In the late 1940s, just after WWII, Japan began to build motorcycles and scooters based on imported models. These first models, however, were too expensive for the average consumer. It was this problem that prompted the emergence of Honda’s auxiliary engines for bicycles. Founder Soichiro Honda was determined to create useful products that anyone could use. The powered bicycles that were Honda’s first products received a warm welcome in the marketplace.
The Cub F-Type, released in 1952, was a particularly big hit. Next, Honda ventured into motorcycle production, and entered the scooter market as well. In 1954, however, Honda’s leading products began to experience a string of problems. Demand had shifted from auxiliary engines to actual motorcycles, and Cub F-type sales began to lag. Honda managed to stage a recovery by putting out various new motorcycle models, but they were all 250cc or larger—these were not products that everybody could ride. Meanwhile, production of the Juno scooter and the Cub F-type, with its broad appeal, drew to an end.
Soon the entire company was captivated by the idea of creating a small motorcycle that anyone could ride.
Toward the end of 1956, Soichiro Honda and Co-Founder Fujisawa left for Europe on what they called an observation tour. On the flight, the two men debated what Honda’s next product should be. Soichiro favored a scooter, while Fujisawa favored a moped. At the time, 2-stroke mopeds were extremely popular in Europe, where they were a convenient mode of transportation that didn’t require a license. As Soichiro listened to Fujisawa, he gradually warmed to the idea of a moped.
When the two men arrived, they immediately went looking for the mopeds that were currently being produced all over Europe, but none of them really matched the idea of the product Honda wanted to make. Soichiro remarked to Fujisawa, “These bikes are designed for Europe’s well-built roads, but they simply aren’t appropriate to Japan. If we want to make a bike with minimum horsepower that’s a pleasure to drive in Japan, it really needs to have a four-stroke engine.” The two men headed back to Japan with burgeoning dreams of a new kind of motorcycle.
By the time Soichiro returned to Japan, he already had an image in his mind of the new product he wanted to make. It incorporated Fujisawa’s idea of creating a small bike that would expand Honda’s customer base, plus a low-floor, step-through design that would make it easy for women to ride, too. And Soichiro insisted on a four-stroke engine. This was a novel approach, based on the premise that a four-stroke engine was necessary for a smooth ride at low speeds on Japan’s many unpaved roads. And the new model was to have a kick starter, not a pedal starter like a moped.
Soichiro conveyed these and other new ideas to his team of engineers. At times he would pick up a piece of chalk and draw on the floor. A crowd of associates would gather round, and everyone would express their opinion freely, regardless of their department or job title. Fueled by this frank exchange, ideas soon began to take shape. It was within this dynamic atmosphere that Honda began to develop its new little motorcycle.
In early 1957, Honda began work on the vehicle’s engine. It was the first time anyone in the world had attempted to mass-produce a 50cc OHV 4-stroke engine, and the development team came up with more and more ideas that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Ultimately, they created an engine with phenomenal power: 9,500 rpm and 4.5 horsepower.
At the same time, Honda began to develop the Super Cub’s unique automatic centrifugal clutch. The goal was to produce a bike that could be operated one-handed, as at the time soba restaurant deliveries were made by bicycle riders carrying boxes with their right hand, whilst steering with their left. This turned out to be extremely challenging, however, with difficulties associated with disengagement during shifting and the revolution ratio of the kick starter. Nearly every day, Soichiro huddled with development engineers, brainstorming for solutions. The result was the birth of the revolutionary automatic centrifugal clutch.
Honda began developing the Super Cub’s body that February, and in April body styling work began. Soichiro’s mantra was, “Make something that fits in your hand!” In other words, he wanted to make a compact product that would fit comfortably into customer’s lives.
Soichiro was very particular about the size of the tires. The bike had to handle well on Japan’s unpaved roads, but it also had to be compact. Honda decided that the ideal tire size would be 17 inches, a size that did not yet exist for production vehicles. The major tire manufacturers all refused to produce a new tire size for just one model, but after numerous rejections, Honda finally located a small manufacturer who was willing to do it.
Yet still, the team in charge of creating the prototype was faced with the challenge of altering existing tires to make 17-inch prototype tires. Everyone rose to the challenge, responding to all such demands with a can-do attitude. The Super Cub was truly the fruit of everyone’s united efforts.
Meanwhile, the chemical engineers proposed using polyethylene rather than the fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) that had been used on the Juno. This reduced the body’s weight substantially, but the supplier that would fabricate the body had never built such a large die cast, and only agreed to the project on the condition that Honda would provide the cast.
As the body design neared completion, the new motorcycle finally received its name: the Super Cub. The name married “Super”, which was a popular word at the time, to the “Cub” of the Cub F-type. The Cub F-type was still a big favorite with Soichiro, and he immediately seized on the name.
