Connecting with the
New Zealand MX-5
Bill Potvin & Linda
Myers -NWOhio Miata Club
Our story actually begins in February 2001, when we first
went to New Zealand
and fell in love with the natural beauty of the country and the friendliness
and spirit of the people. On that
trip, we spent 2 1/2 weeks hitting the highlights of both the North and South
islands by car and train. We
vowed to return.
So it was that in January 2004, we took the long flight
and started a 5-week tour entirely by car.
It would have been great in a Miata, but practicality and the logistics
of our itinerary led us to renting more mundane transportation in the form
of a Nissan Sunny and Toyota Sprinter - think Corolla. Even so, the driving was fantastic. The West Coast of the South
island is particularly breathtaking. Imagine the California coast highway with almost no traffic!
Actually, though, the whole country is a driver's dream, with very
few straight or flat roads. And, although the Kiwis grumble a bit about
the condition of the roads, except for a few construction areas we encountered,
they were free of potholes and in general of much better quality than most
of our roads. But we digress.
The Miata connection
began when we contacted the New Zealand MX-5 Car Club about a month before
our trip was to begin. They have
a great web site (www.mx5club.org.nz)
and, after seeing the extent of the club activity, we emailed a short note,
giving our itinerary and asking if any of the group would like to get together
with us. We were overwhelmed! We received more than a dozen replies,
containing invitations to meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, beer or whatever. We were also invited to stay at the homes
of club members on our tour. In
addition, our new internet Miata friends offered some great tips on sights
to see, as well as car museums, racetracks and scheduled MX-5 events. We quickly
replied to those folks who were near our planned route and made tentative
arrangements to get together.
Our tour really began in Queenstown, the home of extreme
sports, on the South island. People flock there for bungee jumping,
skydiving, paragliding, daredevil jet boating, kayaking and white water rafting.
We were content mostly with watching the crazies and enjoying
a steamboat ride to a sheep farm on Lake
Wakatipu. We were impressed with the statistic that
has about 3.5 million residents and 40 million sheep.
We then motored about a hundred miles over some great roads to Te Anau, where
we stayed at a B & B on a deer farm (New Zealanders are much more into
venison than we are and they export around the world). This was also our jumping
off point for a fantastic tour of the fiord region, including the breathtaking
sights of Doubtful Sound.
Next it was back north to Wanaka, a lovely lake town.
A point of interest was a place called Monster Mountain Rally where
for about US $60, you can strap yourself into a rally-
prepared Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo and have a
professional driver scare the hell out of
you on twisty gravel mountain roads. Being a former SCCA Pro Rally co-driver,
I chatted up the guys about the rally scene in NZ, but declined the ride on
the grounds that it seemed like cheating to 'pay for it.' Besides, I think I've pretty much seen
it all, having spent a fair amount of time both on the wheels and on the roof.
The next leg
of our tour took us through Mt. Aspiring
National Park and the beautiful Haast Pass
at about 6000 feet, then down to sea level as we followed the coast road to
the town of Fox Glacier. As mentioned above, this was some of the
best driving of the trip. And
this is probably a good point in our story to comment on a few subtleties
of driving in New Zealand.
Rule #1: To
avoid major problems, one should drive on the left, as is the Kiwi custom. This takes a little getting used to, but
really isn't a big deal. Shifting
with the left hand requires some practice, but what are a few 2nd
to 5th gear changes among friends?
The most embarrassing faux pas,
though, is turning on the windshield (I mean windscreen) wipers when attempting
to signal. Then there is the issue
of narrow roads - never, ever leave your lane in the twisty bits - and some
things we don't see much in the USA:
a whole lot of one lane bridges and roundabouts. And don't forget the rather aggressive
enforcement of the open road speed limit of 100 kph, although we were told
that ticketing doesn't usually occur below 110 kph. The trick is that speed cameras are used,
so your first indication of a 'gotcha' might occur when you get the ticket
in the mail. Other than that, it's a piece o' cake. We're happy to say that we had no problems
and no really close calls in nearly 3000 miles of driving É but we were a
little anxious checking the mail for a while.
After poking around the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers (they
conveniently come within about a mile of the main road), we continued north
along the Tasman Sea, taking in some beautiful
scenery, including the pancake rock formations and tidal blowholes at Punakaiki.
