Quality Products have no International Boundaries / 1956

 

Chapter 1

In 1956, Messrs. Honda and Fujisawa traveled to Europe together. On the surface, their purpose was to make an observation trip, but actually the two had an idea for a completely new product, and they took this trip in order to substantiate it.

The Cub F-Type had gone out of production. The type of bike known as a "Mopet" in Japan (derived from the European motorbike with pedals known as a Moped) was growing in popularity there, replacing the auxiliary engine for bicycles.

Photo

A brochure dating from the time the Super Cub went on sale. The lettering in the word "Super" was clearly designed in line with the Cub F-Types logo. The people involved at the time say it was almost totally hand-crafted. (Brochure courtesy of Jozaburo Kimura)

Every time Honda looked at the mopeds running on the streets in Europe, he would ask Fujisawa:

"That kind there? Or this kind here?"

Fujisawa would just shake his head.

As soon as they had returned to Japan, a meeting of the executive board was held, after which the two men conveyed the board's instructions for development of a new product. The vehicle that Mr. Honda had imagined was explained to the engineering design staff. Yoshiro Harada, then Head of the Frame Engineering Design Section, was made the leader of this project. He remembers:

"The principal people were told to get together, and the Old Man talked about the idea he had in his mind. It was close to a Moped, but it would be different, that much came across. He had come back with about five sample bikes he had bought over there. There were an NSU from Germany, a Zundapp, a Puch from Austria, and so on. The Old Man was always thinking about mass producibility, and this time we all figured out that he had mass production on his mind more than ever. Actually, the Old Man had us make two prototypes even before he went to Europe. One of them was just wild, with a body made entirely of cast aluminum. It may have been suited to mass production, but the weight made it unworkable. We gave up on that one pretty quickly. At that point, the Old Man himself hadn't formed a clear image of what he wanted yet."

"As we went on, it gradually became more concrete," Harada recalled. "The Old Man would get to the Engineering Design Room early in the morning and call out, 'Hey, last night I thought of this,' and everyone in the room would come over to see what was up. Then he would get even more excited and start spluttering as he explained. After a while he would get impatient, and then he would squat down and start sketching his idea on the floor with chalk. While he was drawing, he would be thinking ahead, so he'd use his hand to rub out what he had drawn and start sketching again. His audience would keep on increasing. The Old Man would be in the center of this circle of people, just like a sidewalk performer," he continued, laughing. "The employees who surrounded him, though, would all be quivering with tension as they listened to the Old Man. 'The engine will be a 4-stroke!' and, of course, this had long since been decided. That wasn't Mr. Fujisawa's request. The Old Man had come to really hate 2-stroke engines then. He just despised them. In the New Year season of 1957, we started development, beginning with the engine."

Daiji Hoshino was in charge of the engine. Honda had specified during a board meeting that he should develop the new engine.

He says: "I had joined Honda in 1951, and was immediately put to work on the Cub F-Type engine. I had worked on engine design before coming to Honda, but not internal combustion engines. I worked on external combustion engines, designing steam locomotives. Then I got started on tiny little 50 cc machines," he said, laughing. "I didn't have any experience with them, but those 2-stroke engines didn't present any great engineering difficulties, so I managed somehow."

This time, however, the engine development would have many difficulties.

Hoshino recalls: "The Super Cub engine came after the Benly J-Type, and it was the second 4-stroke engine I had designed. Nobody in the world was mass-producing anything like a 50 cc 4-stroke engine. It was just accepted that if an engine was a 50 cc, it had to be 2-stroke. When Mr. Honda went to Europe with Mr. Fujisawa, they saw newspapers being delivered to the hotel in the morning, and the vehicles used were all 2-strokes. Apparently the Old Man said, 'That high-pitched exhaust sound is really annoying. They shouldn't be selling machines like that. Bikes like that have really got to be 4-stroke.' The orders I received were, of course, for a 4-stroke engine. After that, he would show up in the Engineering Design Room every single day. I would be absorbed in working out some basic calculations, when all of a sudden I'd glance up and Mr. Honda would be standing there behind me. Often he would be watching over my shoulder without my even realizing it. This happened many times. Talk about turning up the heat, this was much more intense than usual. When we started drawing the engineering plans, it got even worse. For one thing, he could read blueprint drawings very quickly. He would take one glance and say, 'This is no good,' and put a rough pencil stroke right over a part I'd taken great pains to draw cleanly. He had very sharp intuition, so he could perceive problems instantly. There's no doubt about it, his brain wasn't like other people's."

