CANTIL, California—“Dude, I have something for you. You need you to be available for this, call me back ASAP!” This was the text message I received from my editor a few weeks ago. “This should be interesting,” I mused, because he’s not always the most enthusiastic fellow; the text I received before he sent me off to test the stunning McLaren Senna was a rather more reserved: “I think you might like this one.”
We finally caught up the next morning, whereupon I learned I would need to travel to the Honda Proving Center in Cantil, California. But what was I to test? He paused briefly for dramatic—or was it comedic?—effect before answering. And then I heard three words I will remember for quite a while: “A lawn mower.”
I was momentarily speechless before I choked out, “They have grass in the California desert?” I heard nothing but laughter, and my confusion soon disappeared. The vehicle in question is the latest and second version of Honda’s Mean Mower—a genuine 150-mph (!) riding machine.
The Mean Mower’s genesis began in 2014 with a well-known U.K.-based race engineering company, Team Dynamics, working alongside Honda U.K. Version one (V1) mated a Honda V-twin motorcycle engine with a Honda riding mower, and it kicked out around 90 horsepower. It managed to snag a Guinness World Record for fastest lawn mower at 117 mph, in 2014. This, however unlikely, ignited a bit of a nuclear mower arms race: Viking/Stihl then got together to produce a mower with a V-8 Corvette engine. That beast had more of a tube-frame race-car chassis than that of a lawn shaver, and it hit 134 mph to snatch top-speed bragging rights away from Honda. Game on.
Team Dynamics submitted a new proposal to Honda U.K., making a case for why the two should develop Mean Mower V2 and attempt to reclaim the top-speed record. Quite how they sold this to Honda’s corporate brass remains unclear. We imagine an exchange along these lines: “Hello, management. We would like a shedload of money to make a 150-mph lawn mower, as we firmly believe this will raise Honda’s image with lawn-care professionals around the world. What’s that, now? You think this is a great idea? Fantastic!”
Whatever was really said, Mean Mower V2 began as a Honda HF2622 mower. Instead of the trusty V-twin engine in V1, the Team Dynamics engineers went with a Honda CBR1000RR motorcycle plant, as it’s double the power. The CBR engine is basically bulletproof, producing 189 horsepower in road trim. Mean Mower V2 has a Scorpion four-into-one race-exhaust system (no catalytic converter) which saves weight and raises power. Plus, Mean Mower V2 retains stock bodywork, with an air intake opening measurably bigger than the CBR’s. This larger intake area creates a sort of ram-air effect at high speed, which also increases power.
Exactly how much power does V2 make? Lead engineer/team manager James Rodgers offered an interesting reply. “There are go-kart dynos that fit the Mean Mower, but as you may imagine, they’re not really equipped to measure even close to 200 horsepower,” he said. “However, some of our F1 friends measured airflow speeds through our intake manifold and estimate power to be around 212 horsepower. It only weighs about 480 pounds, folks!”
In May 2019, pro racer/test driver Jess Hawkins blitzed Mean Mower V2 to another Guinness World Record for Honda, with a 6.29-second zero-to-100-mph time. Just for good measure, test driver Craig Smith did a one-way speed run at 150.99 mph, reclaiming lawn mower top-speed honors. Just a couple of weeks after the record run, Mean Mower V2 found its way to the U.S.
Our test day at the Honda Proving Center came with a forecasted high temperature of 106 degrees, which is always perfect for standing around all day in motorcycle race leathers. But I didn’t care; how often do you get to drive a 200-plus-hp lawn mower? In case anyone forgot, though, Team Dynamics’ Mr. Rodgers was not messing around. His pretest briefing went something like this: “Only two people have ever driven the Mean Mower, both of them are professional race drivers. Craig had a huge moment when he blew out a tire at more than 130 mph during our recent world-record runs. It was at this point I decided to stop any more runs, as Craig’s mum likes him looking the way he is and we already had a new record.
