MazdACT Stories – Tom Walter’s 1999 Mazda NB MX5

Warning – this story contains themes that may be triggering to some readers, caution is advised. 

It’s early April and Autumn has begun in the nation’s capital. Fonz Campa’s MPS 6 story has just been published when the team receives a message from local MazdACT MX5 member, Tom Walter.  

“Hey Justin. If you’re looking for more content, I have a story you might find interesting. It’s a fixer upper. A journey of vehicle obsession, from hail damaged write off to gleaming machine and the mental health reasons that drove it.” 

This is the first time MazdACT has been approached for a story by an owner. What begins as a tale of car ownership and passion soon reveals a story of discovery, tragedy and parental love all within the orbit of Tom’s 1999 Mazda NB MX5. 

Tom hasn’t always been a Canberran. Originating from the rugged countryside of Tasmania, his father was a keen motorcyclist and, while this would occupy his own youth riding dirt bikes on farm tracks, Tassie’s chilly climate and an uncompromising mother put paid to further two-wheeled adventures. 

We learn that several interesting cars have graced Tom’s driveway – a canvas topped 1988 Holden Drover (rebadged Suzuki Sierra), a targa top 1979 Fiat X1.9 Bertone, a 2003 Mazda SP20 and a V8 VZ Holden Calais.

It was the Calais, however, that turned Tom back towards Mazda. While enthusiasts across Australia identify with the ubiquitous Holden and Tom loved it for what it was, it was ‘what it wasn’t’ that left him searching. Something light, nimble, manual and more akin to his first love – motorbikes. Something born far from Australian shores in the factories of Mazda, Japan. 

“I loved the Calais for its power, refinement and versatility. But on a backroad you couldn’t get away from its weight, auto box and family sedan underpinnings. I’d find myself rowing it through ‘1 2 3 D’ just to hear the engine and realized I needed the opposite. Something light, chuck’able, a manual, a point of difference from the mundane, but like the Calais – something I could work on myself” 

In a very Australian manner, after several missed opportunities it was an MX5 Gumtree ad in early 2019 that caught his wife’s eye. Located in Sydney, it was advertised for $5000 when everything else was closer to double and he jumped at it with an inspection.

“I’m a sucker for a fixer upper. I’ve realised that’s why I like older cars. They’re often more straightforward, and as a hobbyist mechanic with more ambition than talent I can be brave and have a crack at things where I wouldn’t dare on a modern vehicle. When people find out how much work I’ve put into the car, they often ask ‘why didn’t you just buy a new car?’ Well; that’d be boring wouldn’t it? There’s nothing to fix” 

A new car may well have been the answer. What greeted Tom was a car that had seen better days. The MX5 had dings and bad paint, a broken wing mirror, mold in the gauge cluster, a torn up steering wheel and broken central console. But it was mechanically sound and drove beautifully. Most importantly, it had potential. Tom drove it home a happy man, having paid $4000.

The next five months were a time of discovery. Tom sourced parts and inspiration from Dave, known to many as the former owner of CarCo – Canberra’s only MX5 specialist and sponsor of the MX5 ACT Chapter. Dave encouraged Tom’s DIY. A better steering wheel, replacement wing mirror and front quarter panel and a lot of elbow grease contributed to a second lease on life for the vehicle, culminating in camping at the mecca of Australian racing royalty – the Bathurst 1000. 

The 2019 Black Summer Bushfires turned much of the capital region and New South Wales South Coast into a cinder, causing devastation unlike any event before it. As 2020 began, what started as a reprieve from the chaos was short lived as the Canberra Hailstorm wreaked havoc across the city. Winds of 117 kmph and hailstones as big as golf balls slammed into the city centre with a damage bill later estimated at $514 million dollars, and 70 percent of that figure in vehicle claims alone. 

Sitting at work, Tom had received a warning to get his car under cover but chose to ignore it after a non-event hailstorm the week prior. It would prove a costly lesson. 

“At the storm’s end there were dead birds everywhere, trees and branches down and cars with smashed windscreens and dents. My car was a kilometer walk away and as I got closer I’m thinking, there’s no way the MX5 could have survived this. I get to it and the car is just battered. The roof is stoved in. There’s holes in the windscreen, no rear glass left at all. Both wing mirrors are on the ground smashed. Every single panel on the car is just beaten to a pulp” 

But the car started, and Tom managed to drive home by looking out the driver’s side window. Dejected, he stripped the interior to save the ECU (located in the footwell). There were puddles of water, leaves and broken glass everywhere. The car was later assessed as ‘uneconomical to repair’ and with only third party insurance, no help was not coming over the hill. A wife who was nine months pregnant and significant hail damage to the house marked the beginning of a challenging period with no time to think about the car. 

The MX5 sat under a tarp as the family marked the birth of their daughter Charlotte in Canberra a week later. What should have been a happy moment was tinged with grief as, on the same day in Indonesia, Tom’s wife’s father passed away in a vehicle accident while awaiting news of the birth. Within days COVID-19 hit and, still recovering from the birth, they were unable to travel to Indonesia for the funeral.