However, Honda was not someone to force his own views on people. He was not a one-sided autocrat, as Hoshino explained:

"For instance, when he said, 'Make this plate here thinner,' if I explained logically that it was that thickness because of our strength calculations, he wouldn't argue. He'd just say, 'Oh, really?' and that was the end of it. It would be a win for me. When the president's idea clashed with ours, we would test it out. 'I guess mine wasn't any good,' he'd say, and lightly let it drop. However, if anyone ever went off-track with their fundamental engineering, then he would be very severe. One time I received a particularly harsh scolding from him. That was when I was testing the supply of lubricating oil to the Benly camshaft, and I got the basic test parameters wrong."

Despite all this, however, the development proceeded as though everyone were under the gun.

"One of our greatest problems was that the engine was to be mounted tilted forward almost to the horizontal," said Hoshino. "No matter what we tried, though, the surface area exposed to moving air was too small, so cooling was problematic. The engine would overheat. Then we thought of opening ventilating holes in the top of the cylinder head cover. That made cooling possible. Mr. Honda would say, 'Creative ingenuity is a wisdom born of suffering,' and he was right.

"I have another, similar story. It happened when we were worried about not getting sufficient power output. The only thing was to enlarge the intake and exhaust valves. But this was a 50 cc engine, so the surface area available in the cylinder head was too small. If we used standard 12 mm-diameter spark plugs, we couldn't increase the diameter of the valves. We decided to take a bold step and use 10 mm plugs. To put it in Mr. Honda's language, 'Common sense is there in order for us to break through it.' NGK, the plug manufacturer, was very positive about developing 10 mm plugs. We got an output of 4.3 PS, so we ended up with about twice as much power as anybody else."

The engine was made a 4-stroke. This was the crucial choice that determined the future of the Super Cub, a future which is still unfolding today.

With an OHV mechanism, the engine had high power and, at 9500 rpm, even higher revolutions than an OHC engine. At the same time, it had the ease of use necessary for a practical bike. The fuel economy also was far superior to 2-stroke engines.

Chapter 2

Development of the clutch mechanism started at the same time as engine development, Harada recalls:

"From the start, the Old Man was saying, 'I want to make it so the noodle shop delivery boy can balance his tray on one hand and operate the bike with the other.' In other words, a bike that would enable the rider to leave one hand free. That means the clutch wouldn't be operated by hand."

This was the second time Honda had taken up the challenge of a bike that anyone could ride without having the knack for using the clutch, following the Dream D-Type that had no clutch lever.

The Super Cub employed an automatic centrifugal clutch. What required the team to take repeated pains, in particular, was the clutch disengagement mechanism. Kawashima also cooperated on this. With Akira Akima in charge, as many as eight different methods were tested. Kawashima described this effort:

"For the clutch disengagement and the gear shifting, the foot-operated pedal such as we used on the Dream D-Type would be fine. This time, however, we absolutely could not afford to fail in the same way. That's why we took particular pains to get this part right, more than any other."

Development of the body began in February, as well. Harada handled the general supervision of everything from the engine to the styling. Motoo Nakajima was in charge of the front suspension team, and Futoshi Hasegawa's team worked on the rear end and brakes. Kichinosuke Ando, who joined the team in June, supervised the frame and body team.

"With Mr. Harada heading the group, everyone carried out their development work while coordinating and mixing the efforts of their teams in various ways," Nakajima recalled. "I was in charge of the front fork and the front wheel suspension, and also did the basic calculations for the rear suspension. Mr. Hasegawa took on the swinging arm, wheel, hub, and so on for the rear. Mr. Ando calculated the body's center of gravity, namely, the location of the seat and the distribution of the weight. In other words, this was team work. We discussed what we were doing with each other as we worked to complete the project. At times like this, the character of the person conducting the team efforts is especially important. Project leader isn't just an empty title. It requires skillful coordination of all the teams. With someone like Mr. Harada there to act as a buffer for the Old Man, everyone turned out good work."

