First Moves on the World
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. 3 — The Super Cub's Overseas Advance
Unspoiled by Phenomenal Success
Since its debut in 1958, the Super Cub has continued to enjoy strong growth in Japan and around the world. Initially, the Super Cub was not really considered to be a vital part of Honda’s first full-scale overseas expansion as the company set its sights on the massive market potential of the United States. However, it turned out that the Super Cub alone saved Honda from a desperate situation when its early efforts in developing the American market hit a wall.
First released in Japan in 1958, the Super Cub was produced by Takeo Fujisawa (1910 – 1988), Honda’s co-founder and chief executive in charge of management and marketing, while the leader of its development project was none other than founder and president Soichiro Honda (1906 – 1991), who remained at heart an engineer.
This carefully planned product was envisioned to be a “smart, fun and inexpensive motorcycle that can be easily ridden by anyone” and the resulting Super Cub fully realized this ideal, soon becoming a major hit. Sales reached 24,000 units only five months from the day of its release, a figure that quickly rose to nearly 167,000 Super Cubs in its second year, accounting for roughly 60% of Japan’s total motorcycle sales. In its third year, production skyrocketed to approximately 560,000 units as the Super Cub continued to exhibit an astounding level of popularity.
Needless to say, the Super Cub generated massive profits for Honda, as the dynamic management plan that Takeo Fujisawa had conceived at the time was truly a “Honda-esque” world strategy.
Soichiro Honda continually developed products with an eye to the signs of the times. Looking ahead to the future, Takeo Fujisawa ultimately decided on overseas expansion. Development and sales were always looking ahead while frequently taking the most difficult path. (Photo: 1973)
Soon, a decision was made to double investment and begin construction on a new Suzuka Factory to be outfitted with the latest equipment with a view to establishing Japan’s most advanced production facilities and solid quality control systems, and then immediately embarking on overseas expansion.
“Honda’s management cannot achieve stability if it depends entirely on the wildly fluctuating Japanese economy. Honda’s dream is to strive to be the best in the world by creating vehicles that make people’s lives more enjoyable. That’s why we must expand overseas.”
Basing his plans on this bold style of thinking, Takeo Fujisawa carried out an overseas market survey in 1956, two years before the Super Cub went on sale, and preparations were carefully put into place based on the assumption that the Super Cub would be a major hit.
The market survey concluded that “Europe is a major market with
sales of 2 million units per year, while Southeast Asia is currently
small but has great future potential. As for the United States, motorcycles are not so popular, with only about 60,000 units sold annually.”
In American society at the time, motorcycle riders were widely regarded as outlaws wearing black leather jackets. In other words, motorcycles didn’t have a very good reputation as modes of transport, which was why so few were sold per year.
However, upon analyzing this report, Takeo Fujisawa came to the conclusion that “America must come first.” But why make the United States the first target of Honda’s overseas advance? Why not focus on Europe, where annual sales already exceeded 2 million, or even the growing markets of Southeast Asia?
Takeo Fujisawa clearly recognized that the United States would be the most difficult market.
In spite of expected difficulties,
Honda dared to set its sights on the United States
However, Honda’s bold spirit dictated that the company take on the most difficult challenges first. It was the young company’s style at the time to take on the most difficult and seemingly reckless endeavors, akin to challenging the Isle of Man TT races or competing in World Grand Prix auto racing despite never having so much as won a race in Japan.
Moreover, there was always sound reasoning behind taking on such a seemingly foolhardy challenge. America’s population at the time was around 180 million, roughly twice that of Japan. After proving victorious in WWII and gaining global political and financial supremacy, the United States was the wealthiest country in the world from the 1950s through the 1960s. It was blessed with abundant food resources and energy; with new freeways being built all across the country, cars getting larger, and a whole slew of daily needs being addressed by new electrical products. Its citizens had quickly become pleasure-seeking consumers enjoying abundant lifestyles. However, it was also a country where the people still didn’t understand the fundamental joys that motorcycles could give life.
