Let go by McLaren Automotive along with 1,199 other employees earlier this year, Bruce Southey at least had his side project to fall back on. He first squeezed a Jaguar V6 into a Mazda MX-5's engine bay three years ago, as much for his own amusement as anything else. The MX-5 community sat up and took notice, and Rocketeer steadily grew into a respectable little business. Six months ago, it became Southey's full-time job.
His company operates out of a small industrial unit around the back of Hungerford train station, sharing space with engine specialist Basset Down Balancing. To date, Rocketeer has supplied around 100 of its adapted V6 engines to MX-5 owners, a dozen or so of those being full turnkey builds. These conversions are what Rocketeer is concentrating on now.
It'll supply an engine ready for you to fit yourself for £4,995 (plus VAT), but a turnkey build starts at £12,500. That includes the donor car and whatever work is required to bring it up to scratch - Rocketeer won't drop one of its V6 engines into a total basket case and leave you to get on with it. If you like, the company will upgrade the brakes and suspension on top, restore the car bumper to bumper, dip the shell, paint it and reupholster the interior. One or two customers have run up £70,000 bills with Rocketeer, which shows how much some people adore Mazda's little roadster.
The car I drove was a post-2001 Mk2.5. These are especially good foundations for a Rocketeer build, says Southey, because they have stiffer shells, LSDs and six-speed 'boxes. But just about any Mk1 or Mk2 MX-5 will do. The demo car had Fox dampers and Brembo brakes, and one exactly like it could be yours for £15,000. Rocketeer's engines are warrantied, and the company will go as far with your MX-5 project as your imagination can stretch.
Why a V6? And more to the point, why the MX-5? A V8 would be too big and heavy, believes Southey, and no other six-cylinder configuration would fit beneath the diminutive Mazda's bonnet (not without significant structural changes, at least). The MX-5 is such an inherently right sports car - double wishbone suspension, lightweight construction, compact dimensions, exceptional balance - that it cries out for more power than Mazda ever blessed it with. The MX-5 and the V6 motor that Rocketeer chose are both readily available and cheap to buy, too.
The 3.0-litre Jaguar V6 started out in life as a Porsche design. The German manufacturer eventually chose to stick to the flat-sixes and V8s it knew so well, selling the plans and IP to the all-aluminium, 2967cc, 60-degree unit to Ford. Cosworth got involved and sometime in the early 1990s, the Ford Duratec V6 was born. Later on, some bright spark strapped a pair of them together to create the Aston Martin V12.
Rocketeer favours the Jaguar version. The AJ-30, as it's known, differs from the Duratec engine because it uses variable valve timing. Intriguingly, Mazda itself used a version of this engine in North America, though never in anything sporty. Jaguar fitted AJ-V6s to tens of thousands of saloon cars over more than a decade. This is no lazy, low-revving lump - it has oversquare pistons (89mm bore, 79.5mm stroke), meaning it revs sweetly. As it came out of the factory the AJ-30 spins to 6,800rpm, but here it revs to around 7,200rpm. In all those S-Types, X-Types and XFs, it produced up to 240hp and as much as 221lb ft of torque.
Rocketeer will balance, blueprint and refresh these engines with new piston rings, bearings, cam chains and tensioners, gaskets and seals, plus its own exhaust and intake systems. Custom engine mounts come last, after which the motor is dropped in between the donor car's strut towers. Nothing has been done by half.
Power is up to around 270hp, but that's an evolving figure - Rocketeer continues to develop exhaust systems, injectors and so on. Individual throttle bodies are on the cards but not without their challenges (there isn't a great deal of space beneath an MX-5's bonnet). What's perhaps more compelling still about the Rocketeer conversion is that the aluminium V6 weighs no more than the stock cast iron four-cylinder. Weight distribution is all but unchanged, too. At less than 1,100kg, this car has a comparable power-to-weight ratio to a Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0.
So it's fast. But it's fast in a get-down-the-gears, rev-it-out kind of way. You have to work at it, which is exactly the way it should be in a small roadster. There is good torque low down, enough to pull a higher gear with intent, but only when you chase the 7,200rpm redline gear after gear do you really feel the full force of the V6. It's a smooth and refined engine the rest of the time, and not too noisy in normal driving.
It revs so keenly and feels razor sharp at the top end. In fact, right up there, exhaust note rasping away, it has the feel of a racing engine. How this lump ever found its way into a Jaguar saloon car I'll never know - it seems wholly unsuited to that kind of vehicle. For the MX-5, though, it's a perfect match. On slight throttle openings there is a bassy tone, which develops into a zingy, tinny timbre when you open it up before building to its dramatic, stirring climax. I so miss this kind of soundtrack from modern performance cars.
The MX-5 is in no way overwhelmed by this level of power and torque. The six-speed manual gearbox is unchanged but more than up to the task. The standard car's sweetly mechanical gearshift is therefore present and correct, so too its closely-stacked ratios. Traction is exceptionally good as well, even on a wet road, perhaps because of the linear and progressive way in which the engine delivers its power. The rear axle will take everything the engine has to give coming away from a tight bend in second gear, the car hunkering down and sling-shotting itself along the next straight.
With weight and the distribution of it unchanged, this MX-5 feels exactly like any factory MX-5, just with much more performance and a far angrier soundtrack. There's still that signature balance mid-corner, still that exaggerated body roll that lets you read the car and feel the grip, plus crisp, detailed steering. There is good mechanical grip but not so much the car feels suffocated by it, plus a decent trade-off between pliancy over bumps and body control. The car is fluid without being wayward; alive but not loose.
The Brembo brakes are strong and the pedal feel very good, although if this were my car I'd want to see about reinforcing the shell and settling the ride a little. The body structure tends to shudder and rattle over bumps, as is the way with a decades-old roadster, while the suspension is a shade unyielding for my tastes, although only on really uneven road surfaces. Just occasionally, you'll crash over an unseen ridge in the road and the suspension will seem to tense up, the impact shuddering through the body structure.
Most of all, though, the Rocketeer MX-5 is just enormously rewarding to drive. It has an MX-5's poise, balance and playfulness, but with huge performance and an engine to die for. For me, somebody who appreciates the little Mazda but certainly doesn't worship it, there is a kind of disconnect between the cost of a turnkey Rocketeer and the dated way in which the body flexes, plus the brittleness of the interior plastics. Putting the spellbinding powertrain to one side, the Rocketeer car still feels exactly like a £2,000 MX-5 to sit in, to steer, to look at and to operate.
Perhaps my ideal Rocketeer would cost a little more than this one, with choice refinements made to the shell and cabin. I'm sure it's eminently doable. What I liked most about the Rocketeer is that it offers those of us who live down here in the real world an affordable taste of the restomod scene. Singers, Alfaholics, Eagles and the rest are well out of my reach, but not this MX-5 with its screaming V6 - and that has to be some good news to end the year with.
SPECIFICATION | ROCKETEER MAZDA MX-5
Engine: 2,967cc, V6
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 270@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 225@5,500rpm
0-62mph: 5.0 seconds (estimated)
Top speed: 161mph
Price: From £4,995 (plus VAT) for engine kits, from £12,500 for turnkey builds
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