The Mazda MX-5 – AKA Miata or Roadster – is a pillar of automotive fun. A back-to-basics driving experience focusing sharply on driver engagement, with a realistic barrier for entry giving the everyman a chance to feel like Schumacher… or in our case, the chance to feel like the Drift King himself.
Our story starts in 2017, with a young Ben Rowlands. With an itch to go drifting, Ben made his way into an MX-5, and, as you do, started to gel with various friends who shared his hobby. From 2017 to 2020, Ben learned about his hobby more and more, and as his understanding of the craft matured he made his way into other more powerful cars. He owned and drifted a red Nissan Silvia S13 by 2019, but he just couldn’t shake the bug – Ben needed to get back into another MX-5.
2019 came and went, and with it a silver NA MX-5 which you are looking at here. You’re probably thinking ‘which one?’ and bear with, we’ll get to that.
2020 was a fuzzy, weird period of time for everyone, but coming out of it Ben was filled with drive and an idea to create something fun. One of his good local friends, Connor, owned a unit where he stored and worked on his own car. Ben had met him through drifting some years prior, with Connor’s car at the time being a red NA MX-5. I think you can see where this is going…
Connor’s MX-5 was eventually swapped for another, which followed on from another boosted MX-5 he had, and then…
Look, I’ll be honest with you, these boys have explained it to me a few times now and I’m still lost with exactly how many MX-5s Connor owned previously, but what you need to know is that in 2020 Connor had a blue one and Ben had a silver one. You are looking at these cars now.
The two lads were good friends, had a similar driving style, attended the same events at the same tracks, and had nearly identical cars. Their MX-5s were naturally very well suited to each other, so this was the perfect time for Ben to run with his idea: A group of friends that could enter team drifting events sharing a love for the same chassis.
And so, in 2020, Ben and Connor painted their cars red (the fastest colour known to man…) and started to attend events together under the team name Gripped Up.
2021 arrived, which is when I first crossed paths with the boys, although at the time I didn’t know their names and didn’t get the chance to say hello. What I did see though, was them absolutely sling-shotting these naturally aspirated, tiny MX-5s into fast entries, going backwards, up a hill at Anglesey Race Course in North Wales during Drift Matsuri. I was amazed, and I walked away from that event being stunned by how lively they sounded and how quick they looked.
I was then even more amazed to learn that Ben’s MX-5 was a standard 1.6L model with a welded differential. It quite literally only had 113bhp new, let alone 20+ years later, and here it was chasing competition-spec drift cars into the main areas of the track. Unreal.
Connor’s car, however, has the 1.8L VVT engine from the NB MX-5, giving it a truly staggering 20bhp more over Ben’s car.
But, you need three for a party, and Ben wanted to grow the team further. Two identical MX-5s were not enough, and they began the hunt for a third team member. Turns out, they didn’t really have to look far…
Introducing Dan O’Shea, who was also at Drift Matsuri and also had his own NA MX-5. It was bright blue, and I liked it so much I also grabbed a photo of it in the pit before Dan was ever part of Gripped Up. Ben jokes to me today: “Connor and I basically abducted Dan and forced him to paint his car red,” but Dan was good friends with Connor already, and wanted a slice of the awfully fun and addictive action.
Dan is another MX-5 addict, having also learned his way around the chassis with previous cars, including a boosted one just like Connor had. What we have here then is three friends who have experienced more powerful and bigger drift cars, but were quick to point out to me that power alone didn’t define how intense and engaging a drifting experience is.
The photos you’re seeing in this article are all from our time at Dorifest in Scotland at Driftland, which was the trio’s first time driving together for a whole weekend. Let’s finally put the names to the faces to the cars…
On the left we have Dan, his NA is the once blue, now turned red 1.8L VVT-powered car running independent throttle bodies from an AE111 Toyota. In the middle we have Ben, whose car at the time of these photos ran a simple 1.6L setup – that’s it. On the right with have Connor, who also has a 1.8L VVT mill with a curious quad throttle body setup from a Honda CBR1000 motorcycle.
