© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Touting the Tiny Car

With gasoline prices well below three dollars a gallon, large, gas-guzzling vehicles are again selling well.  Last year’s top three were full-sized pick-up trucks that get less than 20 miles to the gallon in city driving.  Jim Phelan doesn’t care. 

The Charlottesville man has fallen in love with something that gets 55 miles to the gallon, and he hopes to sell others on a car most people have never heard of.

Jim Phelan is a retired businessman who used to lease jumbo jets, but these days he’s focused on something smaller – much smaller.  It’s a tiny car called the Honda Beat, and he already owns two of them.  Recently, he traveled to Vancouver to test drive a third. 

“The car is a three-cylinder, 12-valve engine that produces probably about 50 or 55 horsepower.  It’s got a very little horn.”

It’s no more than ten feet long, five feet wide and four feet tall.  The engine, nestled in the middle, takes a quart of oil, and the trunk could hold a pair of shoes.

Okay, we’ll close up the door and we’ll  take a little bit of a ride.”

Jim Phelan

This little red convertible was actually the creation of Mr. Honda himself.  He determined to build what is known as a kei or small car for what he thought would be a big market.

“Soichiro Honda decided that back in the 60s that we were building cars way too big, and we didn’t need that much space, and most people going out don’t have a family of 7 or 8 people that they’re hauling around.”

But the U.S. government would not allow the cars to be sold here.  They weren’t safe, and lobbyists from Detroit were likely weighing in, but Canada didn’t object, and some years ago Phelan learned that two kei cars were for sale up north.  The owner would not sell them individually.

“So I went to Calgary, Canada, and I bought both of them.”

In his Canadian travels, Phelan and his baby were very popular.

“You pull into a gas station and all sorts people come up to you.  They think it’s the cutest thing they’ve ever seen, and they want their kids to be able to get into it, and they want to see the engine.”

And in 2016, he hopes to introduce the Honda Beat to Americans.  That’s when the car acquires antique status and can be driven in this country.  But first, Phelan has organized what he calls a cross Canadian kei car caravan with other enthusiasts.

“We’re going to begin out in Vancouver, and we’ll go across the Rocky Mountains, on to Winnipeg, Canada.”

Phelan doesn’t know how America will take to his kei cars, which sell for between $5,000 to $7,000  each,  but he’s hopeful. Having placed an ad in Hemmings Motor News to gauge interest, he got more than a hundred calls.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
Related Content