it was putting 359 horses on some sketchy dyno that a friend had, but the rest of the platform was horrible. It was front-wheel drive and the transmission was awful, and I kept blowing one right after the other,” Miller said. “I found a very, very, cheap rolling chassis Miata about six hours away, and showed up with a trailer. I found the original engine sitting in a forest behind a barn, where the seller had just left it there two years ago. He was going to ‘rebuild it.’ One of those guys.”
After that first MX-5 was victimized by a t-bone collision that Adam walked away from, he parted it out and focused his attentions on an array of other projects, including a Minibusa (a rear-wheel drive conversion Mini with a Hayabusa motorcycle engine sitting behind the driver). Still, the idea of a turbocharged Miata lurked in the back of his mind as a project he never really got a chance to sink his teeth into, and so nearly a decade later the hunt was on for a replacement. He found the object of his desire in Alabama and picked it up with his father, making sure to hit the Tail of the Dragon on the way home (and running through a snowstorm with the drop-top wearing Azenis summer rubber to boot).
The version of the car we’re riding in today is far removed from its 1.0 iteration, which Miller explains was based around a first-generation Flyin’ Miata turbo kit. “Back when nothing was even branded Flyin’ Miata yet.” The setup put down 250 horsepower and ran 12 lbs of boost on stock internals, with the car’s suspension in factory trim.
“It was quite a bit easier to tune than my 323, because it came with a stand-alone engine management system,” Adam explained. “My sedan was still mechanical, I had to manipulate the tune by vacuum signals, whereas with the Miata I could use a keypad inside the vehicle to tune it. It was my first experience working with a standalone in my own car, after having played with them on my father’s supercharged Mazda, and at the garage I was working at the time. It was primitive – four-digit display, no graphing, and you had to punch a bunch of keys to get what you wanted – but it did work really well for what it was.”
We’re pushing on two-lane roads now, well away from Montreal’s traffic, and rain is starting to dot the windshield as the Miata’s blow-off valve sputters and spits each time Miller lets off the throttle. The wet roads and our rate of speed are no concern for me over in the passenger seat, however, despite the Maxxis VR-1 245/40/15 R-rated rubber, as Adam has many years of track instructing experience under his belt and is intimately familiar with his car’s capabilities, having built it with his own two hands. Besides, I’m always OK with anything that gets us to chicken that much more quickly, and soon we’re back in the town of Rigaud dodging the heavier rain that’s suddenly dumped down on us from on high as we run to the door of the St-Hubert restaurant.
The next step for Miller’s Miata was a bigger intercooler, follower by a Megasquirt computer, which he described as being light-years ahead of the original stand-alone. After an attempt to rebuild the Garrett 2560R turbo from the Flyin’ Miata kit revealed it to be too far gone, he began to audition a number of replacements, eventually moving through four or five different models until hitting on the Precision 5558 ceramic ball-bearing turbo that’s in the car today. In its current tune, the car sends roughly 485 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque to the wheels through an RX-7 Turbo II five-speed manual gearbox while running between 25 and 26 pounds of boost – almost double what that Garrett was capable of. The rear differential is running a 3.55 gear inside an 8.8-inch unit lifted from a Ford Explorer that fits surprisingly well into the stock sub-frame, where it sits with better clearance than the stock unit did and allows Adam to run a full three-inch exhaust.
In a car that weighs just 2,300 lbs, you can bet all that grunt translates into a ridiculously quick ride—and with close to four times the power it had from the factory, you can also be sure that Miller’s Mazda needed a significant upgrade in the handling department. He installed Koni sport shocks, revalved to Koni race settings, at each corner, along with a 750lb set of front springs matched with 450lb rears. The car uses urethane bushings, and features a sturdy plywood splitter up front that Adam claims is “on average” about 58/ths of an inch thick. “The leading edge might be a bit thinner,” he said, laughing.
“A lot of people shy away from building the 1.8, and just look for a swap solution,” he told me with a sigh. “A stock LS1 is less than 350 horsepower at the crank, and LS3 is around 400. They get me on torque, but when I put my foot down, those cars disappear, and I’m getting 35-mpg cruising down the highway. It’s a real sleeper. Most people just look at the car and think it’s a stock Miata with an exhaust, because I don’t have A-pillar gauges or a big wing on the street.”
Let’s get to the food. The chicken has arrived. At least it has for Miller. While I’ve gone with a half-rack of ribs, he’s opted for that most Quebecois of dishes, a hot chicken sandwich doused in brown gravy and topped with canned mushy peas, something that never ceases to weird out anyone who grew up outside of Canada’s French-speaking province. St-Hubert BBQ itself is a Quebec institution, having been founded in 1951 on the street from which it took its name in Montreal, only to see its fortunes expand from plastic yellow bench seats and gaudy décor into an almost-classy, culture-defining force by way of its sauce, coleslaw, and deliciously-roasted chicken. Forget poutine: this is the authentic Quebecoise dining experience that any visitor must seek out. With so many franchise locations dotting the map, it’s a relatively easy culinary course to chart.
Pleasantly bloated, and filled with more fries and gravy than the surgeon-general would consider healthy, we wedged ourselves back into the Miata’s Sparcos. As we pulled back out into traffic, the sun finally starting to break through the clouds, Adam explained the philosophy behind his build.
“I always planned to keep the car on this side of streetable,” he said. “And I also avoided just throwing expensive parts at it. Just because a part is available for your car, doesn’t mean you have to buy it. I’d rather analyze the problem I’m having with the car and come up with my own solution. Sure, you can buy an APR carbon fiber splitter for the Miata, but you hit the pavement with that a few times and you start to appreciate why plywood might be a better choice for a car that’s actually driven. I made the adapter plate for the RX-7 transmission myself, too, after having the box rebuilt, and messed up, twice by a local shop. I figured hey, why pay someone else to screw it up, right? It’s been good for 20,000 miles since.”
Miller points out that there is so much information available online now, compared to when he started out. “I don’t believe I’m doing anything that hasn’t been done before. This is one of the largest cult-following cars out there. Here in Canada, most people complain that we can only drive our cars for six months out of the year, because of the winter weather, but as a fabricator, it’s a gift, because you can spend all that downtime taking stuff apart in your garage, sitting on a stool and brainstorming a solution to a problem, and not feel guilty about missing an event or not being out on the road.”
He smiled. “It’s like prison. Car-prison. But in April, you’re allowed out.”
Got an idea of a place we should eat and a car we should drive there? Let us know in the comments, and if you like the combo, have a look at our previous FUEL stories.