The 1991 Honda Beat might have been built to comply with Japan’s Kei Car regulations, but it’s a clear case of future relevance coming into play long after it shuffled off this mortal coil.
Here’s a quick history lesson for anyone who might not know what a Beat is. It was a mid-engined two-seat roadster was powered by a 660cc triple that, in true Honda fashion, was normally aspirated and pushed out very nearly 100bhp/litre at 8100rpm. It was – and is – a fun little thing, and proved that it was possible to have a great deal of fun without breaking the bank. Considering it was so small, the engine was far from economical, but compared with your typical small European sports car, it was an economical wonder.
The idea and rationale behind the Beat was simple – to offer genuine fun within the confining package that the Kei-Class taxation regulations imposed. In 1990, the regulations were eased up slightly, meaning that to qualify for low tax and a yellow number plate, the car needed to have less than 660cc, 64bhp and be under 3.30m in length, and 1.40m in width. This was the envelope that the Beat fitted into.
When it arrived on the marketplace, the Beat was something of a revelation. The press loved it, and buyers – at least for the first year it was on sale – clamoured for it. But sales quickly tailed off and, between 1991 and 1996, a mere 33,600 were built. Although there were no official UK imports, many made it here being privately shipped over – and that number has increased somewhat on the back of the grey import boom of the past ten years. Technically, the mid-mounted engine was cutting edge, featuring the MTREC (Multi Throttle Responsive Engine Control) system, with individual throttle bodies for each of the three cylinders. Top speed was limited to 84mph, but that was easily lifted, if need be.
In 1995, quite a lot was made about the conceptual similarities between the Beat and the MGF and it’s clear that if you look at both cars in plan view, there are many similarities. However, whilst the Beat was a bespoke car, freshly-engineered from the ground up, the MGF was a clever remix of Metro running gear and Rover 200 componentry. The styling of the Beat was by Pininfarina, while the Italian design house’s input on the British car was limited to its neat hood.
The arrival of the ‘F and its notional similarity with the Honda did raise the poignant ‘what-if’ of how this car would have fared as an MG – the truth is that it would have probably done very well indeed wearing the Midget badge. We’re not sure that this car was US-compliant, but the chances are that it would have been an easy conversion if not, and that being the case, the 1990s MG Midget would have probably sold in bucket-loads.
But more frustratingly, doesn’t a car like this have so much relevance in today’s world? The Beat’s lack of commercial success was not down to its lack of overall appeal, but that it was born into the wrong time. Who, after all, needs a car (in Europe and the USA anyway) that’s been designed to save fuel, during boom times? But now, it’s the car that so many enthusiasts are crying out for, offering wind in the hair motoring without the pain of high tax and fuel bills.
Rather like the conceptually brilliant Audi A2 and Mini Spiritual, the Honda Beat is a car for today, built years ahead of it time. We need a new Beat… and we need it with an MG badge on its bonnet, please.