The bottom-link front suspension that Nakajima had begun working on was designed to be smaller and sleeker than those fitted to similar Honda bikes before. However, it had the comfortable ride and toughness needed for travel on bad roads.

"It was important to give the Super Cub a friendly look, so we didn't want to make it seem too tough," Nakajima commented. "We had to consider production costs, too, and make the suspension function adequately, so I think this is where we had the most difficult time."

Ando remarks:

"I joined the company in June 1957, when the Super Cub development was already in progress. The basic frame structure had been determined, with 17-inch tires, and a clay model was being built. What amazed me," he said, laughing, "was that when the bike was completed, there weren't any properly written specifications. We didn't have blueprint drawings of the skeleton showing things like the length of the wheelbase, the caster angle, the trail, and so on. Ordinarily, you base fabrication on those specifications, but Honda did the opposite. We built the skeleton and then wrote the specifications. That was my job. Around then, the one thing the Old Man was most strictly demanding was weight reduction. We trimmed and trimmed and finally got it down to 55 kg. We had good timing, too. New materials like polyethylene were just coming out, and this was a time when manufacturing technologies were taking great leaps forward. Honda aggressively adopted methods suited to mass production, such as electric welding. On top of the brains that were in the group, I think this good timing was a major factor in the Super Cub's success."

Chapter 3

Underlying the Super Cub's success was the choice of 17-inch tires. Tires of this size were simply not being produced at that time. Then what was the reason for choosing the 17-inch size? Driving stability, the ability to drive across rough road surfaces, comfortable riding height, and appropriate distance from foot to ground when stopping the bike were among the conditions taken into consideration. The result was the determination that this was the optimal tire size, and the decision was carried through Honda's affirmation.

Harada recalled:

"The tire manufacturer didn't go along with it at first. After all, they would have been making 17-inch tires just for one Honda product model. It was the same story with the rim manufacturer. The result, though, is that they have been generously recompensed by the Super Cub's sales."

When April came, Honda began styling design of the body. The designer in charge of the Super Cub was a newcomer, Jozaburo Kimura. He had toured Honda's Shirako Plant the year before graduating from university, and been so impressed by the energy there that he joined the company.

"After all, it was practically like an ionizing reaction going on inside a beaker," Kimura said. "Everyone was crackling with energy as they worked. I felt as though I wanted to dive right into it. So I took the test, and when I passed, I took a leave from the university and started working at Honda in November 1956. This was just when the top secret 'Operation Special M' had begun. That was the Super Cub development project. I did on-the-job training for a while, and then I was working on styling design of turn signals for the Benly, when all of a sudden I was told, 'You're going to do styling design for Special M.' The entire company was working on development of this bike, and here they get a brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears kid to be the designer. This is a totally eccentric company. This is something the Old Man was often saying around then that made an impression on me: 'Make it something that fits in your hand!' At first I didn't understand what he meant. After a while, I figured out that what he meant was, he wanted to make motorcycles an intimate presence in people's lives, something that anyone could use without fuss or worry. In other words, this was making motorcycles into personal tools, universalizing them. Make them like the tools you use with your hands."

Kimura picked up the image that Honda wanted to convey, and threw himself into producing the design. His audience, however, was the "Modeling Chief," who would without any hesitation or apology go to work on one of his clay models, reshaping it as he pleased. Mr. Honda was especially strict about how they handled the design for the opening where the rider straddles the bike, or what the designers called the step-through, and made very demanding requests of the designers. The standard practice in European Mopeds was to place the fuel tank in the forward part of this straddling space, but Mr. Honda did not agree:

"This isn't a motorcycle that you ride from behind with your leg raised. This is a bike that you sit down on from the front. We want customers wearing skirts to buy this. Don't put the tank where it gets in the way."

