How Was the Super Cub Born?
In October of 2017, the Super Cub series surpassed the worldwide production milestone of 100 million units. And in 2018, Honda will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Super Cub’s debut. Here, we’d like to introduce the history and charms of the Super Cub, which has grown to become a perennial favorite around the world since its birth in 1958.
Vol. 1 — Instoduction
What do Japanese people really want?
The search of the priorities matching the times begins
Moped or scooter? In 1956, Honda president Soichiro Honda and managing director Takeo Fujisawa traveled to Europe in search of hints to what their next major product should be. Instead, what they discovered were major differences in each country’s conditions, and how small bikes were used. They arrived at the firm belief that a new concept in motorcycles was necessary: The search of the priorities matching the times thus begins.
Soichiro Honda with the Super Cub's development team. After many months of trial and error and "waigaya" (‘boisterous meetings'), a unique machine unlike anything seen before was born.
From late 1956 to early 1957, Honda and Fujisawa began to form their ideas of the next major motorcycle model, based on what they had learned in Europe. The new machine would be neither a moped nor scooter. Instead, it would be something that the Japanese populace really desired, though they didn’t know it yet. An entirely new concept in handling ease and styling that would be unique to Japan, as well as to Honda. It would also need to be capable of supporting the company’s very foundations, as well as meeting the expectations of company associates who awaited their founders' return and ultimate decision.
Transmission designer Akira Akima — “At the time, everybody in the company was talking about how important it was to create a larger engine, but we also agreed that we really needed to focus our efforts on producing a popular small bike for the masses that could mark a new beginning for Honda.”
As guidelines for new development, the two men instructed their staff to “Create things that can fit in the hand” and “Create things that are easy to operate,” or more specifically, create something with four defined features:
● A high-powered 4-stroke engine that offers top performance, as well as being quiet and fuel efficient.
● A chassis and bodywork design of a size and shape that even women could easily get on and off, and ride.
● A new gear shift system that doesn’t require a clutch lever when changing gears.
● An advanced design that is also friendly, fresh and timeless.
Industrial designer Jozaburo Kimura, who had only recently joined Honda in November of 1956, recalled the moment when he first heard these policies:
After returning from Europe, the two thought up a new commuter bike unlike anything ever seen before.
Super Cub designer Jozaburo Kimura (2009).
Kimura — The Old Man (Oyaji-san: Honda founder Soichiro Honda) said, ‘Since Japan’s roads are so bad, the engine has to put out at least 4 horsepower.’ He also said, ‘We’ve got to make a rugged bike that can deliver easy handling on even bad roads.’ Mr. Fujisawa added, ‘This has got to be a bike that anyone can ride, and especially one that makes women feel confident they can ride. So, the engine can’t be concealed.’”
Kimura — “The requirements of this 4-horsepower engine were simply unheard of. The 50cc 2-stroke Cub F auxiliary engine that we’d been producing till then only put out 1 horsepower. It followed that we’d have to boost power output by 4 times all at one go. And this was at a time when only 10 percent of Japan’s roads were even paved!”
The engine design department took the initiative in pushing development forward. While still in the initial study phase, and taking the basic structure of the frame into account, the idea of creating a horizontal engine began to take shape. Mounting the engine horizontally was considered to be the best way to facilitate straddling the bike without leaving the engine exposed. The frame also featured a bold new design, with a lower main tube that made it easier to ‘step through’ and straddle the bike. As if creating a variation of a popular type of scooter, the team proceeded on to the “slender equals easy to straddle” design study phase.
To prevent overheating, the engine development staff made a hole in the cylinder head cover to better dissipate heat, and asked a spark plug manufacturer to make some special nonstandard spark plugs. By conceiving a host of ideas that overturned one convention after another, they eventually realized a maximum output of 4.5 horsepower at 9,500rpm, an astoundingly high engine speed and power output for the time.
Another project that advanced almost in parallel with engine development was the design of its transmission, which meshed with an automatic centrifugal clutch. This epoch-making idea totally eliminated the clutch lever from the left-hand grip, thus allowing gear changes to be performed with only the left foot in coordination with the right hand on the throttle. This made possible the realization of a motorcycle that “soba delivery boys can ride with one hand,” words frequently quoted as those Soichiro Honda used to describe the new bike’s concept.
Akima — “The development of the centrifugal clutch itself was not all that difficult. However, figuring out how to engage and disengage the clutch in synchronization with gear shift operation proved to be a complicated problem. On top of that, because of the kick starter ratio, the clutch needed to disengage when stopped, but it also had to engage automatically when starting.”
