Novice/Intermediate: Knock knock and oil, the Achilles heel of the MZR/Duratec engine.

Knock knock, who is there? It’s the conrod and bearing, if you keep on starting the car or driving it’ll pop out to say hello.

If your engine is rattling or knocking try this test:

When the engine is idling if you rev the engine gently and it makes a rhythmic knock on the overrun then 9 times out of 10 it’s been run low on oil, the bearings have made contact with the crank (metal on metal) and this has worn part of the bearing metal away. There are many different degrees of severity (the louder the knock, the more damage has been done) but that’s the basics of it. If you want to be 100% sure then take the oil filter off, cut the threaded end off, pull the paper element out and look in the pleats around the outside for non-ferrous bearing material, usually in the form of bright aluminium flakes.

This was quite a bad one.

If it’s really knocking hard or constantly DON’T try to run the engine any more to show your Facebook fans and don’t drive it. It will not get better until it’s been rebuilt, don’t waste your time and money changing the oil or any of that rubbish, but it will get worse and cost a lot more if you carry on running it. You probably know very little about engines, but I think you’ll agree that this is not how it’s supposed to look in there:

This is what is left in the sump pan when someone didn’t stop the engine in time.

If the engine is run under load and/or without oil what eventually happens is the bearing and the crank journal get so hot they fuse together with the friction, this grabs the thin shell bearing and spins it round in the rod (hence the term ‘spun a bearing’) so now it’s damaged the crank, bearing and connecting rod. The next stage is where it really kicks off and things start breaking apart, sometimes the rod can seize, snap off and punch its way out of the block.

More delights, the entire engine was scrap so much of it had been damaged.

NCs and Duratecs are known for rod bearing failure, but that is no fault of the bearing.

Why are so many MZR/Duratec engined cars (including the MX-5 Mk3) running out of oil?

Let’s look at an MZR piston:

As you can see there are 3 grooves in a normal piston with rings in them. The top ring is called the ‘compression ring’ as the name suggests it seals to the bore so the piston can support compression and pressure. The second ring backs up the top one and prevents any gasses escaping down the bore. Right at the bottom are the oil control rings. This is a 3 component pack which as the name suggests prevents oil from coming from down below up into the combustion chamber. Note the oil staining where the oil collected and scraped off the bores has run out of the cut outs (as it should).

Piston ring tension (its strength in being able to expand to fit to the bore) is very finely balanced, too much tension and friction will go up, mpg and power will therefore go down. Too little tension and you won’t get a good seal against the bore.

As you can see in the picture the top two rings are loose in the grooves and able to expand to seal against the bore, the bore is only fractionally bigger than the piston, it’s a surprisingly tight fit. Now note how the oil control rings (which have much less tension in them) have actually become stuck in the groove. They can no longer expand to fit against the bore and oil is getting past them. You can see the soft black deposits of burned oil between the rings.

So there it is in a nutshell, oil passes by the rings, gets into the combustion chamber and is burned off until there is barely any left in the sump, the bearings then run out of oil and contact the crank.

If your engine is using oil there is nothing you can do about it apart from strip it and rebuild it with some new parts.

Forget anything else you may have read on the internet such as:

Not letting the oil level get to the halfway point, overfilling it, changing the oil, revving the engine, putting solvents in, faulty PCV valve, replacing the valve stem oil seals etc, it’s all tosh. There is no other way around it whatsoever apart from filling it up with oil every few hours!

But why specifically does this happen?

Various reasons and theories:

Oil and in particular oil changes: Mazda (and any other manufacturer) are selling cars in a competitive market, what sells cars is low running costs so they often spec long service intervals and semi-synthetic oils. These are on the whole ok, but for the uninformed or unwary sometimes too long for this engine with its Achilles heel in the form of weak oil control rings.

What happens with the Duratec is an oil goes in which is usually not fully synthetic (Mazda dealers use semi as that is what is specified), it’s left in for Mazdas prescribed interval (12k miles), often longer and the car is used by some middle aged or old person to crawl to work and back, maybe to the Supermarket once a week. The engine never sees more than 4000rpm, has old lesser quality oil in it so the oil control rings on the pistons stick together in the groove. This of course makes a mockery of the perceived increased value of a ‘Full dealer service history’ car.

It is thought that the later engines were equipped with either rings with more tension on them or perhaps a modified piston to avoid this issue. There does also seem to be a lot of 1.8 engined cars up for sale with these issues. Whether it is actually more common to the 1.8 or not is not known, it could be that the lower value of them means that when serious problems arise they are just sold on rather than repaired.

The 2.5 is certainly not immune to this problem.

Oil change intervals are a guide, not a rule. Some car manufacturers issue guidelines on oil change intervals dependent on use as things are seldom black and white, sadly Mazda don’t.