Kimura was therefore pressed until he figured out a layout that placed the tank under the seat. Mr. Honda would whittle away at the step-through space on the clay model until the steel core showed through. He still was not satisfied, and would order Kimura to start over again.

Easy straddling became one of the major features of the Super Cub's styling, and the origin of this conception was in Mr. Honda's maxim, "Always make your products friendly."

The styling effort finally proceeded to creation of the final mockup eight months later, at the end of December. Honda said:

"This isn't a motorcycle. It isn't a scooter, either."

Indeed, this mockup, finished to look exactly like an actual product, showed a two-wheeled vehicle with a new form that had never existed before.

"The Old Man said, 'Call the Senior Managing Director,' and had me telephone the head office in Yaesu. Then Mr. Fujisawa showed up so soon that I wondered how he had gotten there so quickly. I was right there on the spot with them."

Taisuke Mori, another young designer who had joined the company in 1957, knew how hard Kimura had worked.

For about fifteen minutes, Honda eloquently enumerated the unprecedented features of this new product to Fujisawa.

"What happened next is exactly as people tell in that famous anecdote," said Mori. "The Old Man said to the Senior Managing Director, 'Well, what do you think? How many of these do you think we can sell?' Mr. Fujisawa's reply was, 'Maybe about 30,000.' Then I spoke up, without thinking what I was doing, and asked, 'Do you mean 30,000 units per year?' He said back to me, 'Don't be foolish. That's 30,000 per month!' I clearly remember how the Old Man, true to form, glared for an instant."

Harada was not present on that occasion, but he says:

"I was deliberately avoiding Mr. Fujisawa. I thought that if Mr. Fujisawa asked me to do something on the project, then I would have to do it. That would put me right in between him and the Old Man. I heard the story about the thirty thousand units a month right after Mr. Fujisawa had left. Well, this looked like being a pretty big deal. After all, this was when the aggregate number of units sold by all the motorcycle manufacturers in Japan was somewhere around forty thousand a month. When Mr. Fujisawa said that, he couldn't have had any solid basis for the confidence in that figure he named. I had the feeling that he was putting pressure on us by implying we had better be prepared, because the sales side was ready to sell that many."

Before this project had begun, Mr. Fujisawa, the man of sales, had made a certain request of Mr. Honda. Kihachiro Kawashima recollected:

"Mr. Fujisawa said to me, 'I asked the president, please give us a bike so attractive that the person sleeping next to you would say, okay, go ahead and buy it.' He meant a bike that a wife would allow her husband to buy. At that time, motorcycles still had a scary image among women. The engines stuck way out and made a lot of noise, and they seemed very crude. Mr. Fujisawa knew that the existing motorcycle market had its limits. He himself had no personal interest in motorcycles or automobiles. He did have a driver's license, but he only used it as a shoehorn," he said, laughing. "That meant he had an objective sense for motorcycles as a product from the perspective of people who didn't drive them. I also heard him say, 'This time, we'll have a bike that doesn't have its insides sticking out.' He meant it would be a bike that women would ride, too. Of course, this was before we even had an image of what it would actually look like."

Kawashima said:

"What was amazing about Mr. Fujisawa was that he gave Mr. Honda an appropriate market price for the Super Cub beforehand, while it was still being developed. Mr. Honda directed the development accordingly. However, with his engineer's conscience, he kept fixing things that he couldn't compromise on, so the cost would go up. But Mr. Fujisawa said that for this product, this should be the market price, and he set that price without paying any attention to the cost. I was certainly surprised. The retail price he set was 55,000 yen. (This was at a time when black-and-white television sets typically cost between 60,000 to 65,000 yen.) If we sold only one thousand units a month, then we could barely expect to meet our costs. If we sold 30,000, however, that cost would be feasible. He asked that adjustments be made to meet this requirement, and then went ahead and set the retail price. Mr. Honda was also amazing, because he didn't give in, and said to us, 'Okay, then let's show him that we can do it.' After giving guidance to our plants and our parts suppliers, we ended up building a high precision bike with the top performance and durability for sale in the market at this price. Just as happened with our plants, many of our parts suppliers also started with motorcycle parts and then went on to become major automobile parts companies. Mr. Honda supported this growth, and he was the Number One person in the world of manufacturing. Mr. Fujisawa was a great contributor to the world of sales. I think that the motor vehicle industry in Japan owes a great deal to these two men."

