In December 2009, executives from Honda Motor Co. subsidiaries in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand huddled over a full-scale clay model of a small motorcycle, the latest version of one of Japan's biggest success stories: the Honda Super Cub.
The best-selling delivery and transport bike had sold a staggering 72 million units, manufactured in 15 countries, as of the end of 2010. The group of executives were at the Honda Institute of Research and Development at Asaka, Saitama Prefecture, to argue over which features of the 50-cc engined Honda Super Cub motorbike were most in demand. They were working to harmonize the parts to ensure that production in all three countries would go smoothly.
According to Norihiro Imada, chief researcher at the institute, it didn't take much time for the officials to reach an accord. "Trends quickly spread these days, thanks to the Internet," Imada said, adding that design differences have become considerably less in recent years. The harmonizing process, and bringing the Super Cub back to its humble roots, has been a long time coming.
Honda rolled out its first Super Cub, a single model of the 50cc bike, in August 1958. Since then, so many versions have been produced to reflect the latest innovations that the company has lost track of exactly how many Super Cub designs there are in the world. That "year of the Super Cub" was a significant turning point for Honda. In around 1954, the motor company had encountered its biggest crisis since it was established in 1948: a glitch in its engines caused sales to plummet. Founder and President Soichiro Honda issued a directive to develop a basic vehicle that was "manageable." Takeo Fujisawa, Honda's partner, ordered that the vehicle be "one with a broad customer base that would prop up Honda."
Honda, who was also an engineer, made one more request: "Don't worry about how much it costs to develop--we'll make it up through mass production."
Thus, a flood of ideas and new technologies were adopted for the project, which eventually led to the development of the motorcycle that would make the name Honda known worldwide. The project led to Honda becoming the first to develop a four-stroke 50cc engine, which was much quieter and fuel efficient than the two-cycle motors that had been standard for small vehicles. In an age when few roads were paved, the motor was designed to produce enough power to rival a 90cc engine, giving riders more traction.
And in keeping with the times, the frame was designed at a low-slung angle to enable women wearing skirts to get on and off with ease. The president himself made sure that attention was given to the tiniest details. He once even did a test-drive of a prototype that had a food delivery box mounted on the back to demonstrate what features needed to be changed to meet the needs of a soba shop deliveryman.
After that, the usual clutch lever disappeared from the left handle and was replaced with an automatic gear shift pedal. It was this innovative technology that led the way to development of the automatic transmission in cars years later.
"This vehicle is my proudest invention," read the advertising copy quoting Honda in an ad that appeared in The Asahi Shimbun's Osaka editions just one month before the motorcycle went on sale. Jozaburo Kimura, 81, who was in charge of design, recalls, "There was a feeling of overcoming difficulties to produce something useful."
The Super Cub, with its ease of maneuverability, fuel efficiency and durability, reflected that spirit, Kimura said. He added that the motorcycle soon became the preferred vehicle of postal workers, telegraph office personnel and newspaper delivery staff.
In the late 1950s, Japan had more than 100 small companies making motorbikes, and total motorcycle production stood at about 40,000 units a month. It was also a time when the average corporate worker earned 16,000 yen a month. The Super Cub's price tag was a steep 55,000 yen. Nevertheless, Honda churned out a whopping 47,000 Super Cubs in 1960 to meet the rising demand. It soon dominated the market.
In 1959, Honda's U.S. subsidiary introduced its diminutive scooter. It quickly gained notice in the land of the Harley-Davidson with the sales pitch: "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." During the Vietnam War, the Super Cub invaded Southeast Asia, selling 750,000 units in the late 1960s in South Vietnam. The sight of a family of four or more clinging to a Super Cub's sturdy frame, handlebars and rear carrier while hauling harvests soon became a classic image of survival in developing countries.
According to the company, the Super Cub is its best-selling Honda ever. It is the model that made the company's name synonymous with motorcycle in many countries. Changes were often made to adapt to the needs of local markets overseas. While in Japan, the Super Cub has only a 50cc and 110cc version, in other countries, the engine displacement ranges from 100cc to 125cc.
Also, the Super Cub overseas has morphed into more of a leisure vehicle than a workhorse, with designs reflecting that: The frames are more sleek and streamlined. Which brings us full circle to Japan, where the bike's design--and its main users--remain very much the same as they have always been.