Honda’s 50cc Super Cub - CLASSICS REMEMBERED

Technical Editor Kevin Cameron takes a look back at the classic motorcycles of yesterday

Honda Super Cub static side view
Honda Super Cub, 1st Generation (1958)By Mj-bird (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Honda Super Cub has been called the most-produced vehicle of all time, sales now totaling close to 100,000,000. Its big wheels bridged potholes that would flip small-wheel scooters. Its step-through design was friendly to all riders and all styles of dress. Its easy-starting four-stroke engine had a pleasant sound, did not smoke, and was long-lasting. Parts and service were widely available.

Just as it took Henry Ford time to arrive at the successful Model T (he produced fairly expensive conventional cars before his mass-production breakthrough), so there was a learning process for Honda and his organization.

Honda began with two-stroke power, and when his partner Fujisawa objected that people preferred the sound of four-strokes, he asserted that he could engineer around the sound. Fujisawa ultimately got his way (as he later would in the argument over air versus water cooling), for Honda’s real interests lay in engineering, not business.

Cycle World magazine layout from October 1988
From the October 1988 issue of Cycle World: The 10 Greatest Bikes of All TimeCycle World

When 1950s Japan was dotted with regional motorbike producers a superficial view was that well-engineered products should succeed on their merits. But that’s not enough. Motor vehicles are a system that must deliver transportation. If you somehow damage your bike, you can’t go shopping or get to work tomorrow unless you can quickly replace the part. Fujisawa understood that to sell in real volume the Honda product had to be available from outlets everywhere, with parts and service to keep it running reliably. He therefore sent 15,000 letters to Japanese bicycle shops, arguing that just as shop owners’ fathers or grandfathers had learned to understand and repair bicycles, so now shop personnel could do the same with simple motorbikes – the transportation of the future. The response was positive, creating in time a nationwide network of Honda dealers.

Automaker Alfred P. Sloan offered GM cars in several price levels, tempting a Chevy owner to upgrade to a somewhat pricier Oldsmobile or even a Buick. Honda models were soon leading buyers on a merry chase of increasing displacement and capability.

Mr. Honda was a sophisticated person. When he had tried to manufacture aircraft engine piston rings during WW II, his product was rejected. He then sought advice from university metallurgists and by adopting improved methods was able to make workable rings. This made him a believer in getting manufacturing processes right. In 1952 he went on an international expedition to buy machine tools and R&D equipment. Later, upon studying European racing motorcycles he was struck by the large difference in maximum safe rpm between their designs and his own. European 250s were reaching 12,000-rpm but his own product was working hard at 7000. He decided correctly that the key to making high power from small four-stroke engines was reliable operation at high rpm.

Honda and Fujisawa knew that hand-crafting produced poor goods slowly, at high prices. A planer surfaces a casting in a single pass, but a manual worker using a draw-file takes half a shift. A successful product had to be designed from the start for ease of manufacturing, and had to be made in a plant filled with the latest types of automatic transfer lines. What product could justify such an expensive plant, and how would they persuade bankers to lend them the necessary money?

Cycle World magazine layout from May 2006
Cycle World's Roundup from May 2006: Honda Super Cub sales surpass the 50 million mark.Cycle World

The Super Cub emerged from people’s needs. Rough roads required big wheels. Step-through design appealed to the widest range of users. Its engine had to be small and economical, but definitely powerful enough to decisively outperform the obvious alternatives – bicycle or shoe-leather - in speed and hill-climbing.

Now Honda and Fujisawa ordered the tooling they needed, and pressed on with plant construction, even though they couldn’t pay for either. They boldly planned to cover each step of debt service by advance sales of product. They made this “just in time” payment scheme work. When Super Cub hit the market, it was a huge success and bankers were impressed. The gamble – so often close to failure - had worked.

It’s tempting to look at Honda’s step-through 50 as a low-tech toy but it was not. It was based on the very same idea that made its GP racers of the 1960s successful – making power through reliable high rpm. Its tiny 50-cc was able to make more power than DKW’s big-selling RT125 two-stroke – and do it more reliably. It’s in the numbers; that little engine was able to rev remarkably high (as much as 9500), at first with pushrod OHV valve operation, and after 1965 with single overhead cam. Backed by dealers all over Japan, a Super Cub was not an orphan like so many other small motorbikes of its time (and some bigger ones of the present day!). Parts were in stock at a nearby dealer.

Eventually Super Cubs were produced in many countries worldwide, but for Honda they were the single great success that bankrolled future developments by earning the trust of bankers. They analyzed the market correctly, bet the company on tooling for huge production numbers, and followed-through with product support. From 1961, Honda’s successful international racing activities made the company name known everywhere. Super Cub and later high-volume products gave substance to that name.