I like the simplicity French cars offer. Not the simplicity of the machine itself, gosh no, they’re engineered to a sort of graceful, nonsensical, futile elegance that is nearly exclusively appealing to my eccentricities. But there is a simplicity of the ownership experience here in the United States.
For example, if you found yourself inclined to pick up an old Citroen DS, with a hydropneumatic suspension and a virtually nonexistent parts network in the lower 48, well, there you go. Your build plan is “Keep it running”. There is a single, meandering, occasionally rocky, and ultimately rewarding path to march down. And it’s one that’s somewhat limited purely by available options. Most of what you’ll end up doing with is just keeping the mechanical gremlins at bay.
God help you should you choose a model that’s got a viable aftermarket. God help you should you find yourself inclined toward Miatas. It’s like arriving at a roundabout with infinite offramps to meander down, some of which will leave you with an ultimately unsatisfying lump of metal slowly oxidizing in your driveway.
So if you’ve decided to eschew better guidance and pick up a project car, I have a whole litany of unsolicited advice to give you. We’re actually working on a step-by-step guide now written by perhaps the least qualified person to speak on successful project completions (hi!). However, this isn’t that guide, and if you’ve only got 9 seconds, here’s the only two things you’ll need to remember to help you find your path:
First - buy a daily driver.
Two - write a story.
The recommendation came from one of the earliest conversations I ever had with our editor Toni and if that advice strikes you the same way it struck me - odd and potentially cumbersome for those of us not gifted in the creative arts - well, you’re in good company. But upon deeper reflection, it has saved me more time, money, and emotional angst than any three consecutive words since my incubation in this hobby.
The exercise is simple to explain - if, once completed, your project car had a story to tell, how would it go? Don’t be afraid to get swept away in the fictional universe building ensuring total narrative consistency. There have been nights as of late where I’ve relied upon that universe to help pull me out of wormholes of parts catalogs and Crooober auction results, and I’m confessing something personal to you now because the story I’m about to tell you now is one only two other people have heard and that was only because tequila trends toward honesty.
Without further ado, this is the completely untrue story of the M2 1159.
Once upon a time in the early fall of 1994, a young professional was leaving their apartment in Yokohama to hop on the Tōyoko Line for the hour long trip to Setagaya, a neighborhood on the southwest side of Tokyo. With everything going on in the country, finding free time was becoming nigh-on impossible; however, our protagonist was on a mission.
The professional - not fresh out of college but young enough to still get interrogated getting into a bar - had an appointment in a building that still stands as a monument to postmodernism: the M2 Headquarters. If you’re not familiar with M2, that’s okay, about 4 months after our story takes place, the company would fall victim to the aforementioned “everything going on in the country” and the deed and title would be transferred from Mazda to a funeral home operator.
For four years, starting in 1991, M2 acted as an in-house R&D department for the Japanese OEM, developing concepts to drive the future of the company, selling standalone models, and, as our young professional from Yokohama was apt to explore, personal commissions.
Being originally from Kanagawa and old enough to grow up during the Japanese automotive renaissance combined to make a particularly potent blend of car enthusiast. Equal parts access to some of the greatest driving roads in the hemisphere and rabid passion for the car hobby tend to do that to someone, and it left our friend in quite the predicament. On weekends when they weren’t working, they would head back to the mountain passes in their first generation, second-hand RX-7 to enjoy the natural splendors and the civil engineers who supplemented them with intricate asphalt ribbons.
One Saturday evening in 1993, just before sunset as our protagonist was on the way home, they happened to notice a trio of decidedly not stock 911 Turbos headed into the mountains for what appeared to be some night runs. Curiosity won the evening and the professional followed them through the tollbooth on the Hakone Turnpike. The 930s took a gingerly start out of the gate, and by the time the turbines had spooled into the boost, they could only catch a fleeting glimpse of vanishing taillights and the flash of unburnt fuel igniting in the exhaust between the guardrail posts.
That was the first night. Four months and some knuckle-busting modifications yielded nearly identical results on what would become a Saturday evening ritual. If, in fact, our professional sought to keep up even to the first turn-out, they would need some qualified assistance. Which is why they find themselves on a train to Setagaya on an otherwise gloomy autumn day.
M2 was, at the time, eager to tap into the global success of the MX-5. On multiple occasions, their MX-5-based projects - the 1001, the 1002 and the 1028 in particular - became limited production runs based on a theme, from relaxed, leather-wrapped grand tourers to track-focused specials. Our professional’s commission would exceed these initial efforts by some...substantial margin.
Conceptually, the yet-to-be-named commission was set to become a giant killer with a bright, smiling face. If the initial product from Mazda was a triumph of balance, the reimagined car would have to work exceptionally hard to keep everything level, as the specs called for tripling the power out of the 1.8L motor in an effort to keep pace with the heavier, high-output Porsches.
Forced induction and a fully-built motor were just the tip of the iceberg. Supercharging was chosen to keep the powerband level and predictable. Everything between the ground and the subframe would be reinforced or outright replaced - keeping the playful communication with the driver, but replacing low-limit manual steering giggles with organ contusing grip.
It would never work as a production concept, as the car would upstage the just-released third-generation RX-7 on the Bayshore Route, if you happened to be into those sort of shenanigans, which, officially, M2 frowned upon. Officially.
That is, if the commission was fulfilled at all.
WIth the economy rapidly falling apart, M2 was having trouble keeping the lights on. There were rumblings of having the entire division axed for months, as engineers toiled through the backlog and drastic cost-cutting measures endured by the rest of the company at-large.
In the early spring of 1995, our professional’s deposit on the project was returned as it became increasingly unlikely they wouldn’t have the operating cash to bolt the lugnuts on a Bongo, let alone engineer a home team 911 Turbo slayer from a sports car that could barely turn the drums on a dyno on a warm day. And so our professional carried on, eventually picking up a Mazdaspeed NB and dreaming of what might have been.
What our professional didn’t know - and, for that matter, neither did anyone in the Mazda corporate office - was that in the throes of the M2 division’s demise, the message to cancel the purchase order for a very special MX-5 never quite made it to the small cadre of development engineers. Seeing the sun set on a tumultuous decade of unimaginable prosperity and possibility, and sensing their time was limited, the engineers got to work designing what was - at the time - a lethal iteration of the world’s most benign sports car.
Never officially receiving a name in the M2 registry of projects, the engineers dubbed the car the M2 1159 - being their magnum opus that escaped just before the stroke of midnight that sealed their fate.
Nobody actually knows what became of the car. Rumor has it a senior engineer on the project came back from a shake down run and wrote a check for the down payment 10 minutes later, but that’s likely just apocryphal, much like the spotty reports at the time of an MX-5 tearing up and down the Hakone turnpike well past waking hours as an absolute phantom terror to R34 Skyline GT-Rs. That could be purely coincidence, though. Probably.