If your car is used for a lot of stop/start journeys, short trips, trackdays etc then change your oil change schedule to suit.

If your engine is healthy and you want it to stay that way then do the opposite of all that makes it break; Oil and filter changes at 6 – 8000 miles, use fully synthetic oil and when safe to do so (and the engine is fully up to temp, after at least 20 mins of driving) redline it now and again. Straight and uphill motorway slip roads private roads and tracks are good for this, get it in the lowest gear you safely can and nail it all the way up to 70mph, just be careful and don’t have an accident. Mazda engines love to be revved, they were built for it and this will help keep the piston rings free.

The problem is if you’ve bought an early car already with a certain amount of miles on it then the damage could have been already done. You can’t rewind the clock, but you can repair it by opening it up.

Buyers guide or new owners? A few things you should know about the NC.

This is a bit of a (sometimes) tongue-in-cheek article about people who don’t do research and when online forums and FB pages become boring and repetitive, don’t take that too seriously, everyone has their place in the community and new people are coming on board all the time. Do take the facts seriously though, they are very real. It isn’t a ‘How to’ guide, there are plenty of those already out there if you take time to look, but most people can’t be arsed, it’s just easier to post up and bore the pants off everyone else with repetitive mundane questions, but never mind, this guide is here to save you 🙂

So you’re searching for or you’ve already you’ve got your newly purchased NC, you didn’t do any research so it’s likely to be rusting away merrily underneath and the engine is due to run out of oil due to the pistons rings being gummed up. Here are the things which everyone in the community knows and is fed up with talking about, but you don’t….


Car manufacturers are far from stupid, yet some people think they are. On the one hand they need to keep selling new cars, on the other they do not want to see their old ones driving around with visible rust all over them. So what do they do? Up to a certain time don’t allow them to rust on top whilst letting them rot away unseen underneath. Take note of that, it’s important yet very few take any notice of the consequences and buy simply by what they see on top.

It’s an old MX5, 2006 cars are 10 a penny, 13 yrs old at the time of writing and will have rust – somewhere. They were never wax injected at the factory and the underseal was patchy. In my experience mileage tends not to matter where corrosion is concerned, it’s the age of the car and how or where it’s been used. It often starts at the base of the inner rear wheel arch where it meets the cill, this is visible from the outside, even more so when you get behind the cill with the car lifted up or by using your (phone) camera with flash to see it. Often it just looks a bit rusty, but hit it with a screwdriver and sometimes it’ll go straight through. On the positive side it’s quite easily repairable and shouldn’t cost too much either. The later the car, the less chance of it going too far. If you intend on stopping it you need to act now.

The bit you don’t normally see, but really you should.
These were for anchoring down the cars when shipped., They have no underseal around them, were often not capped off, rust like buggery and let water into the cill cavities.

Under the bootlid often looks like this, unsightly, but in the grand scheme of things not a big problem.

Rear wheel arch lips rust eventually because the arch liners hold dirt and soil against them in big clumps. What happens is these clods of earth or road debris get soaked with water (often salt water) and retain it like a sponge. Hours or days later they are still wet and holding it against the metalwork of the car. Solution? Get down and dirty, clean them out. Initially run your gloved fingers carefully around the inner lip and see how much is still there and push it out. Often it’s enough to grow some potatoes in, then get a hosepipe and point it outwards from inside the arch and wash them clean.

Rear subframes rust, not usually to the point of perforation, but sometimes on really bad ones. There are two brace bars which bolt on to the floor pan and subframe to stabilise it, they can rot away completely on top.

Not as bad as it looks as they’re still doing the job and easily repaired or replaced.
Out with the old, in with the new.

They tend not to rust much at the front, the subframe will a little, but like the rear one, it’s made from thick steel and the engine heat dries it out, wheel arches and around the wing indicator and (aluminium) bonnet sometimes corrode, but it’s rarer. Also where the glass divider in the door meets the doorskin is very common on earlier cars – easily treatable in the grand scheme of things. If the rear wheel arches are bubbling then it’s quite advanced and bad news, a proper repair job there will be a lot of money, mainly because paintwork is needed, in some cases it can be much of what the car is worth. We’ll talk about corrosion in more detail in another blog later.


This electrical plug (bottom left) in the fusebox has brown grease around it, it’s supposed to look like that, don’t worry about it.

Engine Oil

The actual grade isn’t as important as you might think, but for general road use a 5/30 or 5/40 fully synthetic will do. If your oil changes coincide with Winter and Summer you can use a slightly thinner (0/30, 0/40) in Winter and thicker in Summer, just open a manual and take a look for heavens sake. If you do a lot of track work or have a boosted car then 5/50 will do a better job. Mazda were more interested in economy than anything else, both with MPG and oil changes, this leads us onto:


‘Just because it say OXO on the side of a bus doesn’t mean the sell them there’ I was told as an apprentice.

