The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
April 18, 1988
Edition: The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Honda built transportation for the world - a tiny bike
DEANS, BOB Bob Deans Journal-Constitution Correspondent STAFF
The Honda Super Cub, a model of clean and simplistic design fashioned around a gutsy little power plant that can carry its rider up to 430 miles on a gallon of gasoline has become the best-selling motorcycle in the world, and one of the hardest-working vehicles of all time. TOKYO - The story began with a bowl of hot noodles - and the need to shuttle them swiftly through the streets of Tokyo. Thirty years later, the machine that was built to handle that chore has become the best-selling motorcycle in the world, and one of the hardest-working vehicles of all time.
The bike is the Honda Super Cub, a model of clean and simplistic design fashioned around a gutsy little power plant that can carry its rider up to 430 miles on a gallon of gasoline. In developing countries worldwide, the mighty Cub has become the little bike that could, hauling light cargo of all descriptions and providing the low-cost transport link vital to economic growth among people of limited resources. The Cub is to utility what the Italian Vespa scooter is to romance, and therein lies the soul of the machine.
Every day, Cubs by the thousands jam the streets of Taipei, toting cartons of sweaters, soft drinks or produce. They chug up the hills of Seoul laden with propane tanks, magazines or toys. In Delhi and Bombay, entire families pile onto a single Cub to travel between market and home. In industrialized nations, the Cub has gained popularity simply because riding one is great fun. By late last year, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and its global affiliates had produced 17.3 million Cubs.
Apart from Honda itself, the entire motorcycle industry owes a rather large debt to the humble Cub. In the early 1960s, when motorcycle sales were lumbering under a roughneck image, Honda scored one of advertising's greatest coups with its clean-cut theme, "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda." The bike that Honda was promoting was, of course, the Cub, whose bright colors, step-through frame and plastic leg guard managed to convince a generation of wary parents that Honda's product was somehow less threatening than a real motorcycle.
There's no deep secret to the Cub's success. The bike simply does many things well without costing much money. That is precisely what its creators had in mind. Soichiro Honda hated noise. So much, in fact, that he once had his wife buy out a street vendor's inventory to silence the bellowing peddler's sales chants. In post-war Japan, Honda's company was instrumental in providing motorized bicycles to a population sorely in need of budget transportation. But most of the bikes were noisy, temperamental affairs, and in 1954 Soichiro Honda began trying to develop a quiet, reliable motorbike. He had one other important design criterion: A rider must be able to control the bike with one hand, so that the other hand could be used to balance bowls of hot noodles being delivered through the packed streets of Tokyo.
Honda's breakthrough came with the development of the Cub 50-cc engine, which got 4.5 horsepower out of an engine with a piston half the size of a small juice glass. In 1958 Honda began producing the Super Cub motorbike, with a price tag of 55,000 yen - equal to about $150 at the time. The next year Honda began exporting the Cub to the United States, where it sold for $245. Cub sales took off immediately, and by the end of its third year of production 1 million had been sold. The bike's design turned out to be classic: Outside of some engine modifications, little has changed on the Cub over the past three decades.
Its price has moved slowly as well. The Cub 50 starts at 135,000 yen - about $1,080 in today's dollars - and models are available with 50-, 70-and 90-cc engines. Then there is that gas mileage. Japanese enthusiasts have made a sport of seeing how far they can stretch a liter of gas with a Cub. The record? A startling 684 miles on a liter of gasoline in a pencil-shaped vehicle powered by a Cub engine. But engineering being a science of compromise, the Cub, alas, was not built for speed. It tops out at about 45 mph. Sheer devotion, however, has led some Japanese to improve upon even that aspect of the Cub, which is raced in modified form at speeds approaching 80 mph.
In downtown Tokyo it is the bike's nimbleness that is valued by jockeys delivering everything from groceries to hot lunches in traffic that stays gridlocked through much of the day. The Cub's automatic clutch makes one-handed operation possible, though rarely does a rider have to resort to hand-carrying his parcels. Defying basic laws of physics, even eggs travel safely when suspended by a special set of braces, springs and straps mounted on the back fender of Cubs. Honda stopped shipping Cubs to the United States several years ago, citing a shift in consumer preference toward small-wheel scooters instead of small bikes like the Cub. Elsewhere in the world, however, Cub sales continue to grow.
Outside of Japan, Honda-affiliated plants build Cubs in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea. Honda ships Cub parts for assembly elsewhere, including Nigeria. The Cub's price has been important in keeping the bike within reach of consumers, particularly throughout the Third World, said Zenjiro Sakurai, Honda's assistant manager for motorcycle product planning. In such nations, the Cub has contributed mightily to something of a transportation revolution. "Fifty miles in a developing countryside might as well be 400 if there's no motorized transport. That's much too long to carry a major load by hand or by hand cart and it's pretty inefficient by animal," said Dwight H. Perkins, director of the Harvard Institute for International Development. "So motorized transport is important," he added. "Bicycles are a step up and motorcycles are a step up beyond that."
Milestones in Honda's manufacture of the Super Cub
August 1958 - production begins.
April 1967 - 5 millionth scooter.
July 1972 - 10 millionth scooter.
January 1983 - 15 millionth scooter.
November 1987 - production reaches 17.3 million.
Source: Honda Motor Co. Ltd.
Photo: Honda scooters, shown by Richard Adcox at Honda of Atlanta, have followed the success of the Cub motorbike / Billy Downs / staff Photo: Kenichi Tsuchiya uses a Honda Cub scooter with a special carrier on the back to deliver noodles in Tokyo / Bob Deans / staff
Copyright 1988 The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution