The Press (christchurch), FEATURES; MOTORING; Pg. 69; MOTORING
October, 18 1997 by MOORE Dave
This week the flags were raised and the red carpet rolled out at Honda's production line in Kumamoto, Japan, to celebrate the completion of motorcycle number 100 million -- a C50LV Little Cub''.
It is the latest chapter in a motorcycle success story that began nearly 50 years ago -- a typical back-yard rags to riches story which appears to stud the history of transport in the 20th century. Soichiro Honda's first foray into providing cheap and easy transport was effectively a powered bicycle. From that first 50cu cm two-stroke, Honda took just 15 years to grow into the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer.
Honda's love affair with the four-stroke engine, when most small bikes were powered by two-strokes, was displayed when the first overhead-valve 49cu cm pressed-frame step-through was revealed in the late 1950s. To this day, the majority of Honda motorcycles use four-stroke engines, and the company has become regarded as the maker of the most advanced normally aspirated engines in the world, on two or four wheels. Honda's prolific Cub and Super Cub ranges which crowd the streets of south-east Asia, were first brought to the United States market in the early 1960s, along with the company's larger C93 (125cu cm), C72 (250cu cm) and C77 (305cu cm) machines. The 50cu cm step-throughs, with three-speed gearboxes and leverless centrifugal clutches were quicker and more reliable than powered bicycles and mopeds, and easier to ride than motorcycles.
They provided an ideal stepping-stone to the sporting Hawk and Super Dream models, which by the mid-60s were being photographed with famous owners such as Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen -- the Beach Boys even wrote songs about them. In Europe, Honda took a racing rather than lifestyle theme to its potential new market, and after briefly dabbling with the Isle of Man TT in the late-50s, made a full-on assault on The Island'' and the World Championship in the 1960s. Dozens of championship titles and scores of race victories saw the winged-H brand outsell all other makers by the end of the decade, during which time it had raced and won using every conceivable cylinder arrangement from singles to sixes.
In 1969 the motorcycle which would sound the death knell of most traditional makers was introduced. Honda's CB750 four -- a single-cam 70 horsepower motorcycle -- all but consigned British and American pushrod twins and triples to the history books. During the 70s, the Four was followed by smaller 350cu cm and 500cu cm versions, and the first of a successful range of four-stroke trail bikes. The famous silver and red 1971 XL250 was as much a precursor of today's play bikes as the CB750 was the archetype of the modern superbike.
Racing has continued to play its part in Honda's marketing programme, but on a world-wide basis. The company has competed on a factory or works'' level in diverse theatres of two-wheeled competition -- desert racing, motocross, flat-tracks, production racing, all categories of Grand Prix endeavour, and even the Pikes Peak and Widowmaker hill climbs. The company also produced over the counter'' racers for dirt and tarmac use, allowing non-works riders to compete on close to even terms with factory riders -- sometimes to the latter's embarrassment.
Although the Cub and SuperCub models were Honda's most prolific series, Honda also had remarkable success with its original 100cu cm single. That engine found itself being sized from its original displacement through several on and off-road applications -- 100, 110, 120, 125, 150, 175, 185, 200 and 225cu cm -- across almost 30 years of production.
Down on the farm
In New Zealand the Cub is more likely to be remembered putt-putting around paddocks. Honda's early farmbike step-throughs helped sheep farmers enormously.
Instead of bogging paddocks and gateways with tractors, farmers could get themselves and a bit of gear quickly around even the wettest ground. Because it had no hand clutching, they could hold a ewe or a bale of hay on the carrier. The bike's nippy abilities around a mob also meant farmers no longer needed to have top dogs for stock work. Farm Hondas have developed from two-wheeled machines into highly specialised single-cylinder four-wheel-drive machines. Honda's latest model to be released in New Zealand is, however, a single-pot 230cu cm trail bike which adheres to much of Honda's traditional origins. As the 100 millionth Honda motorcycle rolls off the line, the company's range spreads from machines visually much the same as the original Cub through to its flat-six 1500cu cm GoldWing flagship. It is an irony that this bike is built only in America, the market that enabled Honda to achieve his worldwide supremacy.