The Super Cub was the first Honda product to utilize polyethylene on a large scale, from the front fenders on up. Harada recalled:

"Using polyethylene was a great adventure. It was a new material, and it was just starting to gain popularity in products like polyethylene buckets. There was no precedent at all for its use in the motor vehicle industry. We used it because the Old Man decided, 'Use it!' The riding performance of the Super Cub was raised that much higher because we had so many parts made of light polyethylene instead of heavy sheet steel. In the end, this material also turned out to be very effective in reducing our costs."

If Honda had followed tradition and made all those parts with steel, Harada says, the Super Cub might never have become such a success.

Ever since the failure of the Juno, Tsuchida's section had kept up their research interest in plastics. Now they went into action as the Chemical Section of the Chemical Division. Honda had been encouraging the members of this section from time to time, in an effort to keep their spirits up, as they were not blessed with many opportunities. Now, at first they ordered their polyethylene parts from Sekisui Chemical Co. Within a short time, however, they were able to set up an in-house production capability using injection molding, and they started out by making the Super Cub's tool box, battery box, and front fender. This was possible only because a scant four or five members had continued developing the technology even after the section had been temporarily disbanded when the Juno went out of production. The work done by Tsuchida and his colleagues eventually expanded into mass production of plastic parts at the Suzuka Factory, and it was to contribute to cost reductions in the Super Cub.

The naming of the product was accomplished very simply. The one who proposed it was Kimura, who remembers:

"Only the name remained to be settled. The word 'super' was in vogue around then, so I put 'super' in front of 'Cub' to make a logo using the Cub F-Type's special lettering style. When I showed it to the Old Man, he said, 'Okay, that's fine.' So it was named Super Cub. No particular incidents were involved. The only thing that got decided on the first try like that was the naming."

Development took the unusually long time, by Honda's standard, of approximately one year and eight months from inception. The Super Cub went on sale in August 1958."

Mr. Honda is said to have made the Super Cub entirely from the customer's perspective. From its engine and shape to its ease of riding, ease of use, durability, and economy, everything had "Put the customer satisfaction first." When Mr. Honda test rode the bike, he deliberately rode it through puddles in the road to check how the mud would splash up on him. Having been brought to completion in this way, it was as though the Super Cub itself was the Honda philosophy turned into a bike.

Chapter 4

Fujisawa again skillfully resorted to the direct mail strategy on the Super Cub. To build a sales network, this time he approached people in businesses unrelated to either motorcycles or bicycles to take part. These were people, for instance, like lumber merchants, dry grocers, mushroom growers, and other dissimilar businesses. This unprecedented concept was typical of Fujisawa. Kawashima explained:

"Mr. Fujisawa's philosophy was: 'Selling motorcycles is not a business you direct to a large number of unspecified people. It's a business that has to provide after-sale service. Let people who have deep roots in an area sell bikes there.' You have to realize, though, that calling for participation by people from totally dissimilar lines of business was possible only because it was Mr. Fujisawa doing it. Having obtained high productivity in the Super Cub, he eagerly took on the challenge of building 'our own sales network.' He thus constructed the foundation for Honda's present sales network.

"For example, there was a certain major Honda agent who had held the extremely broad sales territory of the entire Kanto District from an earlier time. He had this agent return the sales rights in that territory, and limit the agency to the Tokyo area alone. The rest of that former territory was then reorganized under Honda's own direct sales network. One of the wonderful things about the Super Cub is that it gave Mr. Fujisawa the power to do this."

Approximately 600 dealers were selected from a pool of 3,500 applicants. The plan called for monthly sales of 30,000 units through a nationwide network of 1,500 dealers.

Fujisawa was nicknamed the "Advertising Chief."

