Some car fans that are around my age lament the fact that almost all of the affordable exciting sports cars are to either be found in the pages of the classified ads or in the pages of history, like our cute mid-engined subject for today. You can make your own opinion on whether this is just rose-tinted glasses for a bygone era or if regulations and demographics are making sure that sports cars (or even sporty cars) are but a niche market. What I know is that there hasn’t been a point since the the 50s where there has been a sports car-free market and, as you’ll see at the end of this article, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change.
The Kei Car was supposed to be a practical affair since its inception; a vehicle to make sure that the Japanese masses could move themselves and their families while taking the least amount of space and resources and at a price that would make them a much more attractive proposition than a bigger and more wasteful car.
Over the years however, the goalposts have moved, when the masses had been mobilized and the bad times had moved on, the Kei Cars started pushing the bar on just how much you could get away with without breaking the rules. The results have been nothing less than amazing. And because kei cars are rarely sold overseas there’s no concern on whether someone in London or Milan will find the design pretentious or revolting, they just do what they like and the results have to be some of the most interesting and creative designs of the modern age.
In comparison to the turbocharged bite-sized rockets that were also being produced around that time (Kei car regulations stipulate a maximum top speed, there’s nothing in the rule book telling you how fast you can reach it), the Beat looked positively traditional in its engineering. It didn’t even max the limits in engine-size, having a 656cc (40 ci.) engine instead of 660cc.
It could be considered a successor to the chain-driven Honda S800’s of yore. Perhaps not as much in naming or layout, but in spirit as a fun, affordable roadster that took advantage of Honda’s legendary engineering excellence with drivetrains to produce the most smiles per minute. Of course the S800 would then get a true successor in the amazing Honda S2000, but that’s a story for another day.
So what did you get? The maximum amount of horsepower you can get in a kei car (63 horsepower), a five-speed manual transmission, halogen headlamps, steel wheels and that’s about it. I know, in a 4WD, 4WS, twincharged kei car world it doesn’t sound like much but don’t be fooled. What it lacks in equipment, it makes up for in details.
Most of that can be found in the interior. Get a load of the ‘90s-tastic white-tiger (or is it Zebra?) seats and the white-on-red dials that wouldn’t look out of place on a superbike from the time. The dinky little fire extinguisher on the passenger footwell seems to be there to remind you that it means business.
There’s also the matter of pedigree. This humble little roadster was the last vehicle ever to get the personal approval from Soichiro Honda, the man who started it all. Even if he had long since retired from the presidency of the company, he was still an acting director and was named “Supreme Advisor”. Because you don’t simply let go the man who made the whole thing from scratch and whose name is on the building. The Beat started production just three months before Soichiro tragically passed away due to liver failure at the age of 84.
In 2010 it also made the headlines as 569 Beats reunited at Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi race track, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest gathering of Honda vehicles ever organized. To me it seems amazing that the biggest gathering of cars from a company that has made so many great and prolific vehicles was composed of what is a relatively obscure car. In fact, I’m guessing if you’re not Japanese or living in Japan your first exposure to it was Gran Turismo. I know mine was. And yet it seems to have an amazing following, so much so that Honda has given it a successor.
Everyone, I’d like you to meet the new Honda S660. Very much a modern interpretation of the ideas that created the Beat, it too is a mid-engine kei-roadster. Now with either a six-speed manual or a CVT and a curb weight of just under 1830 pounds. This too seems like a recipe for fun. And joy of joys this time it’s not a Japan-only exclusive.and it’ll be sold around the world (Yes, even the U.S…maybe) with a bigger 1.0-liter turbocharged engine and 126 horsepower to make it an S1000. So the marketplace of the near future has a new MX-5, an upcoming Fiat 124 Spider, the current crop of retro-muscle cars, the Toyobaru and this on sale. I don’t see what those car fans around my age are complaining about.