The engine is a Duratec AKA MZR, it was designed by Mazda, not Ford, it isn’t a Ford engine, they just happened to be in partnership at the time so Ford used it in their cars too. If you want to upset a Ford Fanboi who has one tell him he’s got a Jap engine under the bonnet, when he says it isn’t ask him why it’s got a Mazda bellhousing pattern and no Ford ‘boxes fit it…..

It’s generally a very well designed and strong unit, it’s only when humans intervene (or don’t when they should!) that it can break and given you’ve probably bought a second hand old motor there is little you can do, apart from choose wisely and just hope, although if it’s smoking run a mile or expect an engine rebuild.

Read here about a very specific engine problem you need to know about:

There is a second reason for rod bearing failure and it’s less well known. If the ECU has had a bad aftermarket map put in it then something called ‘Detonation’ will occur in the combustion chamber, this is more prevalent with forced induction and engines which are burning oil. These are uncontrolled explosions in the combustion chamber which send shock waves through the pistons and rods. It squeezes the oil out of the rod bearings (top and bottom) so they come into contact with the crank damages them.

An engine burning oil will not be a healthy one. Your engine is designed to run on petrol and air, not oil! When oil is introduced the combustion chambers and exhaust ports will coke up, the engine will run into detonation territory as per above. The factory ECU will detect this and pull the timing meaning it will be down on power, if it can’t stop the detonation by doing that or everytime it does it before the engine detects it the bearings will take a hammering – and that’s before it completely runs out of oil.

So after digesting all of that what do you think the value of a car with ‘Full service history’ or even ‘Full dealer service history’? Well i’m sat here looking at the records of a car in the workshop, it has full dealer service history and had it’s oil changed with semi synthetic every 12,000 miles or so. I’m rebuilding the engine because the rings are stuck together and it ran out of oil….

My carpets are wet.

‘Oh God not wet carpets again’, is the usual retort when the subject comes up for the third time that day. It’s an MX5, it will leak at some time or another, the cures are very simple though and widely documented online. The first one is a drip from behind or under the dashboard: Externally beneath the plastic scuttle cover at the base of the windscreen are two square plastic grommets for screws to go into (one on each side), pull out the stupid dried up foam washer, clean it out carefully then put some silicone sealant around and under them, job done. The other main leak is from the drains behind the seats outside the car at waist level being blocked, shove something down to clear it after reading or watching an online guide on how to do it and the pitfalls of internal flaps and so on. Currently I’m investigating a theory that when the drains block it can overflow into the boot so bare that in mind. Trying to dry out a piss wet through car in the middle of Winter is going to be very difficult, particularly as the water is now under the carpet, has soaked the underlay and is sat against the floor pan. Prevention is better than cure, DO NOT think it won’t happen to your car, it will, they all leak at the front.

My gearbox is difficult to use when cold

If you pushed me out of bed, outside the door and told me to run to work i’d be pretty cranky too, maybe I was a gearbox in a previous life, I need to be treated carefully and introduced to the World slowly on a morning with copious amounts of coffee and reading about wet carpets again. The answer is simple, just slow down your changes, feel it through and wait for it to warm up, don’t put coffee in it though. If it still persists when hot and you have other issues then take it to a specialist, in these instances changing the oil usually does very little as there is something fundamentally wrong with it. We have our own special blend of oils here which do combat some issues (clunky, crunchy and synchromesh issues), it isn’t for resale sadly as its a trade secret and is only put in here at the workshop, sorry.

If you have a six speed then the gearchange collar/bush at the base of the gear lever never fitted properly from the factory. Take note of that fact, it is not worn, it was just never manufactured very precisely. Put the car in gear, wobble gear lever left to right, a bit too much play for your liking? MX5 Parts supply a brass replacement, I can attest that theirs is obscenely accurate, I can’t speak about any others. It sits in what is known as the ‘gearbox turret’, this is a reservoir which contains its own oil separate to the main gearbox.

I put lowering springs on and the car hasn’t gone fully down.

The suspension arm bushes on the front upper arm have not been slackened off to reset them to the new ride height and are twisted, holding the car up. To some (lesser) degree this does happen at the rear too, especially when the bushes are seized onto the through bolts and have been twisted to set the geometry or the car lowered. The cure is simple at the front; slacken off the offending upper bolts and with the car sat on its wheels, the bushes will rotate, then tighten them up. To explain a bit more of what is happening: The inner bushes front and rear are of the torsion type, so are locked in place by the through bolts, when the arm moves up naturally and down it twists the bush which contributes to roll stiffness.

