Voodoo Magic and Fuzzy Math

Story of my life right here. © The Mincing Mockingbird. I love their illustrations.


Michael stared up at me, cocking his head out of the tiny window of his Mazda Miata; a gorgeous 1990 Mariner Blue NA. His normally stoic gaze was instead incredulous, with his eyebrows propped up in bewilderment. I looked back at the crossover behind me, then at the pink slip.

Yep, I just sold the Rogue. Let’s go look at the Miata!

“The Avatar of Anxiety”

I drove a 2010 Nissan Rogue before I bought my Miata. I took this when I still lived in the Mountains above Watsonville. This is probably the nicest photo I have of it!

At the time, I was working as a sort-of photographer for a company that contracts out photographers to dealerships in order to offer “professional photography services for new products and older inventory”. Basically, I was a lot porter with a camera and an internet connection.

It sucked.

Aside from being underpaid for the amount of work needed to be done (imagine having to drive, photograph, and park 30-40 vehicles a day just to make $100), the hours were long, the commute was ridiculous, and each dealership had a different package deal, so depending on what needed to be taken care of I either made a little money, or practically nothing at all.

That being said, that job killed my car. At the time, I was driving a Nissan Rogue Crossover all over the Bay Area. It wasn’t uncommon to break 500 miles a week, which meant that over the course of 9 months I drove more than most soccer moms do in a year. The Rogue took it all, until the transmission started acting silly around 84,000 miles and it was transformed into a 15 mph rolling roadblock filled with hand-me-down computer equipment, a camera, and the avatar of anxiety. After stopping on the side of the road and trying the “turn it off and on again” method, it worked fine. Still, I didn’t like the idea of potentially getting stranded and having to resort to methods stolen from the I.T. Crowd. I decided the next chance I get, I was going to get the Rogue checked out at my local shop.

Fast forward to me sitting in the Rogue and having the technician practically shove a paper towel in my face with what looks like something he wiped off the seat at the local gas station restroom, and explaining to me that the thing might need a fresh transfusion of transmission fluid. This was only 20,000 miles since my intermediate service, so clearly either someone was screwing with me, or my car was about to screw me. After doing some research later that night, I come to find out that Nissan’s CVT Transmission for my Rogue was known for having more issues than Autoweek. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to Nissan and their lemon CVT transmission, with the same symptoms I experienced reported by other drivers.

“Well, SHIT.

I suddenly had the feeling I was riding on a ticking time bomb in the shape of a mom’s band practice transport, especially after seeing the darker-than-normal transmission fluid and reading a comparison between the CVT’s shift patterns and Helen Keller’s ice skating skills. So I made the decision to look for something that I could get for the trade-in value of the Rogue. And of course, in wisdom beyond my years, I asked Michael for advice.

“Miata Is Always The Answer.”

Michael’s beautiful, original 1990 NA Miata, in Mariner Blue. This is the car that helped convince me to get a Miata.

Michael drove a Miata. In fact, simply stating that he “drove” it would be a disservice because of his obsession of subtracting weight where he could to squeeze every ounce of performance from the machine, without having to take drastic measures or change the exterior of the car in any noticeable way. Thinking back now, I might have already had my mind made up when I asked for his help. I wanted a Miata or something like a Miata. The allure of something sporty and fun like a rear-wheel drive convertible more or less guided my decision to look for a replacement for the Rogue, but I still had the frame of mind to look for a suitable replacement in the long term. I wasn’t just going to look at a Miata of course, but maybe something like a Mazda 3-Series, a Subaru, or a Volkswagen that wasn’t puking oil.