It was then on to the lovely city of Nelson where we connected with the first of
the many Miata owners we would meet on the trip.
The first thing we found out is that everyone there knows
full well that the term Miata is used in the US. Of course the New Zealand Mazda MX-5 is
essentially the same car, except for a few lighting and safety bits and that
pesky right-hand drive. What we didn't appreciate before going there is that
most of the cars in New
Zealand are actually badged as Roadsters.
It works like this: Mazda dealers sell the MX-5, so they can
be purchased new, and of course used, in the domestic marketplace. However, something like 80-90% of the 'Miatas'
in New Zealand are imported
as used cars from Japan,
and are, in fact, Japanese spec Eunos Roadsters. The reason is that lots of
relatively low mileage imports are available at very attractive prices. Even
with the cost of shipping, paying a broker and having the car inspected, the
imports represent a value. Of
course, some folks really want the latest and greatest, so they buy the MX-5. The interesting thing is that the Japanese
spec cars have different options, special editions, etc, so it makes Miata/MX-5/Roadster
spotting quite a game.
Our contacts with the Nelson Chapter were Jill & Kevin Allport. They had not only arranged for our motel
at a super discount rate (Jill is the weekend manager), but had put the word
out to others in the club that we'd be in town. So 10 of us actually met for coffee and
chitchat. After the introductions,
we all piled into our cars and did a short tour, including a drive into the
hills overlooking the city and bay. We
then went back to the motel bar to sample some of the excellent local brew
and continue our discussions. The New Zealand MX-5 Club counts about 600 cars
in their membership and has some 13 chapters with 20-30 in the Nelson group.
The thing that impressed us most was how similar the attitudes were
to the Miateers back home. No pretensions here, just a bunch of folks
with a common interest in sharing experiences and having fun with their cars.
We parted that night with a promise to get together the next day, since
we had timed our arrival to correspond with the annual Lord Nelson Charity
This is an event to benefit the local hospice and takes
the form of about 300 cars, including all manner of classic and specialty
cars, driving a circuitous route through several suburbs and Nelson proper.
Donations are made by the entrants and people line the streets, contributing
to the charity as drivers stop and 'pass the hat.' It was a beautiful evening, being the middle
of summer down under and, as the cars gathered, there was much oohing and
ahhing at some very fine examples of British, German, Italian and American
There were about a dozen Miatas represented, including
some of the folks we had met the night before. We were introduced around and
used the time to learn more about the activities of the club and check out
the various cars. Then it was off on the parade route, with our rather non-descript
Nissan rental car surrounded by the likes of Austin-Healys, Alfa Romeos and
car had detailed instructions for the course and with that many cars, it would
seem hard to get lost, but some people rose to the occasion and added a little
mileage to the course. We ended
at a park with lots of room to display the cars and the various marques attempted
to stay together. It was a bit
like herding cats, but most of the Miatas ended up in the same place at one
time or another. As
each car parked, the boot (trunk) would be opened and blankets were spread
for the chilly bin (cooler) in preparation for our picnic tea (dinner). The end of the evening came too soon and
as we parted, there were good wishes all around. We knew we had made some
great new Miata friends.
The next leg of our tour consisted of dropping our car
in Picton, taking the ferry across the Cook Straight to Wellington
on the North
Island and picking up another car there.
This was easier and cheaper than transporting the car and all of the
details were handled flawlessly by the rental car company.
We had spent a good deal of time in Wellington
on our previous trip, so we elected to head directly north up the Kapiti Coast. Another reason for this route was that
we had been invited to dinner at the home of another Miata couple, Tony and
Tony had also suggested that we not miss the Southward Car
Museum in Paraparaumu,
billed as the largest and most varied vehicle collection in the Southern Hemisphere.
After lunch at the museum, we took in the 150 or so cars and motorcycles
that were on display. Especially notable were a Mercedes Benz
300SL Gullwing, 1928 M-B Model 38/250, a Morgan 3-wheeler, a Stutz Indy 500
car and a host of Bugattis, Maseratis, and other exotic marques. We followed Tony and Janet back to their
house where we had a great time learning more about
their country and their interest in the world's most popular roadster. Tony showed us his Miata, of course, which
was parked next to a blindingly bright yellow Holden Monaro. This is the Australian
GM car that packs a high output 5.7 liter V8 and is just now making its appearance
in the US
as the modern Pontiac GTO. As
you'll come to appreciate, Tony isn't the only Miata owner that
faces a tough choice when he goes out for a drive.