Owing to a structure that at first glance seemingly had to meet conflicting requirements, the team found that they couldn’t come up with good ideas quickly. Even Soichiro seemed to be thinking about it constantly, and every morning he’d drop by the design room asking, “How’s it going?”
Akima — “One day as I was leaving I said, ‘If we used a screw, we could convert the rotation of the kick action to the axial direction, but I’m afraid we might run into trouble owing to co-rotation.’ After saying this, I gave it a bit more thought, ‘Since the clutch has a certain amount of drag, it might just cancel out the co-rotation,’ Just then the Old Man came running back in saying, ‘Since the clutch has resistance, I’m sure we can make it work! I told him that was just what I’d been thinking, and he retorted, ‘Sometimes we even think alike!’ and we shared a big laugh. Eventually, we applied this method to solving the problem, and I was finally freed from the pressure of his constant visits to our room every morning.”
May, 1958 - Soichiro Honda smiles broadly astride the Super Cub prototype. (photo form contemporary Honda in-house newsletter)
Soichiro Honda’s visits to the engine design department had become habitual, but it always started with discussions among the engineers. There were numerous times when Honda joined the discussions as various opinions were being exchanged across department boundaries. To figure out the ideal structure, everybody spoke honestly and open-mindedly, regardless of age or position of responsibility. They used to say that whenever the discussions became heated, if Honda came up with a bright idea, he’d pick up a piece of chalk and start drawing a diagram of the structure on the blackboard, which would invariably spread out onto the floor. In such cases, a crowd of engineers would soon gather with interest, muttering “What’s happening?” And if one of them expressed his opinion, then the people hovering around the diagram would begin to share their own views without regard to which department or job they were responsible for.
It was widely regarded that many great ideas gradually took shape through this process. Such free and vigorous discussions in a creative atmosphere led to the original form of waigaya, or the ‘boisterous meetings’ that eventually came to represent Honda Motor’s corporate culture. In some cases, discussions became extremely heated and some individuals would get overly excited. Additionally, Honda’s shouts of “Baka-yaro!” (Stupid idiot!) are said to have been heard many times.
Kimura — “Since the automatic centrifugal clutch was a totally new mechanism, it couldn’t be developed overnight, so it goes without saying that its development proved to be difficult and required a lot of time. Mr. Akima never gave up, and single-mindedly came up with eight separate designs. His tremendous efforts were certainly worthwhile. That clutch turned out to be an especially important feature of the Super Cub, and made the bike so convenient and easy-to-handle that women wanted to ride it as well.”
What does it mean to ‘make things you can hold in your hands’?
Three experimental bikes were made to test out these eight different clutch prototypes, leading to the finalization of the automatic centrifugal clutch that became one of the hallmarks of the Super Cub, and one of its biggest features. Its easy operation freed up the left hand, making it revolutionary among motorcycles while also bringing management and rank-and-file employees closer together. Immersing themselves in the problems at hand, gathering together individual ideas while promoting a shared consciousness, and moving forward selection of the best proposals by sifting out the bad and leaving the good. This was the corporate culture of the young Honda Motor Company only 10 years after its establishment, and it is no exaggeration to note that this style of doing business underlies what Honda is today.
As the project progressed through engine, transmission and chassis design, body design began in April.
Kimura — “The Old Man always said, ‘Create things you can hold your hands.’ At first, I couldn’t quite grasp the correct meaning of these words, thinking this was probably some local saying from around Shizuoka, which was where he grew up. I asked Mr. Kawashima (Kiyoshi Kawashima, later to become Honda’s second president) in the Engine Design department to tell me what it meant, since I knew he was from the same area of Hamamatsu as the Old Man. He told me, ‘It means that we should make small things that can be held in one’s hands or body.’ In other words, we should make a compact bike that anybody can operate with ease.”
In giving form to the design, something Soichiro Honda was really concerned with was the size of the tires. The question was, what was the appropriate tire size that could most effectively give motion to the new engine so that it could provide stable power at even low speeds? With its automatic centrifugal clutch and space in its chassis that could be easily straddled, later to be called a ‘step-through’, tires needed to be selected to give the robustly constructed chassis optimum maneuverability. This meant that the body design would have to be determined by tire size, which subsequently lead to the most important “thing that can fit in your hands,” ? size and proportions made to fit the stature of the average Japanese.