I can’t read my dipstick.

If you can’t put a metal rod into a pool of oil and read off the level you need help, but it won’t be long before electric cars will save you so don’t worry. Mazda are very clever, they will sell you an overpriced ‘Special needs’ dipstick which suffers from the same problems, or you can just learn how to use your existing dipstick, you dipstick. A handy guide here on what you may be doing wrong and how do do it right:

The ‘oil pressure gauge’ does weird things.

No it doesn’t, there is just a misunderstanding about oil pressure. When oil is cold it’s thick so the gauge will read higher (and vice versa), when the engine revolutions are higher the oil pump revolves quicker so the oil pressure goes up (and again, vice versa), are you with me on this? Ah now here is where it gets interesting, the OP gauge in an NC is actually fake, it isn’t actually reading oil pressure at all, but mimics it perfectly for a normal healthy engine. What the ECU does is take a signal from the engine water temp sender and also reads engine RPM, it blends these together to make the gauge work exactly as an OP gauge should if the engine is healthy.

Whilst we’re on the topic of gauges the water temp gauge lies like a Pikey. You might wonder what the heck this is all about. All manufacturers do it, the average motorist has very little idea what is going on under the bonnet so has to be insulated from it. If people saw the temp going over 100’c when stood in traffic they would worry something was wrong and the driving experience would be spoiled. It’s possible they would take the car back to the dealer and ask ‘What is wrong with my car mofo? The gauge needle is all over the place!” The fact is an engine will see over 100’c stood in traffic and it does it no harm, once on the move it will come down to about 80 odd or so, but the gauge will still be midway. In reality engine temp is up and own and all over the place, it’s quite normal.

Whilst we’re on the topic of oil, or lack of it, the engine is fitted with a low oil warning pressure switch and i’m not sure why yet! I’m sat in a car which is clearly knocking very loudly and there are no warning lights on the dash board. I wonder if the warning light comes on when you’re sat on the hard shoulder and your pistons are back on the motorway somewhere.

If you do require a proper working oil pressure gauge then check out the store, we do sell kits.

A lot of peoples relationships with cars is psychosomatic, when they’ve spent money on pointless braces, Delrin door blocks, new dipsticks, ‘performance’ air filters, loud exhaust, changed the oils etc then naturally they get a feel-good-factor, the car is of course now handling much better, the gearbox is smoother and it’s much more powerful. The aftermarket sellers know this, the car manufacturers know this. Another ‘trick’ Mazda use on their later NCs is piping engine noise into the cabin, seriously they do. If you look under the bonnet of these models you’ll see a pipe and valve arrangement taking ‘induction roar’ from the engine inlet to somewhere under the dashboard. As you can imagine being a miserable git, on my road car it’s blocked off.

It will have a fancy marketing name, but the large pipe at the bottom there is simply carrying engine noise into the car.

The clutch biting point is too low or early

On some cars it certainly is, it’s not uncommon to have the clutch biting when the pedal has barely left the carpet, these cars are terrible to drive and you’ll wonder (like me) how it got so far on in its life without anyone doing anything about it! There is a fix however and its simple. If you look under the dash up at the pedal box you’ll see the clutch pedal has a nut and bolt pushrod adjuster on the back of it, loosen the lock nut and turn it clockwise until the biting point is better. Please note DO NOT go too far and have the biting point halfway up the pedal stroke, you only need a little bit extra. When you’re done you have to get hold of the clutch lever sticking out of the side of the gearbox box and make sure it’s loose and still has some forward and backwards movement, if not the release bearing can run against the clutch diaphragm all the time which will wear it out prematurely and could cause clutch slip problems..

The battery goes flat

The batteries are small to keep the weight down, also the battery could be past its best. With the obvious out of the way, then yes these cars do have a battery drain issue fitted as standard. The earlier cars seem to be better in this respect and will last roughly a month, whilst the newer ones closer to two weeks if left unused for that length of time. There are various remedies for this, but if you take disconnect the battery it will cause a couple of very minor issues when it’s reconnected: The engine warning light may come on (turn it on and off again usually clears it), the idle speed will be a little erratic for a short while (it’ll sort itself out) and the traction control light will illuminate too. This latter one will go out when the steering is used fully from lock to lock and the ignition turned off and on again. None of these are anything to worry about and quite normal. Radios are rarely coded, but if they are hopefully someone wrote the code in the handbook or paperwork somewhere…..

Sticking brake calipers

Very common on daily driven cars. Either front or rear especially during or just after Winter. If you don’t notice it pulling to one side a bit, one of the discs not as clean as the others then maybe you will when it overheats, you feel a vibration on the motorway or when it finally fails its MOT. Sometimes the sliders have seized, sometimes the pistons themselves.