I decided that I might as well put my computer skills to work and create a spreadsheet comparing multiple cars and their costs of ownership for one year, with my driving habits, current gas prices, and mileage estimates gleaned from multiple sources. After all, I’d rather make an informed decision. After my date with Google Sheets, I managed to come up with a shortlist of cars that could be candidates for replacing the Rogue:

  • A 3-door or 5-door hatchback, like a Mazda 3-Series: A car like this would have actually been my first car, but my parents thought “He needed something he could beat up.” instead. We ended up getting a Ford Contour. That car nearly killed me.
  • A Toyota MR-S: Hilariously impractical, but the gas mileage was phenomenal. It took regular gas for its Celica-derived engine, so it was rated at 40+ MPG Highway which meant a savings of over $1,500 a year in fuel costs. The trunk space though was barely large enough for Schrodinger’s Cat, and insurance costs wouldn’t change due to the fact that the MR-S was more of a pure sports car.
  • A Miata: Here’s where things get interesting since I was leaning towards a Miata anyway. Though not as practical as a hatchback, the gas mileage was claimed to be 28-30 MPG Highway observed by multiple sources, which meant a savings of $1,000 a year for fuel costs over my Rogue. An insurance quote also told me that I would be saving $60 a year over my Rogue. That’s because apparently the Miata is considered a compact car. That, or they figured if I crashed it would  be more likely to kill just me, but no one else because there are no backseats and I’m single.

I had the data I needed; now, came the scheming. At this point, I was leaning heavily toward the Miata since it was cheaper to drive and maintain, and I would get to have some fun without having to resort to selling organs south of the border. However, I had an ulterior motive; I wanted to drive a stick. I had learned a little bit because of my job, but my exposure was limited because I couldn’t legally leave the lot, so I never had the chance to actually shift out of 1st gear. Since getting started in a manual car is essentially the hardest part, it shouldn’t have been that hard to learn the rest and finally ascend to where all car enthusiasts should be. Still, cargo space would be an issue since I was carrying a massive (and massively outdated) boat anchor of a printer, and a bunch of stickers and buyers guides for different dealerships. I figured I could learn to carry less and then pocket all those savings from the gas mileage and insurance costs. Having something more practical was still the logical choice, so I wasn’t about to just cave in and buy a Miata despite my desires.

Then Michael shot me a message: “Hey, there’s this guy selling a Miata in Santa Clara. It’s the shit.” With piqued curiosity, I asked him for the Craigslist ad. He sent it to me and I looked it over:

Rare 2003 Shinsen Miata 1.8L, 93000mi”.

A fairly recent Miata, at 93,000 miles seems pretty common,  but a Shinsen Miata? That’s a god-damn unicorn. I felt my resolve to get a more practical car melting.

“New and Fresh”

The 2003 Special Edition Miatas. In the back is the Shinsen Version, of which only 1451 were built for the American Market according to Jalopnik. Photo Credit to Car and Driver.

Let me clarify what a Shinsen Miata is:

In 2003, Mazda created a special version of the Miata that was slotted under the Special Edition model. Named “Shinsen” (meaning “New and Fresh”), this new version was intended to attract younger buyers to the brand with a myriad of interesting features:

  • Titanium Gray Metallic Paint (used on the 2002 SE, and the later NB Mazdaspeed Miata).
  • Unique Navy Blue Cloth top, Navy Blue Cloth bucket seats, Navy Blue door inserts, two-tone Navy Blue/Black leather-wrapped shifter knob, embroidered floor mats, and aluminum trim.
  • Leather-wrapped Nardi Torino steering wheel.
  • Special Edition white-face gauges
  • Convenience Package, including a heated glass rear window, electric windows, tweeters, fog lamps, power locks, cruise control, and keyless entry.
  • A 1.8L 142hp engine mated to a 5-speed gearbox and a Tochigi-Fuji Limited-Slip Differential.
  • Optional appearance packages, including the front air dam extension, side skirts, mudguards, front, and tail light covers, and a rear deck spoiler.

Mazda intended to sell 1,600 Shinsen Miatas, however other sources say just over 1,400 were built. Additionally, the Shinsen was only offered for the 2003 model year. In other words, the Shinsen Miata is a rare and beautiful beast! You can imagine how skeptical I was when Michael sent the Craigslist ad to me. He assured me though:

It’s legit man. The seller’s on the forums I belong to and he posted about it there. This car is perfect for you! I even test-drove it. It drives better than mine!