So, why the MX-5? Ben explained to me: “They simply drive really, really well. That’s the most important thing. When we’ve driven these cars as a duo and now a trio, there’s an unmatched, hectic energy. The sound they make -especially the ITB’d cars – is so buzzy, and they rev up so well it’s reminiscent of videos we used to watch of AE86s in Japan. These MX-5s are wild and noisy things.”
Open sessions are where the three gents really put on a show. The event invited a couple of teams and drive duos, but the Gripped Up MX-5s ruled the day and entertained the audience like nothing else.
If you want to understand why people refer to ITBs as trumpets, these cars are a great case study. Not only do they look like trumpets, but they sound like a jazz band at the peak of their performance. Due to the lower power of the cars, endless clutch kicking is required to keep the wheels spinning and momentum going. During that s-bend in the middle of the track, Ben would kick the clutch six to 10 times to keep up with the powerful cars. This is the trumpet player performing their solo!
There really is something musical about these three MX-5s, and being able to master that sense adds a layer to the experience you just don’t get from other cars which, simply put, just make noise. Ben does admit that as fun as the 1.6L is, after the event he did install a 1.8L VVT lump into his MX-5 to match the other boys, and is currently on the hunt for ITBs to level the playing field.
What I’ve not really touched on yet is the reliability and affordability of these cars, and I did that on purpose. When you speak to anyone about MX-5s, they’ll throw you the ‘it’s the one to get because it’s affordable’ card your way which to most people, including myself, is the ace in the deck. Bang for buck is an important thing I look for when weighing up my personal car choices, and the MX-5 is without rival.
However, I really believe there is no reason the experience I had with the Gripped Up boys going round Driftland should be valued any lesser than some of the more sought after cars. These MX-5s were a more enjoyable, more intense and ultimately a more fun experience than I’ve had from some Nissan S-chassis, BMW M-cars or even Toyota JZXs. All those cars have their time and place where they win at a game of Top Trumps, but on the day it’s the MX-5s that leave me with the biggest grin on my face.
And in the real world, on UK streets it’ll be the MX-5 that will be most approachable and leaves me with the following thoughts: Am I paying five times less for this MX-5 experience because it’s five times lesser than a more powerful, more sought after car? Absolutely not.
Chatting to the Gripped Up guys really opened my eyes to accessibility of drifting in the UK. Having gone from higher-powered cars back to what they first fell in love with in MX-5s shows that a purer experience is a priority for them. Ben was giving me the lowdown on their experience of reliability and it seems to me you can do as much or as little as you want with these cars.
All their cars have cut steering knuckles, lighter flywheels (this definitely helps their musical sound), paddle clutches, adjustable arms and 6-speed gearboxes from the NB MX-5. Ben tells me the 6-speed really transforms the NA MX-5. Ben’s car has a 4.3 ratio welded differential, making up for some of the power he lacked, whilst Connor and Dan have welded 4.1 differentials. Ben has HSDs and 13-inch wheels, Dan has Meisters and 14-inch wheels, and Connor has BCs and 15-inch wheels.
Ben treats his car as a “nail” and never does anything apart from oil changes, meanwhile Dan’s one goes through oil consumption issues even though his car is comfiest and the nicest drive of the bunch. Connor fiddles with his engine everyday, and his ownership experience sort of sits in between the other two.
So, has Ben’s idea of creating a team worked? Absolutely. Gripped Up left Dorifest with the ‘Tandem Kings’ award, and rightly so. But I don’t think that was the end goal for the team. I asked Ben what he thinks of Gripped Up and the MX-5s so far, and he responded with: “The ‘end all be all’ of all of this, is that we’re just some mates with MX-5s. Driving as much as we can and having a great time is the goal. The MX-5s allow us to do that, and there’s no plans to change it.”