And now a few words about personalized plates in New Zealand: Just as in the US, a lot of MX-5
owners have them. There are some
interesting differences, however. In
NZ, you buy the plates, not rent them. You make a request and if available,
you get the physical plates with the desired set of letters and numbers '
and they're yours! For
life! You can move them from
car to car, you can sell them with the car or you can sell them on the open
market. At first they seem pricey
at about US $350, but amortized over a number of years, it really isn't so
bad. In fact, some people make a living dealing in these things. Just imagine
if, a few years ago, you had bought the plate ENZO. What do think the owner of a brand new
$300,000 Ferrari would pay you for that now?
our next stop was Taupo, a neat town situated on New Zealand's largest lake. Activities here include tramping, fishing
and boating of all sorts. We spent
a week winding down after what had been a fairly fast-paced 12 days of touring.
During that time, we also visited Tongariro
National Park, checking
out its dramatic landscape, dominated by three volcanoes rising to nearly
10,000 feet. It's no wonder that
this area was featured prominently as Modor
in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It turns out that when we were there, the
orcs, elves and hobbits had been replaced by some very interesting (and presumably
well-heeled) humans, driving some very interesting (and presumably expensive)
cars. We had stumbled upon a group
of about 40 Rolls Royce's and Bentleys that were beginning a world tour to
commemorate the 100th anniversary of the marque. Most were of pre-WW II vintage and included
a 1923 car built for the Prince of Wales and an all aluminum-bodied model
(no paint), which was designed to survive the harsh climate of India. After several weeks in New Zealand, the tour will continue in Australia, then the UK
and finally to the US. The cars will drive from the east coast
ending this eight-month marathon at the Pebble Beach Concours and Monterey
Historic Races in August. Look
for them on a road near you.
Our Miata contacts in Taupo were Murray and Barbara Stanley. Again, we were invited to dinner - aren't
these Kiwi Miata people great - and heard about their experiences with the
club. They have had their MX-5 since 1996 and Murray is currently coordinator of the Chapter
in the Taupo area. Murray also has an interesting
job as an engineering manager at the Wairakei Power Station. This is a tourist spot in itself, being
the second largest geothermal power station in the world when it was built
in 1950. Thus we were invited
for a private tour of the geothermal fields and power production facility.
(Actually, Linda declined with a comment something like, 'If you've seen one
electrical generator, you've seen them all.') I, however, enjoyed the tour, adding it
to my list of fossil fuel, hydro, wind and nuclear power plant experiences.
As we headed north, our next stop was Hamilton. Actually, we had not planned to go there,
but again, we had received a very nice email from some Miata types and couldn't
refuse the invitation. Alison
Harold and Gary Wood have a long history with the MX-5. They bought their
first in 1992 and Alison was president of the national organization for two
years. They now have the distinction
of owning six, plus an RX-7 and Mazda 6. I guess you could say that they're
sold on them. Actually a couple of that stable are co-owned and they are being
refurbed for sale. Alison and Gary are particularly taken
by the special editions, having a 10th AE, 2000 Merlot (Mahogany
in the US), a 2002 titanium
gray and a white special edition available only in Japan. They had attended the 2003 Tokyo auto show (along with
1.4 million other folks) and so we spent some time
looking at photos of a number of cars, including the Ibuki concept and the
MazdaSpeed turbocharged Miata. We were really just passing through Hamilton, but we had time
for a quick city tour and lunch. It
was over that meal that Gary
proposed an idea that I think might appeal to a number of US Miata owners. Since it falls into the category of future
concepts with maybe a little blue-sky thrown in, I think we'll save it for
the end of this article. Read on.
