100 million and counting. That’s the total production of the Honda Cub (the Honda 50 or step-through, as we know it in the UK). In October 2017, the 100 millionth example rolled off the production line at Honda’s Kumamoto factory. This is the highest production figure for any motor vehicle in history and unlikely to ever be beaten.
The little Honda can lay claim to having the greatest worldwide impact of any form of motorised transport. Though modest in performance, it has become a motorcycling icon that has been in production for over half the time that motorcycles themselves have existed.
So how did it all begin? During a European fact-finding tour in 1956, Soichiro Honda, the engineer, was persuaded by his partner Takeo Fujisawa, the sales and finance man, that what the world needed was a simple, reliable machine that combined the convenience and weather protection of a scooter with the stability of a motorcycle. This shaped the concept of full-sized wheels (17”) with a pressed steel ‘step-through’ frame that had the engine mounted underneath, not pivoting on the swinging arm like a scooter.
Despite its simplicity, the design was very advanced for its time. The 50cc engine was the smallest mass-produced 4-stroke in history and produced 4.5 bhp to give a top speed over 40mph. The polyethylene leg shields and enclosure were the first large scale use of plastic on a motorcycle. An automatic clutch was specified so the thousands of noodle delivery riders in Japan could ride with one hand while carrying their tray of noodles with the other. Seriously.
Fujisawa’s boldest move was convincing Honda he could sell up to 50,000 a month when their previous best seller was only achieving 3000 a month. The gamble paid off because it led to economies of scale that made the machine both profitable and affordable. When launched in Japan it sold for the equivalent of £55 and when it reached the UK in 1962 it retailed at 79 guineas including taxes.
Chief executive of BSA/Triumph, Edward Turner’s reaction to the huge scale of Honda’s investment, when he visited in 1960, was that committing to such a massive outlay was desperately risky, given the level of sales saturation in key markets like the USA. He could not have foreseen the success of Honda’s impending advertising campaign.
While Asian markets were already taking the small Hondas as fast as they could be produced, Western consumers needed convincing. Motorcycles were, historically, the domain of the dedicated enthusiast, prepared to accept oily fingernails as the price of 2-wheeled freedom. In 1962 Honda launched its advertising campaign slogan ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’.
It was a runaway success and ran for 12 years, expanding the motorcycle market by pulling in countless new riders who were otherwise not interested in bikes. The huge profits from step-through sales subsequently funded Honda’s racing exploits and the exciting models that came later such as the CB750 and CBX six so, even if the Honda 50 doesn’t appeal to you directly, maybe we should all appreciate its contribution to the fabric of motorcycling.
Did you learn to ride on a Cub, or do you still enjoy one today? Let us know your experiences in the comments below?