The 90s had just begun and Japan was about to produce a trio of diminutive sports cars that would eventually go on to win the world over with their petit good looks and enormous charm. Known collectively as the Sporty Kei-Car’s ABC, we are of course talking about the Autozam AZ-1, Honda Beat, and Suzuki Cappuccino, so over the next few articles, we’ll see how they came into existence, and which holds up best today – FIGHT!
Before we can start examining these JDM automotive ecstasy tablets, we should first start with a little history on Japanese Kei-cars ( that’s “kay” not “key” ). Initially conceived in 1949 the kei car, or keijidosha for “light automobile”, is the Japanese category for their smallest highway-legal cars. It began after the Second World War, when most Japanese people could afford a motorbike, but not a full-sized car, so in order to promote Japan’s car industry and provide an alternative delivery method for small shop and business owners, the Kei-car was introduced. Kei-cars also benefitted from reduced insurance and tax, which encouraged many young people in Japan to adopt the little vehicles as their transport of choice. There was also the small matter that in Japan, you couldn’t buy a regular-sized car unless you could prove you had somewhere to park it, so a Kei-car might have been your only option. As the 90s dawned, the Kei-car saw a bit of a renaissance, as new, more relaxed regulations allowed for engine sizes up to 660cc and 63bhp, while the maximum length, width, and height were increased to 3.4m, 1.48m, and 2.0m respectively. This set the stage for our three mus-kei-teers ( I’m so sorry), all of which made the most of the new regulations.
First on the scene in 1991 was the Honda Beat, which was a microscopic, manual, roadster. Believe it or not, the Beat shares a few similarities with the Ferrari F40. Firstly, like the F40, it was penned by Pininfarina, and like the F40 it was mid-engined and rear-wheel drive. But most significant of all is the fact that the Beat was the last car to be approved by company founder and automotive legend, Soichiro Honda, before his death, much like how the F40 was the last car to be approved by Enzo Ferrari before he passed away.
The name seemingly comes from the fact that Honda beat the little car to within an inch of its life with the technology stick. The Beat featured a naturally aspirated 656cc three-cylinder engine that revved to a stratospheric 8100rpm. It’s engine featured an MTREC (Multi Throttle Responsive Engine Control) system, with individual throttle bodies for each of its three cylinders, which was basically spaceship tech for a Kei car. Also cutting-edge for a car of its size were the electric windows, driver-side airbag, disk brakes on all four wheels, and “MIDSHIP AMUSEMENT” stickers on either side. The car’s audio head unit also featured a rad and very 90s digital LCD display that looks like it was ripped out of a Casio G-Shock watch.
With Kei regulations restricting power to just 63 Japanese ponies and just 44 lb-ft of torque, the Beat was never going to be embarrassing Bugattis, but it weighed just 760kgs so those ponies really didn’t need to shift much mass. Top speed was limited to 84mph (135km/h) to fit with regulations, and the Beat would take a leisurely 13-second stroll to 60 mph, so the world’s smallest roadster was also seemingly the slowest. However, as with many things, the spec sheet doesn’t necessarily provide an accurate indication of what the Beat was like in real life. Yes, the top speed might be just above the national speed limit here in the UK, and yes 13 seconds is about as long as it takes to microwave a pie, but imagine doing 84 miles an hour in what is effectively a glorified shoebox with crumple zones to match. It would be f****** scary. Ask a Honda Beat owner and they’ll tell you that 40mph feels like 70, and 70 feels like you’re about to have a panic attack. The illusion of speed is the Beat’s forté; at 70mph the rev counter will show 5000rpm, and your head will be below most car’s door handles, which if you ask us sounds like a lot more fun than falling asleep doing the speed limit in a car designed to triple it.
So the Beat was an excellent choice for driving fun, it was not, however, an excellent choice if you like to transport things other than the clothes you’re wearing. Being mid-engined, one might hope the excellent clamshell bonnet would open to reveal storage space, however, Honda decided to occupy that space with a spare tyre. Fear not though, for there is a rear boot, which Honda decided to put an engine in, leaving enough space for a couple of sandwiches and maybe a drink, as long as it’s no bigger than a Red-Bull. Oh dear.
If you don’t have more than one friend you may now be thinking that you’d like a Honda Beat to call your own, and if so there’s good and bad news. The good news is that although the Beat was only ever produced in Japan, a few have been imported into the UK and are on the market. Prices haven’t shifted much from the original Japanese asking price of around £7000 so expect to pay between 6K-8K for one. The bad news is that they’re few and far between, so if you find a good one you better buy it quickly before we catch wind of it.
So that’s Honda’s mini-NSX, the most adored motoring midget until Richard Hammond started presenting Top Gear. However, the Beat wouldn’t enjoy the market all to itself, as in that same year Suzuki would release the Cappuccino, which we’ll be covering in the next article.