Auckland is New Zealand's largest city by far
and that area is also home to the greatest number of MX-5s in the country. We had been contacted by several club members
living in greater Auckland,
but our plans called for only a brief stay in the area. We accepted an invitation to spend the
night at the home of one of the most enthusiastic club members and her partner,
Kleo and Blair. In addition, Kleo
and her brother found a way to cook more food on a barbie
than we could have imagined. We
were joined for dinner by several friends, including another Miata owner,
Tony Clarke. The great thing about
all of these get-togethers was that we not only learned a lot about their
Miata activities, but also about Kiwi attitudes and culture. Topics ranged from politics to Maori history,
immigration, art, Kiwi healthcare, property values, and sports!
The next day we had made plans to drive to the Bay of Islands,
an area that we had visited too briefly on our first New Zealand adventure. We made time, however, to meet with two
more couples that had responded to our original inquiry. We were particularly keen on seeing Carl
and Susi Brumback. They
are originally from the US
and, in fact, lived for several years in Akron,
Ohio, just a few miles from where
I grew up. Small
world, huh? They emigrated about 4 years ago and recently
became New Zealand
citizens. We met them at their
beautiful house, overlooking Cockle
Bay and got a lot of
insight into their love of the country they now call home. Carl made the point, as had many of our
new friends, that New Zealand
is about the perfect place to have a Miata. The roads are twisty and smooth,
the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous and the climate is temperate enough to enjoy
these cars all year long, most of the time with the top down.
As we continued north, we stopped at the home of Nigel and Sally Every. They purchased their first Miata about
four years ago, but boy have they been busy. We inspected numbers 7 and 8, both 1996
VR Limited models, imported from Japan. They are quite unique, being dark green
with black leather interior, green tops and bronze-colored wheels. Only 800 were produced. They also showed us an album of the other
Miatas they have owned, including a bright yellow model that Nigel won in
a drawing sponsored by a radio station.
Not to be topped, Sally had a red Miata that was used in a TV commercial.
Nigel is currently editor of the New Zealand MX-5 Club newsletter,
topDOWN, which is quite a handsome publication. Back issues can be viewed on the club's
web site. As I am the editor of
the NWOhio Miata Club's newsletter, the M
Edition, we found a lot to talk about.
We also found out that Sally's work may bring her to Canada in the future, so of course we invited them
to check out the Miata culture in the US.
It was then on to Paihia in the Bay of Islands
where we spent the next two weeks. This area has a bit of the feeling of the
Florida Keys, with lots of water sports of all forms.
The water and the islands are beautiful and, again, even in the height
of the summer tourist season, things are not really crowded.
We managed to do some swimming, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and driving
over some more of the island's great roads.
This is also an area steeped in Maori culture and we were fortunate
to be there on Waitangi
Day. It commemorates the signing
and the Maori tribal chiefs and is the equivalent of our 4th of
July. Since we were staying within
walking distance of where the treaty was signed, we joined the Prime Minister
and a whole bunch of other people in the celebration.
We had a real surprise when we checked our email one day
and had a note from Tony Clarke. His partner, Jan, had been away when we had
met him in Auckland.
She was sorry she had missed us, so they invited us to spend a couple of days
with them, since we were to fly home from Auckland
airport. We really couldn't change
our plans, so we agreed to meet them for dinner at the airport before we left.
It was fun seeing Tony again and meeting Jan and it sure beat cooling
our heels at the airport for several hours.
They wished us well on our trip home and it was with real mixed emotions
that we boarded the flight.
we planned this trip, we knew it was going to be a great experience, but we
never anticipated meeting so many nice folks through our common interest in
Miatas. We thank each of our new
friends for the terrific hospitality we were shown and invite any members
of the Kiwi MX-5 club to contact us if they get to our part of the world.
* * * * *
So what did Gary Wood come up with at lunch that day? Well, he wondered if there would be an
interest among US Miata owners in a custom-tailored New Zealand tour package. He was thinking of providing 3 or 4 Miatas
(they'd be used, but solid cars) that people could rent as a group. He'd provide
directions for tours of New
Zealand highlights over the kinds of roads
we all like to drive. The package
could include accommodations and could be customized to fit the needs of the
group. Gary's not a travel agent, but he has the kind
of local knowledge regarding the cars and roads that would make this kind
of trip very special. It's not
very often that a great idea like this is developed without the influence
of a few beers, so he may just have a winner.
I'll be keeping in touch with Gary,
so email me if this idea sparks an interest.