It was some time before Tom could consider what was next for the MX5. Considering the value of a sale, the damage put paid to any prospective buyer. It was at this point he decided ‘to hell with it’ and with just a thousand dollars on the table Tom got the windscreen changed and purchased a new hood that he would fit himself.

I was moping around feeling sorry for myself when it hit me. The car was effectively worthless. There was no better time to get brave and have a go. I literally couldn’t make it any worse! So that’s what I did, starting with the hood. But, for anyone contemplating a hood replacement themselves at home – don’t (laughs). It’s the worst job you can possibly do on an MX5. There’s rivets, glue, screws, sharp edges and wires, clamping and ratchet straps, all kinds of things going on!” 

Tom leaned into the damage and contacted Stickeroo to design a decal for the rear bumper that simply read ‘hammered’. It drew amusement across the territory from drivers and pedestrians alike as the literally ‘hammered’ MX5 sped by. Come the Spring of 2021, he tried his hand at removing the dents himself with an ‘ebay kit’. It would be short lived as he discovered that 20 year old aluminum does not simply spring back, with most of the damage being irreversible.

And then seemingly a stroke of luck. A three year deployment (DFAT) to Indonesia. A chance to boost his income and bring the family together with his mother-in-law, who was not coping with her husband’s passing. Only there was a catch. The high COVID-19 risk in Indonesia meant Tom’s family could not immediately join him. Tom deployed, the car went to Hobart to stay with his father and so began detachment from both family, ironically, and his pride and joy.

Three months in, Tom received a phone call no parent ever wishes to hear. 

“It was my wife. Our son Matt had drowned on the South Coast. She was barely coherent but frantically giving him CPR while awaiting an ambulance.  “GET ON A PLANE RIGHT NOW AND GET HOME!” I couldn’t breathe. My world had just upended and I was far away, at a time when planes weren’t flying. After some diplomatic intervention I was fighting my back to Australia, zigzagging across south East Asia on whatever flight I could get” 

Matt was airlifted to the Sydney Royal Children’s Hospital and placed in a Coma. A bleak outlook held focus as Matt’s prognosis of traumatic brain injury became clear, if indeed he ever woke. But wake up he did, and though every step was hard won over the next eight months – Matt slowly came back to the world. Relearning to move his limbs, eat and even breathe through intensive therapy, permanent brain damage meant a new reality for both Matt and the Walter family.

As Matt’s recovery progressed to the point of hospital discharge and being able to come home to Canberra, Tom made the call to fly to Hobart to retrieve the car – with Matt by his side.

The pair would bond in the cockpit on the long return home. As anyone who’s driven an older MX5 knows; fun it may be, but a highway machine it was not. Especially at the height of summer with a failed A/C system. But the heat was minor in their first real father and son moment since the upheaval.

“I think at one point cruising up from Melbourne, it hit 43 degrees. Yeah, (Laughs). So we went through all the little towns you would usually miss, taking the back roads. Starting from Hobart all the way up, we didn’t take any highways until we hit the NSW border. We stopped a lot, had fun with it, and sampled every ice cream store we could find!” 

From this point forward the MX5 and Matt’s recovery are woven together. Trips to Sydney for medical appointments saw downtime occupied by Tom hunting online for new panels, bodywork restoration and shuttling pieces back to Canberra for application. Piece by piece the MX5 started looking worse at first, with mismatched but straight panels. But in the process it carried both Tom and Matt away from the worries of the world as they worked in the garage and took ‘test drives’ across the territory with each change.

The end of 2023 saw a full respray, and for Christmas Tom cheekily gifted himself White Line sway bars, underbody chassis bracing, a brake upgrade, uprated MazdaSpeed engine mounts, a front lip and sports seats. The standard 1.8 litre engine remained, though a supercharger is still on Tom’s wish list while a roll bar awaits fitment in the garage.

For a car that started out life as a chance to be brave, its legacy is not lost on Tom. 

“I think Mazda, and the MX5 particularly, has a special place in the car marketplace today. It just has this driver-focused quality, no matter the market segment – Mazda’s offering is often the most dynamic. It’s where BMW was in the 90’s in terms of its driver appeal. It’s what they used to call the ultimate driving machine – for the enthusiast” 

As Tom points out, it could realistically have been any car, but the MX5 with its meccano-like construction, strong driving dynamics and open top fun factor. It not only became a car of passion in the family, but also one of consistency, escape and bonding. The car has endured hardship alongside its owners and a rebirth in more ways than one.

But one last challenge lies ahead. As a two seater, Matt’s three siblings also want in on the action, and he might be needing some more seats… 

The team at MazdACT Stories thank Tom and Matt for sharing their story.  

Photographed at The National Arboretum Canberra by Tyler Parrott of Cutbackcbr featuring Tom Walter. Cinematography and article hosted by Kevin Ha at StreetScene. Editing and review by Tom Walter. Words, research and story by Justin Bush for MazdACT Stories, April 2024.