It was clear that if Honda could start selling motorcycles in the United States, which boasted the world’s greatest consumer capacity, then a massive market could be exploited. That is why Takeo Fujisawa decided that Honda should first try to conquer America. It would take an enormous effort to succeed there. However, the returns would be huge if they were successful.
Takeo Fujisawa was looking even further ahead toward the future. If the Honda brand could penetrate America through the sale of motorcycles, then general-purpose products would also sell, and a massive market could be acquired for its planned future production of automobiles. If a major advance could be made in the United States, it would then be possible to more directly understand the preferences of people in the world’s largest consumer society, making it possible to develop mobility products fine tuned for that market.
Surprising popularity in the shadow of expected difficulties
In 1959, one year after the launch of the Super Cub in Japan, The American Honda Motor Company, a local subsidiary fully financed by Honda, was established in Los Angeles. Initially, the company had only eight employees, including the president, and only two were assigned from Honda in Japan. The other six staff members were locally recruited Americans.
In June of 1959, Honda's first overseas subsidiary, American Honda Motor Company, was established on W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Honda’s top models at the time, including the Dream C75 (305cc), the C70 (250cc; shown in photo) and the C90 (125cc) were all exported.
With its bright red and white color scheme, the CA100's tandem seat and lack of turn signals differed from the Japanese domestic version.
However, as Takeo Fujisawa had predicted, American Honda had a difficult start. Honda initially started by exporting the Dream 250 and 305, the Benly 125, and the Honda 50 (C100 Super Cub) half of that first year. Americans preferred larger models, such as locally produced Harley-Davidson motorcycles powered by 900cc and 1200cc engines, as well as 650cc Triumphs and other makes imported from the U.K., whereas only a very small minority of avid fans paid any attention to Honda’s motorcycles.
However, there was one Honda motorcycle that did grab the attention of American consumers. An internal report from American Honda at the time stated the following:
“Although nobody expected small bikes to sell well in such a large country, the Super Cub, which was added to the lineup as the Honda 50, has been surprisingly well received.”
This report found that a good part of the Super Cub’s appeal was its ‘toy-like familiarity.’ To Americans, vehicles that would beconsidered practical daily transportation in Japan appeared more like mobility playthings. America had yet to experience the widespread sale of small and inexpensive motorcycles that anybody could ride.
The differences in approach to lifestyle were also a major surprise. Americans would load the Honda 50 onto pickup trucks or camping cars when they went camping, hunting or fishing, and use it for getting around once they arrived at their destinations, much like a pair of rubber boots or hiking shoes. Many teenagers received theHonda 50 as a Christmas present, while students would buy the Honda 50 for personal mobility using the money they earned from part-time jobs.
At this time in Japan, households that owned a Super Cub were very much in the minority. Not surprising considering that the Super Cub was priced at 55,000 yen while the average starting salary of a company worker was about 8,500 yen per month.
Willy Toshiki, who was a part-time student working at American Honda and later rose to become vice president of Honda’s North American automobile sales department, had this to say:
“The price of a Honda 50 was $295. The rent on the small, old student flat I was living in at the time was $40 per month, and my starting salary when I officially joined American Honda was roughly $500. The success of the Honda 50 meant that American Honda was very busy in those days. Staff shortages were so acute that even president Kihachiro Kawashima had to drive the delivery trucks once in a while.”
American Honda took its first big chance on the Honda 50. It expanded retail channels to include not only conventional motorcycle dealerships but also outdoor outfitters and sports shops. It prepared service manuals and conducted training at the dealers. It built up its parts inventory by flying in parts from Japan. It arranged loans and placed advertisements in newspapers and magazines. It also launched new models with specifications geared more toward hunting and fishing. And in February of 1962 it launched the CA100 export model, which was specially equipped with a tandem seat to comfortably carry a passenger. It even held conventions for dealers in the ballrooms of major hotels that until then had been off-limits to motorcycle manufacturers.
