When you think “Honda,” what image does your brain conjure up? Personally, before I moved to Japan, I used to get a white four-door compact. Something competent, FWD, no-nonsense and easy to use – good, but lacking in excitement. It’s not easy to break out of such an image, which is also the one they had in Japan in the ‘80s. Then the Beat arrived (along with the NSX) and Honda rediscovered their sports car roots.
But the Beat did not appear in a vacuum. There was a sports car tradition in Honda, hailing back to the marque’s first ventures into four-wheeled vehicles, back in the early ‘60s. But then the little S500 grew to become the 800, by which time the rest of the range, aside from kei trucks, moved to FWD. The last Honda S800 roadster left the factory in 1970 and Honda re-focused their energies on growing their family car range. This was not the only major re-orientation that Honda undertook in the ‘70s. Japan’s strict kei car regulations have famously changed very little – ever. But when they did change, it was like an earthquake on the JDM. The first big change was the switch from 360cc to 550cc, taking place on New Year’s Day 1976.
This was a big deal – and it was not something the industry expected, either, coming as it did while tighter emissions regulations were being gradually enacted, forcing carmakers to tinker with their keis quite a lot. Being caught flat-footed once again, some elected to exit the kei market outright – Honda among them, though they did keep their truck line going. Honda took ten years to return to the passenger kei car segment, starting anew with the Today in 1985.
Then the Second Big Huge Revision of Small Car Regulations took place in January 1990, and the place went wild. But unlike the earlier change, the regulators had given carmakers plenty of forewarning, so the transition was a lot smoother. And thus it allowed three carmakers to effectively create a new subcategory of keis: the two-seater sports, known as the “ABC keis.”
Mazda, Honda and Suzuki were behind this mysterious acronym. Suzuki launched the C (or Cappucino) front-engined T-top in October 1991. Mazda, under their Autozam brand, delivered the whacky A (for AZ-1) mid-engined gullwing coupé the next year. But the first to reach the market had been the Honda B (for Beat) convertible, presented in May 1991. This turned out to be fortuitous, as this was the last new model company founder Soichiro Honda saw the launch of before he died, aged 84, in August 1991.
The Beat went off the proverbial path in many ways. It featured all-round independent suspension, 13-inch wheels at front but 14-inchers at the rear, a 5-speed manual as the only transmission option and disc brakes on all four wheels. The mid-mounted engine was a water-cooled 656cc OHC 3-cyl. with four valves per cylinder providing, as required by the kei car laws, a maximum power of 63hp. However, said power was attained without the aid of a supercharger: they did it the Honda way, by designing their tiny triple to deliver the soybeans at 8100rpm.
Space was pretty tight in all three of the kei sports cars – nothing outrageous there. The Honda was the lowest of the bunch, being a drop-top, but it had a decently long wheelbase for its size (max length, by law, was 3.3 meters, which is not a lot. Luggage space, for instance, was not part of the package – hence why the optional luggage rack, as seen on our feature car, became a sought-after item.
The Autozam was a bit too much of an oddball to be a hit, though it has a tremendous cult following nowadays. The Cappucino was the ABC’s success story – Suzuki even sold a few abroad, which must have surprised even them. The Beat, for its part, did ok, but hardly set any sales records. Honda sold 33,000 between 1991 and 1996, though two-thirds of that number were made in 1991-92 and production stopped in mid-1995. Our CC’s black dials and plain upholstery make it one of those rarer late cars.
The Beat was allegedly designed by Pininfarina, though apparently the Italians discreetly subcontracted the Honda account to Pavel Hušek, a Czechoslovak designer based in Ingolstadt. There is no mention of Pininfarina in contemporary Japanese documents, nor on the car itself, but it seems Honda keenly spread the rumour of the Italian design house’s involvement themselves, unaware that the real author of the design was someone else. Not that it matters much – it’s one of the best-looking Hondas ever made, in my opinion.
There were several potential reasons for the Beat’s somewhat lackluster market performance. It was the only true roadster of the bunch, but it was also the least sporty in some ways: the Suzuki and the Autozam were turbocharged, but the Honda was not. But the chief culprit behind the Beat’s failure, which also affected other innovative JDM cars of the early ‘90s (e.g. Toyota Sera), was Japan’s severe economic downturn, from 1991 onward. Still, for a model that had such limited production, the Beat is still fairly commonly seen in 2021 traffic. Honda’s cheap, well-built and stylish roadster finally found its public. And the Beat does go on.
Automotive History (Japan Edition): 1993 Honda Beat – Bite-Sized Fun, by Geraldo Solis
CC Capsule: 1991 Honda Beat – And The Beat Goes On (In Canada), by David Saunders