Honda’s history is littered with standout moments of innovation. From pioneering uses of hydrogen propulsion, to the invention of four-wheel steering and VTEC variable valve technology, the marque has a penchant for pushing boundaries. Their marketing team would probably tell you it’s all down to the power of dreams.
But like the most successful artists of our time, Honda’s defining moment of genius combined simplicity, accessibility, and a killer ad campaign to generate outstanding commercial success. The Super Cub motorcycle is the two-wheeled equivalent of Elvis Presley – the all-time biggest seller of its kin.
Honda’s most successful ever model – the Super Cub – was always intended to appeal to the masses. But with 100 million examples sold as of 2017, it’s unlikely even Sochiro Honda could have predicted the Super Cub’s astronomical popularity.
Arriving in 1958, the Super Cubs launch coincided with the marque’s ten-year anniversary. Honda’s first decade had been a successful one; its inventive 1952 Cub F 50cc ‘clip-on’ bicycle engine kit had proved hugely popular, allowing affordable motorised transport during a difficult postwar Japanese economy.
In 1956, a visit to Germany by marque founders Sochiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa gave the pair an idea. Having witnessed the popularity in small motorcycles and mopeds on the continent, the pair saw the potential for an affordable small Japanese motorcycle with improved reliability and refinement over its European rivals.
In an era where around a tenth of Japanese roads were paved, the Super Cub had to work in both urban and rural environments. Its engine was an early display of Honda’s engineering prowess, a 50cc air-cooled four-stroke which was simple and cheap to maintain. Its low compression engine worked well with low octane fuel, with a splash-fed oil lubrication design that meant the Super Cub could do without an oil pump or filter. A clever, 3-speed semi-automatic gearbox also eliminated the need for a clutch, making it brilliant for beginner riders.
Honda took more Germanic inspiration when planning the production, modelling the factory on the Wolfsburg plant responsible for churning out Volkswagen’s Beetle. At maximum capacity it could build up to 50,000 Super Cubs a month, with the earliest bikes sold as the Honda C100.
By 1962, Honda had established itself as a major player in the global motorcycle marketplace. It was shifting an impressive 40,000 units per year in the USA alone but, with production capacity more robust than ever, American Honda founder Kihachiro Kawashima had his sights set on the stratosphere. Kawashima set a new target of 200,000 units for the following year and, armed with a suitably robust budget, approached ad agencies in search of a campaign to boost sales.
The winning strapline, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, created a landmark moment. The campaign had a transformative effect not only on Honda’s sales figures but on the public’s perception of bikers in general, depicting the most ‘respectable’ members of society astride the Super Cub. The campaign worked, and Honda’s baby bike entered its next phase of world domination.
The ‘C50’ update of 1966 remained in production until the mid-1980s and is probably most recognisable Super Cub of them all. Another milestone came in 2006, with Honda celebrating 50 million units sold – astoundingly, it would sell the same again over the next 11 years.
The Super Cub you can buy today would be immediately recognisable to anyone who bought into Kawashima’s ad campaign; an air-cooled, four stroke engine remains, though engine capacity has grown to 125cc. On its website, Honda UK describes it as straightforward, robust transport and boast that ‘the Super Cub’s appeal has never gone out of fashion’. To paraphrase the title of a certain Elvis compilation album, 100 million Honda fans can’t be wrong.
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