Now I was in trouble.

I wanted something that was more practical than a rare entry-level sports car, but something like this barely comes up anywhere. Who wouldn’t want to own a car like this? Michael and I had made arrangements to see the car the same weekend I chose to bring the Rogue to a dealership to get it inspected and appraised. A test drive couldn’t hurt, right? After all, I was planning on selling the Rogue on Craigslist or AutoTrader anyway. Michael however, was so confident that I would love the Miata so much, he even promised to front the cash so I could pay him back when I eventually sold the Rogue.

“Oh god.” I thought to myself. What was I about to get into?

An eye full of CV Fluid

Although this example is much worse than what my CV Boots actually looked like, both boots in the Rogue were leaking fluid.

I was staring up under the Rogue with a technician after a detailed inspection. I was pretty confident that the Rogue needed work since I was putting so many miles on it. However, I wasn’t prepared for the actual amount of work needed to bring the thing to a safe drivable state. The look on the technician’s face should have told me what I was in for. That, or the fact that as soon as I looked up under the car, a glob of a yet-identified fluid fell and hit me just under my good eye. The technician brought to my attention the transaxle and showed me the CV boots leaking fluid (oh shit). The boots were shot and spewing fluid, which meant that the whole transaxle would have to come out and be inspected (oh SHIT!). That would be a $2,000 repair if the transaxle would have to be replaced, not counting labor.

To add insult to injury, the rear brake rotors needed to be replaced, the bushings were all shot, and there was an unknown fluid leak in the engine; likely the culprit behind the face-soiling. Then came the final shock: The shop had quoted me $4,000 total for the repairs. The Kelly Blue Book Value of my car was rated at around $4,000 for a Good condition Rogue. At best, the Rogue was in Fair condition, but thankfully, I never told the shop about the CVT issues. If I were going to trade it in I would have to get KBB for it, otherwise, my next best bet would be to keep driving the car until I raised enough funds to repair the issues and try trading it in again. Clearly, that wasn’t an option, because I had to pay the rent and I like fast food too much.

Ultimately, my decision boiled down to two things: Do I decide to keep the Rogue and attempt to repair what I can with whatever funds I could muster, knowing that at any time the transaxle could fail or the CVT could leave me stranded? Or, do I bite the bullet and trade the Rogue in right then and there, and use the check to buy the Shinsen Miata? I looked up at the undercarriage of my Rogue and felt a sudden pang of guilt. Despite all of its issues, the Rogue survived two moves, a career change, several adventures to Laguna Seca, one Hit-and-Run, and four years of driving in the Bay Area. It was my Rogue after all.

Then, a glob of axle fluid falls onto my face. I wasn’t sad anymore. I looked over to the salesmen with the glob still dripping down my face and said: “Ok, let’s make a deal.

“Exit the Rogue, Enter the Shinsen.”

This is the last picture I have of the Rogue, just after I sold it. It still makes me sad when I look at it, but who knows what might have happened if I kept it?

I stood in front of the Rogue with the paperwork under my arm smiling at Michael poking his head out from his Miata. His eyebrows were still cocked in either amusement or bewilderment, so I repeated myself.

“I traded in the Rogue!

Michael finally snapped out of it and asked why, so I explained it to him. To put it simply, it made more sense to trade in the Rogue now than waiting to repair it later and then selling it on Craigslist. This way, I didn’t have to worry about getting the funds, or dealing with tire-kickers. On top of that, if I was going to buy this Miata today, I could pay Michael off sooner since he offered to lend me the cash. That being said, I might have been rushing the decision a bit since I didn’t want to deal with the Rogue anymore, and I had already done the research. I was determined to get a Miata now since it felt that the universe itself was lining up for me to get in this car and drive it off into the sunset. Plus, I actually broke even and got a solid $4,000 for the car, despite the costs it would take to get it perfect again.