"When it came to promotion and advertising, we had our mouths closed and our hands tied. That was like a No Fishing area," said Kawashima, laughing. "Mr. Fujisawa handled it all. But the methods in all aspects of this followed the Fujisawa style, and his ideas were unconventional. He was an early practitioner of pre-sales advertising, what we call teasers today, and he developed the use of full-page, fifteen-column spreads for newspaper advertising. These were advertising strategies that made the other companies really pay attention. On this subject, I suspect that people outside Honda might have more information than people here in the company."

Photo

Advertisements made for the new Super Cub. (Advertisements provided by Tokyo Graphic Designers Incorporation)

Photo

Advertisements made for the new Super Cub. The Super Cub was like an embodiment of the "Three Joys," and it became a favorite of customers around the world following its debut in 1958. (Advertisements provided by Tokyo Graphic Designers Incorporation)

Around this time, Fujisawa had collected around him a group of young people from outside the company whom he used as a kind of brain trust. Tsugio Ogata, now president of Tokyo Graphic Designers, said:

"It was information gathering. There was a great range and variety, with musicians, stockbrokers, and advertising designers like me. I was working in the advertising division of the Takashimaya Department Store. At night, he would give us plenty to drink, and he would listen to our talk. Then, eventually, he started saying, 'We're going to place an ad like this. Tell me what you think.' One of the ads for the Super Cub turned out to be practically a copy of an ad from another country. He told me, 'I'm not a professional at this, and I can't keep track to that extent. I don't want to be embarrassed like this again, so you go independent and handle Honda's advertising design.' So I got drawn in. This was soon after the Super Cub hit the market.

"Mr. Fujisawa was the Super Director. He'd give me a concept and say let's go with something like this. I'd work very hard to figure out what it meant and turn it into an advertisement. One day he said, 'The president says the Super Cub will be good for noodle shops. Let's do something with that theme.' What came out of that was the advertisement with the line, 'The noodles are fine, too, mom.' He was very pleased with the results. He was very happy about the results, and told me, 'Hey, after that ad came out, a lot of our bikes were sold to noodle shops.' However, it was hard work producing a draft that he would like. I'd draw dozens and he still wasn't satisfied. He would shout at me and harass me: 'You don't understand what I'm saying!' Even now, I often think that it's thanks to him, and I'm flattering myself, now that I have become capable of designing good advertisements."

The reaction of the market was a sharp rise, even before sales had started. Applications from prospective dealers kept coming in larger numbers. There were even some eager people who would show up at the company, cash advances in hand, hoping that would help them obtain even a single Super Cub. This was reminiscent of the scenes that took place with the old Cub F-Type. Already, however, it was clear that this was more than just a short-lived fad.

"The Honda Engine Development: A Thirty-Year History" contains this statement:

"From the time of mass production start-up at the Saitama Factory and until it was transferred to the Suzuka Factory in 1960, monthly production of the Super Cub showed virtually straight-line upward growth. It reached 27,000 units a month."

With the Super Cub, this time Honda had indeed fully realized the "Three Joys."

Some years later, the Super Cub would also demonstrate that "good products know no national boundaries." The main actor in American Honda Motor Co.'s success story would turn out to be the Super Cub.

In the forty-year period since it was first introduced, the Super Cub has been in continuous production without any change in its basic form. As of the end of January 1999, cumulative global production of that model exceeded 27,460,000 units, and nobody knows how far into the future this record will extend. As Kimio Shinmura said:

"Actually, in the early 1970s, there was some talk of doing a full model change. That was when I became managing director of the R&D Center. I said, okay, it looks like a tough job so I'll handle it. I traveled all over the world, and for about a year I went over possibilities with Mikihiro Kohyama, a body man, only to reject them one after another. No, it took longer than that, and whatever design we tried, we couldn't surpass what we already had. We just didn't have it in us. There wouldn't be anything to gain by a model change. The conclusion I reached was to say, 'Mr. Super Cub, I'm sorry I was such a smart aleck,' and give my best salute," he said, laughing. "That bike is like the crystallization of the Old Man's feelings when he was at the peak of his powers. We'd been mistaken to even consider making a model change in the first place."

When the Super Cub was announced in July, Honda carried out its seventh capital increase. The company's capitalization reached 720 million yen.