“This is a one-off prototype vehicle, it accelerates like an F1 car, and it also has the wheelbase of a Hot Wheels toy and no suspension whatsoever. If it goes sideways, you will not catch it and even if you do, it will probably spit you off, because we didn’t put seat belts in it, figuring you’d be better off bouncing down the road away from it rather than it landing on top of you with the cutting blades running. (Editor’s note: Yes, the Mean Mower has functioning blades.) We have set up an acceleration test strip of roughly a quarter mile, which should give you a top-speed potential of around 120 mph. Any questions?”
The stunned silence in the room was deafening.
Of course, full-face helmets and motorcycle leathers were mandatory, provided courtesy of Shoei and AlpineStars, with some of us bringing our own gear. As soon as I sat in the mower, it was obvious why Honda had dictated strict driver-size requirements for this event. The pedals, steering wheel, and highly contoured racing seat were tailor-made and fixed for the two official test drivers. Nobody taller than 5 feet, 10 inches or weighing more than 180 pounds would be able to climb aboard.
Mean Mower V2 utilizes the same no-lift-shift software found on the CBR motorcycle. It also has a foot clutch, brake, and accelerator, just like a manual-shift car. But you only need the clutch for setting off from a standstill. With paddle shifters on the steering wheel, it retains the CBR gearbox; from neutral, you pull the left paddle to downshift to first gear, then upshift from there using the right paddle. One very big operational difference was how the shifter functioned from a driver’s perspective. After pulling the paddle in, you must hold it there for a good second until you feel the gear actually shift. If you don’t hold it, the beast could end up in a false neutral. After a couple of “oops,” it became second nature.
We were instructed not to attempt any aggressive standing starts, and to avoid wheelspin/slides. The mower sports super sticky 10×6-inch front and 10×8 rear Hoosier racing-slick tires, the same tires used in Formula SAE. To further reduce driveline stress, we were asked to shift out of first gear at around 6,000 rpm. This made the zero-to-40-mph run a bit pedestrian, but it also ensured V2 kept on running.
I was given an opportunity to ride the 2019 Honda CBR motorcycle Honda also had on site. It’s a lightweight, 189-hp rocket, with a strong and linear powerband. On the Mean Mower, however, the racing exhaust system and gaping air intake noticeably changed the CBR engine’s power characteristics. Gone was the smooth increase in the power curve; when Mean Mower hits 9,000 rpm, all hell breaks loose. The sudden jump in power feels like a strong nitrous hit, ripping you to a screaming 13,000 rpm. Acceleration is just violent—like, “1,200-hp sports car” violent. Every tiny steering input and gearshift is amplified enormously by the mower’s diminutive size, its slick tires, and its lack of suspension. And the violence continues in every gear; the entire driving experience is surreal.
Amazingly, the lack of any suspension did not produce much in the way of porpoising issues, which came as a bit of a surprise. This likely has something to do with the use of T45 steel in the Mean Mower’s frame. T45 steel is famous for having consistent and durable flex characteristics. It was first used by the British aerospace industry in the 1930s, in the then state-of-the-art Spitfire and Hurricane military planes. We didn’t get a chance to run the mower on a road course and put much lateral g load on it; however, the brutal acceleration, reasonably hard braking, and a couple of brisk and lengthy U-turns provided a good idea of how well sorted it really is.
How this crazy machine got to the U.S. is a story unto itself. There was basically no budget to justify bringing it across the Atlantic, which makes perfect sense, considering Honda doesn’t even sell riding mowers here. Then along came “Jay Leno’s Garage,” with strong interest to test drive it for the show. Honda said it had no plans to bring the mower Stateside, but they were welcome to test it in the U.K.
Calls were made and DHL stepped up and agreed to take care of transporting the V2 to the U.S. Additionally, autonomous lawn-mower company Miimo played a role. Autonomous lawn-mower technology is the future, apparently, so any talk of lawn mowers, even 150-mph ones, sits very well with it.
In today’s climate, stretching the performance envelope with a one-off, completely nutty prototype, then inviting a bunch of journalists to rip it up and down a test strip at more than 100 mph—well, it usually doesn’t happen. Driving back to my Los Angeles hotel as the sun set, my face reflected bemusement, joy and vacancy, probably simultaneously. Note to Honda and other manufacturers: Please continue to obliterate the corporate expectations nonsense. It’s well worth it.