Paperwork in hand and a box full of personal belongings, I looked back at the Rogue and felt that pang of guilt again. The thing did have some sentimental value after all; It was my mother’s before she gave it to me and had it shipped from the East Coast. I even helped her pick it out, despite the fact that I kept pushing her toward the Juke because it was clearly the cooler choice. And now the Rogue was sitting empty, 3,000 miles away from where it first came into my life. Then I remembered that tiny injustice I suffered when I was pulling off the highway at dangerously slow speeds, with me panicking and making inhuman noises. I shook the salesmen’s hand and thanked him again for the deal-making, and then I squeezed into Michael’s Miata and together we took off. It wasn’t until I looked in the side mirror and saw the Rogue that it hit me: “Oh shit, I sold my car!

No going back now.

After we a quick trip to an auto parts store nearby, we arrived at the seller’s home with  the Shinsen in the driveway. He had been tidying it up a bit before we arrived. He recognized Michael and shook his hand with a smile; Michael did say he test drove it after all. The Shinsen looked impressive; in addition to all the features a “standard” Shinsen comes with, this car had the factory air dam extension, side skirts, mudguards, and lamp covers. In addition, the owner also had added a magnetized phone mount, a Bluetooth stereo head unit, and a chrome roll bar. At first glance, the car looked amazing, but there were some problem areas. The paint on the front bumper was pock-marked with paint chips; obviously from the dust and rocks that plague California’s highways. The paint was also peeling in some areas of the front bumper and scuffed off in others, and the lower lip extension in front of the passenger-side fog lamp had been cracked. To round it all off, there were some minor dents and scuffs around the body, and a gouge in the driver’s side skirt. Curious, I asked the seller what the story was with the car and how he came to own it. The seller went on to explain where the car came from; it was bought by a little old lady (I thought that was an urban legend) straight from the factory with all of the options, drove it until she couldn’t drive it anymore due to her age, and then sold it to him. He then proceeded to use it as a weekend driver/autocross car.

That would explain all the paint and body issues. On one hand, this car was a solid driver that had a lot of performance potential. But on the other hand, I wondered who would autocross this car? Despite it being a Miata, it was still a rare Miata. The seller also went on to explain that the car had some major services done, including a clutch replacement at 75,000 miles. Still, there was work that was needed to be done, including a timing belt replacement, and a resealing of the oil pan and differential. After talking with Michael about it more, we came to the conclusion that the car needed about $2,000 of mechanical repairs in order to get it running perfectly. This was course was not counting the body issues, but I could always do that later. After all, $2,000 in repair for a car like this was much better than having to pay $4,000 in repairs for a car that had all the sex appeal of a bowl of grits.

Michael then offered to test drive it again and the seller obliged, so off they went in a little jaunt around the neighborhood while I waited, surveying the service records. I figured that Michael wanted to get one more test drive in because he liked the Shinsen so much. Either that, or there was a little tinge of jealousy there. The Shinsen was better outfitted after all. While they were still out, my mind had begun racing:

I had just sold my car that I had been driving for four years, and I was about to buy a car that I had no experience driving, needed some work done, and was less practical. Despite the math all adding up and telling me this was the better option in the long run, I kept thinking to myself “Did I make the right choice? Or, did I just drain the bathwater, and stuffed the baby down the drain with it?” My thoughts refocused on the Shinsen coming around the corner and parking.

“This is it.”

“Learning the hard way”

The very first photo of the Shinsen Miata, right after I bought it.

Everything that happened next was a blur. Michael had the cash he had promised to front me if I decided to sell my car, and thanks to negotiations, we were going to pay less for the Shinsen because of the work that needed to be done. The seller agreed to sell it for $5,600 instead of the original asking price, which meant that my check for the Rogue was going straight to Michael. In the end, I would end up owing my gateway into the Miata world to the tune of $1,600. I signed the necessary paperwork, and then the cash exchanged hands.