On December 24, one year after development had begun, the final FRP mock-up was completed. The intricate mock-up was mounted on a table top in the cafeteria, and as they stood in front of it, Soichiro asked Fujisawa, “Senior Managing Director, how many of these do you think we can sell?” Without missing a beat, Fujisawa responded, “30,000 units!” Astonished, the other associates exclaimed, “30,000 units a year?” When Fujisawa responded “No, 30,000 units a month!”, everyone was stunned. At the time, the total number of motorcycles sold each month in Japan was only around 40,000 units, and besides, Honda did not yet have the production capacity to produce 30,000 units per month. Fujisawa, however, was already envisioning the blueprints for a new factory that would be built to accommodate production of the new motorcycle.
The development of the production model Super Cub lasted a year and eight months—lead-time of an unprecedented length for Honda in those days. In July of 1958, Honda announced its new motorcycle, and August 1958 marked the much-anticipated release of the Super Cub C100.
When the Super Cub C100 hit the market, it was priced at 55,000 yen, an amount well within the reach of the ordinary consumer but challenging profitability-wise. Still, Fujisawa was determined to set a price that was attractive to the average person to expand the customer base. Meanwhile, during development, Soichiro insisted, “I want you to make the best product possible, regardless of cost. We can make up for the cost in mass production.” Along with his high standards in manufacturing quality, Soichiro clearly had a lot of confidence in Fujisawa’s abilities as a salesman.
Fujisawa came through with a sales strategy full of novel ideas. First, they would need to build a retail network. Fujisawa put the word out via a mass mailing, contacting businesses with strong community roots that until then had nothing to do with motorcycles, such as lumber dealers and grocery stores.
He created a network of shops where women would feel comfortable shopping, and in 1960 he began running ads in general interest magazines. At the time, it was unheard of to advertise motorcycles in anything other than specialized motorcycle publications.
These efforts to expand Honda’s customer base were astonishingly effective, and in just a few years, Fujisawa’s unbelievable projection of 30,000 units per month had become a reality.
In 1959, American Honda Motor opened its doors, and the Super Cub made its first voyage into an overseas market. This was a mere ten months after the model’s release in Japan. The decision rested on Fujisawa’s conviction that "in order to truly succeed we have to succeed in the toughest market of all."
But American Honda’s Cub sales proved lackluster. The US market was dominated by motorcycles of at least 500cc displacement, and the pervading image of motorcycles was “rough and dangerous.” Despite this, they designed a Mini-Trail (U.S. version of the 90 cc Hunter Cub) and other new models that catered to the US market and used the mass mailing strategy to expand their sales network to sports equipment and fishing gear retailers, establishing a sporty image for the brand.
These efforts received a powerful boost from an ad campaign initiated in LIFE magazine. The ads featured the message, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," promoting the concept that people who ride Cubs are just regular people, completely overturning the stereotype that all motorcycle riders wore black leather jackets. Soon men and women of all ages were taking an interest in American Honda and its products. In 1963, the company’s 5th year in the US market, American Honda sold 84,000 units.
Meanwhile, European Honda GmbH opened in Germany in 1961, and the following year marked the birth of Honda Benelux N.V. (Belgium), Honda’s first overseas production facility. Bit by bit, the Super Cub and the rest of the Cub Series carved out a position in Europe.
The Super Cub expanded to Asia following success in North America and Europe. Assembly production began in the early 1960s in Taiwan and South Korea, and Asian Honda established its Southeast Asian distribution base in Thailand in 1964. One year later, the joint venture company Thai Honda was established as a motorcycle manufacturer. To this day, the company develops a variety of models based on the Cub that are very popular throughout Southeast Asia. At first, the demand for two-stroke bikes was very high in Thailand, but as the country modernized and fuel emissions regulations became more stringent, the market performed a complete turnaround.
Now the preference was for four-stroke bikes, and since the Cub had always been a strong brand, it enjoyed a surge of renewed interest. Today, Honda bikes account for 70% of the Thai market, of which the Cub series represents 60%.
Recently, the country where the Cub enjoys the most popularity of all is Vietnam. The brand is so well established there that the word "Honda" is synonymous with “motorcycle”. Honda Vietnam opened in 1996, taking Honda’s last motorcycle factory of the 20th century online in 1997.
Today, fifty years since its birth, the Cub’s market continues to expand while its design remains fundamentally unchanged. Each year, close to 5 million units are produced worldwide. The Cub is truly a global standard, reaching production volumes unrivaled in the history of motorized transportation. While styling and other details vary slightly by location and application, the Super Cub has always retained its identity as a useful vehicle that is easy for anyone to ride.
The Super Cub truly embodies the Honda dream. It is key to the origins of Honda.