Kimura — “The tire team was doing research on smaller-diameter wheels, and they found that the ideal outer tire diameter was 21 inches (533mm). Although many mopeds in Europe were between 24 and 26 inches (610 – 660mm), which was similar to the outer diameter of a bicycle’s tires, they said that if you took into consideration the size of the average Japanese user, the most appropriate size that could ensure easy mounting and dismounting, and provide good foot grounding and excellent riding performance would be 21 inches. Therefore, we focused on a smaller tire that was 2.25 inches in thickness mounted on a 17-inch diameter rim. In the case of this 2.25–17 tire, I thought the outer diameter would be a bit over 54.5 centimeters.
“By that point in time, a wooden model of the engine had arrived, and since its transmission and centrifugal clutch were integrated into the whole, it was quite large at about 450mm long and 124mm wide. Drawing up two 2.25–17 tires and positioning them for a wheelbase of about 1,200mm, I drew in a large straddling space with the engine placed low and horizontally, and it all fit neatly together with very little waste. After that, I figured the approximate position of the handlebars, and when I sketched them in on the drawing, the resulting shape closely resembled the Super Cub. In other words, the size of the tires gave birth to the Super Cub’s style.”
However, no 2.25?17 inch tires were being produced in Japan at the time, and since no product like that existed, no life-sized tires could be found to use on the mockup. In this situation it was impossible to visualize the complete structure. The design staff took great pains to find a solution, going so far as to cut a section out of a pair of existing 18-inch tires and sewing the ends together to achieve the desired dimensions, reducing their inner diameters to 17 inches. It was the tires then that became critical for making the mockup, as well as for future mass production.
We can’t give you what we don’t have!
birth pains hinder development
Although initially produced at the Yamato Plant in Saitama Pref. (photo), the Suzuka Factory was soon built to cope with the booming demand.
Chassis designer Yoshiro Harada — “Even big manufacturers don’t create new standards for just one model of bike. After a string of refusals, we were at a complete loss about what to do. Then at last a small tire maker showed up and told us they could take on the job.”
From its earliest stages of trial production, Honda has always stuck to ‘realist principles.’ Even for tires, they usually employ a technique of applying the same size and shape of tire as is already being used on an existing bike.
No design study drawings were used in the Super Cub’s design development. Instead of winnowing down its design from a heap of design ideas and drawings strewn across a desk, and trying to decide if "This one’s nice,” or “This one’s not so good,” or “Perhaps if we take this from here and that from there and divide them?,” or “Which of these two is best?” Soichiro and his staff started right in, applying their thoughts and actions to building the machine from an image that had seemingly taken root among them.
Kimura — “It was the Old Man’s belief that to get to the truth of the matter we had to build a clay model of the same size and scale as the real bike. That is to say, by using things that closely resembled the real product. With a clay model, investigations could instantly be made in three dimensions, eliminating the necessity of making calculations or doing trial production runs. Moreover, everybody involved could understand what they were seeing on the spot. In reality, I didn’t understand motorcycles very well when I started working on the clay model for the Super Cub. The Old Man came and started hacking away on the front cowling to narrow its width, saying, “The wind comes in like this and moves over it like that.” However, soon after he got started, the metallic net making up the core of the model became exposed and cut his finger, “Ouch!” Since he was still hard at work cutting down the model in spite of his injury, I ran to the clinic to get an adhesive bandage for him.”
"Always bet on new product ideas and confront challenging problems. The job may be a struggle, but any pain is short-lived compared to the potential for success." Episodes like this were infused with the passion of the founder, who wanted to give life to his own dreams while lifting up his employees. The staff who followed his lead often faced great difficulties, but they must have also felt that they were responding to accelerating new dimensions in design. Soichiro was often heard to say that design is the key to creating industrial products that can give each consumer the greatest satisfaction.
Kimura — “Take the front fork design as an example. Many years earlier I saw a scene in the Disney movie ‘Bambi’ in which Bambi was running at full speed, then stretched out his forelegs to quickly stop and stand firm. That short scene stuck in my mind, and I used that image in creating the shape of the Super Cub’s front fork.
“One more thing that I can point to with pride is the wing-shaped pressed steel handlebars. This was an original Honda design that no other makers had. To tell the truth, while the Super Cub was still in its development stages, I was also working with the Benly development project and had already designed the Benly’s pressed steel handlebars. Therefore, although the Super Cub’s handlebars were first made of conventional steel tube, I strongly insisted on using the pressed steel handlebars, and won the approval of everyone concerned by showing how well it worked on the Benly.”