Just like that, the Shinsen was mine! It all happened so fast that I barely had the time to process anything other than my combination of excitement and stomach-churning anxiety. I suppressed the urge to make another inhuman noise as Michael practically shoved me in the driver’s seat and told me “Show me what you can do.” The hard part was over now. Now came the part where I, a driver who’s only experience with a manual came from spending too many hours playing Crusin’ USA, was going to drive a car “I” just bought. So in other words, the part that could potentially kill me was just beginning.

Michael was patient while I got used to the car while puttering around his neighborhood trying to shift into 2nd gear. It took several adjustments to my seating position, learning the clutch points, and several stalls. Through his careful instruction of  “letting things fall into place without forcing them”, I was starting to comprehend the complexities of the technique. Then, quite literally, it all slipped into place. I shifted into 2nd gear, with only a small amount of that acrid burning-clutch smell hanging in the air. But, that first time feeling the shifter knob slide into the correct gear and the accelerator and clutch pedals completing the successful hand-off between beats simply felt sublime! It wasn’t perfect; it would take more practice to successfully pull off the flawless ballet of manual driving, but I was doing it! I had now ascended from struggling to get uphill with a transmission comprised of molasses, to manually selecting a gear like a bolt-action rifle and truly being in control! Before long, I was making my way up Calaveras Road in Santa Clara, toeing the clutch pedal and accelerator as I got higher and higher and made my way up past the Calaveras Reservoir, towards Mission Peak. I struggled a bit when downshifting, but thanks to Michael’s careful instruction I was able to apply power when needed and carefully navigate the road’s hazards: other drivers.

A quick aside: it’s interesting how fast you notice how bad other drivers are when you’re learning to drive stick. Because most people drive an automatic, they’re not actively thinking about driving. Instead, they’re preoccupied. The end result is a driver who’s prone to bad habits such as tailgating, speeding, and using a cell-phone while driving. In a way, driving a manual makes you a better driver because it requires your focus and attention. There is no room for distractions. It’s almost meditative.

“Voodoo Child”

I took this picture when I made it to the top of Mission Peak. For my first time driving a manual rear-wheel drive sports car, there was no better way to end the day!

Soon, the hills gave way and a parking lot came into view. We had made it to the peak! I quickly parked my newly acquired Shinsen Miata and gingerly crawled out; my left leg throbbing from truly using a clutch for the first time. Below Michael and I was Silicon Valley, surrounded by the green hills of Mission Peak. Several others were present at the parking lot, but in my mind and in this moment, it was only us at the top of the peak. Somehow, the stars and the planets aligned just for me and something that I had always wanted seemed to fall into my lap. Despite all my planning and scheming; despite the spreadsheets, bookmarked webpages, and notes, it felt as if it was just some outstanding dumb luck that I ended up with this car. Like a sort of Voodoo .

“Voodoo.” I thought to myself.

“Hey, Michael? What was the name of your car again?” I asked. Michael looked at the car and back to me. “Did you ever watch Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends? My Miata is named after Bloo!” I asked him if it was common among Miata owners to name their car. In fact, it was. Whether by divine providence, dumb luck, or pure coincidence, Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child was playing on the bluetooth stereo during the drive up the mountain. “Perfect.” I said to myself.

“Hey Michael, how does the name ‘Voodoo’ sound?”

Since then, “Voodoo” has been my daily driver, and I have so far put around 10,000 miles on it. Thanks to a job change that allows me to work from home, and a new living arrangement, I’m driving it a lot less. I’ve had many interesting adventures with it, including a trip to San Francisco just a few weeks after I acquired the car (imagine how frightening those massive hills were in a tiny Miata!), more than a few trips up and down Hecker Pass, and several trips to Laguna Seca. I’ve also had some work done to it to keep it functioning well; including replacing the timing belt, water pump, and radiator. Soon, I’ll be working on the cosmetic issues such as the cracked lip extension, paint issues, and dents.

But for now, she sits; waiting for the next adventure.

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