The Dreaded Pulley Problem
by Terese Mac Davis
This is the story of a little red Miata that wouldn’t give up. My partner Bill and I bought the
car. (We restored 1st generation Miatas for years.) When we saw this red ’91, we fell for
the beautiful body, the energy, the agility, and the handling of the car. It was absolutely
gorgeous and drove like a dream.
We never expected what we found when we got it home. We had missed the fatal flaw. Our
mechanic, Jeff, looked over our newest car, and then he looked up at us from the engine
bay. He had one of those “uh oh” looks on his face. “Did you look at the pulley?”
Everyone’s heard and talked about the dreaded pulley problem on the early ‘90s Miatas.
The pulley problem is when the bolt is not tightened properly in the crank shaft and it starts
to loosen and wobble. If you look at the pulley down low in front of the engine, you can see
if it’s running straight or wobbling. If it’s “wallering” it will eventually ruin an engine.
You know that moment when your stomach feels kinda funny? No, we hadn’t looked at the
pulley. We had flat out missed it. We were still fairly new at this, but Jeff had lectured us on
what to look for and number one on the list was the crankshaft pulley. Once we looked, we
could see it clearly.
This was a serious (and expensive) mistake that we had made. We couldn’t fix it and we
couldn’t sell it. Jeff’s prognosis was that it could be welded, but that the weld wouldn’t hold.
This was a cryin’ shame on several levels. It was a shame this beautiful little car had such a
huge problem. The only way to fix it was to replace the engine, or at least the crankshaft.
We would have to put way more money into it than we had. We’d replaced an engine
before, and it was expensive and we didn’t have any fun. It was time to cut our losses.
We decided to sell it “as is” with full disclosure of what was wrong with it. In all our Miata
buying deals, no seller ever told us when something was wrong! But Bill, my partner, was
really particular about selling a car with something wrong. He not only made sure the
person knew what the problem was but also that he was capable of dealing with it.
We kept the little red car for quite a while as we waited for a buyer. We enjoyed it and it
sure looked good out in front of my house with the rest of the Miatas we had in stock.
There were no signs of trouble the whole time we had it. Except of course the wobbling
Finally, the right buyer showed up. Tim was a music teacher and he couldn’t afford much.
When he saw that car, his eyes lit up. When he drove it, he bonded instantly.
Bill explained the problem with it, in exhaustive detail, and said it would probably need a
new engine within a year, but Tim didn’t freak out. We introduced him to our mechanic Jeff,
who explained again. Despite the pulley, Tim bought it, and then he took it to Jeff to weld.
Tim decided he would drive it and enjoy it and then change the engine when it finally failed.
I ran into Tim a few times over the years and he still had that little car. Jeff had welded it a
second time and said this was probably the last time a weld would hold. That pulley could
go at any time, and the car wasn’t safe to drive. We were amazed - it had lasted eight
Tim asked me if I would sell the Miata for him. I knew the car was still well worth saving. It
was fabulous! It had a new Robbins top with a glass zipperless window, new tires, and the
paint looked brand new. It was gorgeous, shiny red, extra peppy and agile, and it drove like
a dream. Or it would, with a new engine.
I had been following the Miata.net postings and all the folks in the Snowbelt complained
about how bad the rust was on the Miatas they found in their area. They talked about
replacing engines and crankshafts and wrenching everything. So for them, this was the
perfect car! Not a spot of rust anywhere. Priced at $1500 with a new top, new tires, and
182k miles on the clock, it was definitely worth saving.
Tim drove it gingerly over to my house. I cleaned it up and fixed a few little things and then
advertised it on Craigslist as a beautiful car needing a new engine. There would be no test
drives and it didn’t have a smog certificate. I wasn’t even sure it would start (although it did
on the first try).
It was Memorial Day Weekend and I had the Miata advertised on Craigslist, and I also had
ads in the Modesto Bee and on Cars.com. My ad said the Miata needed a new engine, and
then showed the picture. I knew that when they saw the picture, everyone would fall for this
We were blessed with a beautiful, holiday weekend. The phone started ringing. The first
caller came to see it right away. He was a young man starting college and his father was a
mechanic and came with him. They seriously considered it and went home to think about it.
However, the next day another man called about the car. He was very interested because
he had a crappy Miata with a good engine. He came to look at ours . . . with a trailer! He
and his brother bought it. I’ll bet those guys had that ‘91 engine changed out by the end of
So we got big Miata smiles, even though we never offered a test drive and the car needed
an engine. Tim got his money and was able to buy his next car. Everyone was happy, and
another Miata lives on.
Copyright@2012 by Terese Mac Davis