While the gist of the design was thus being established, another part worthy of special mention—and one of the Super Cub’s most distinctive and eye-catching features—is the use of totally new polyethylene resin in the creation of its front fender and leg shields. This new material also made the bodywork remarkably light compared to FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic). Additionally, polyethylene’s more pliable properties made it almost unbreakable, while giving the body parts a remarkably warm texture.
Kimura — “Since the plastic parts had a softer quality, I changed the colors to create a combination that exuded both softness and brightness. I called these the colors of the sea and the sky, as they’re colors that are familiar to and popular with most Japanese. Since the Super Cub was designed to be a vehicle for the masses, I wanted to use familiar colors rather than fancy shades. As an accent, we made the seat a reddish purple color. In those days, the Old Man used to wear a red shirt and drive a red sports car, which gave me a hint. Then I recalled a scene I saw in the movie ‘Summertime’ starring Katharine Hepburn, in which a piece of Italian Venetian glass glistens with a purplish deep red hue in the light. This made me think that if the seat were a slightly bluish red, then it would perfectly complement the blue of the body.”
As for the polyethylene used to make the body parts, the specialty makers of the time had never processed such large molded parts. So in order to get Honda to outsource the production of the parts to them, they agreed to the condition that Honda would prepare the necessary molds. Could this have been because not only Honda itself but also the companies that subcontracted for Honda were eager to create an innovative new motorcycle the likes of which the world had never seen?
Kimura — “Even if we made somewhat unreasonable requests, they always accepted without the slightest look of annoyance. If I said, ‘Please take care of this,’ they’d just reply ‘Okay, no problem.’ Everybody cooperated with each other in this way. The Old Man used to say, ‘Everybody’s got to think carefully.’ The Super Cub was truly a machine developed as a result of ‘everybody’ joining hands.
“Although the R&D team tried everything they could until the Super Cub was safely delivered to the customers, the production and sales teams and outside contractors who made the pressed steel parts, resin parts and seats understood our feelings and made extraordinary efforts in unison. I’m convinced that good products can never be made by the research and development alone.”
‘With this we can shoot for 30 thousand!'
The timeless Super Cub takes off
After the frame and exterior designs were nearly complete, the next important point of appeal for users would be its name. What should be expressed? Discussions about the model name also advanced.
Kimura — “There were a lot of galley proofs of the Cub F logo left over in the molding room, and they all looked good. While I’m skilled at handling machines for industrial design purposes, unfortunately I’m not particularly adept at things related to commercial design, so I thought of using the name and logo of the Cub F. In those days, people associated the word ‘Super’ with something fresh, new and exciting, so I made up my mind to name it the Super Cub. I drew a sketch of the emblem and showed it to the Old Man. He simply said, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and the name was decided on instantly. Everybody, including the sales staff, started using that name smoothly without hesitation.”
A ‘Super’ Cub to surpass the Cub ? The name had the power to transcend generations, and the manner in which the name was determined highlighted the ethos and power of the Honda company’s youthful spirit.
Towards the end of December, 1957, a final mockup was finally completed, which the staff of the chemical section responsible for parts molding had put their hearts and souls into. The mockup was ‘enshrined’ on a wood veneer plinth placed on a desk in the dining hall. Managing director Fujisawa was called, and when he saw it he shouted out,
“We can sell at least 30,000 of these!”
At the time, the total number of motorcycles sold per month was about 40,000 units. Standing around their boss Soichiro Honda, the members of the development staff all thought that 30,000 units would be the annual production volume, and this caused a stir among those assembled. However, in a loud voice Fujisawa corrected…
“No, not 30,000 per year, 30,000 per month!”
It was easy to imagine everyone in the room cheering even louder than Fujisawa. In fact, the Super Cub greatly surpassed all predictions for its success, and then went on to astonish the world. Having taken on the day-to-day responsibilities of running the company as its managing director, Fujisawa put into motion a perceptive sales strategy in the belief that the emergence of a strong new product could go a long way toward supporting the foundations of the company’s management. President Soichiro Honda concentrated on finalizing the details leading to the start of sales, all the while encouraging and inspiring his production staff.
Kimura — “Although the Old Man was a good business manager, what was great was that despite all that he told us, ‘Don’t focus on the cost.’ He insisted, ‘Don’t worry so much about the cost, as we can get it back in production.’ That he would go so far as to tell us that gave us the confidence to really challenge ourselves.”
The Honda C100 Super Cub was announced in August 1958. Actual sales began one year later, in August. Basking in the midsummer light, the priorities of the times really began to sparkle.