The Super Cub changes the United States
Thanks to these extensive efforts, Honda recorded sales of more than 1,000 units a month in 1961 (three years after its launch), and sold over 40,000 units the following year. The Super Cub was generating a boom in America.
In 1963, Honda launched the colossal ‘Nicest People’ advertising campaign with the catchphrases, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” and “The Nicest Things Happen on a Honda.” The business goal that year was to sell 200,000 Honda 50s.
The Super Cub and its ‘Nicest People’ campaign became the driving force in the momentous changes seen in the American motorcycle market of the 1960s.
Having established a beachhead in American society with the Honda 50, the aim was to achieve a total breakthrough by lavishly promoting the Honda brand together with the mobility of motorcycles and their ability to make life more fun and convenient.
A range of simple yet amusing color graphics were created illustrating men and women of various ages and lifestyles riding the Honda 50 together with the smartly presented catchphrases. These graphics were carried in America’s most popular graphic magazines of the time, such as Time, Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. Until then, it had been assumed that readers of the better known graphic magazines were not interested in motorcycles. However, American Honda didn’t flinch. They believed that by appealing to this class of readers they could raise the social status of motorcycles and generate an affinity for the Honda brand. In 1964, Honda also launched a TV commercial campaign, and the Honda 50 became something of an American social phenomenon. It was truly experiencing a boom.
Life magazine soon carried a special feature entitled “America Falling in Love With Honda.” This trend-watching magazine, with a weekly circulation of more than 7 million, wrote that Honda motorcycles had brightened up American life and triggered a momentous change in thinking.
Moreover, the internationally popular American west coast surf sounds band, The Beach Boys released the song “Little Honda,” extolling the Honda 50 with the lyrics, “I'm gonna wake you up early, cause I'm gonna take a ride with you. We're goin' down to the Honda shop, I'll tell you what we're gonna do. Put on a ragged sweatshirt, I'll take you anywhere you want me to.” A cover version of the song released by The Hondells became a top-ten single on the American hit charts, and the Super Cub was soon making appearances on TV variety shows.
The ‘Nicest People’ campaign also triggered unexpected events in Japan. The country’s Prime Minister at the time requested a meeting with Soichiro Honda. Apparently the President of the United States had brought up the topic of Honda in diplomatic negotiations, telling Japan’s premiere that, “Your country’s Honda has completely changed American life.”
The Honda 50—aka the Super Cub—thus clearly demonstrated its astounding potential to create such a major boom in America.
That said, this was a boom in the massive nation of the United States at a time when the country itself was riding a wave of consumerism. Booms are only temporary, and the Honda 50 was not a daily necessity for Americans; moreover, American society was about to undergo a period of major transformation from the late 1960s to the 1970s.
1965 marked the peak of the Honda 50 boom in America. After that, sales gradually declined, and the bike was eventually discontinued in 1974.
However, by that time the Honda 50 had been superseded by the CT90, otherwise known as the Hunter Cub. The CT90 was upgraded to the larger-displacement CT110 in 1980, and offered exceptional mobility on fishing and hunting trips, as well as for getting around on large-size farms, etc.
Having gained a foothold in the United States through the Honda 50, Honda began selling sporty on-road and off-road models ranging from 125cc to 750cc. The Honda 50 had played an important role in introducing the fun of motorcycles to the American public. It should not be forgotten that by this time Honda had already launched its Civic automobile in the U.S., so Honda had become a manufacturer of both motorcycles and cars, adding even greater enjoyment to people’s lives there.
The 1963 C105H. Outfitted with block tires, double sprockets and a raised muffler to enhance its off-road riding performance, this model effectively showed a new side to the Super Cub.
In the mid-1960s, Honda also released ‘Roadster,’ ‘Rally,’ ‘Boss,’ and ‘Student’ customizing kit parts for the CA100.
The Super Cub spearheads Honda’s advance into the ‘mature’ markets of Europe
Honda’s advance into Europe commenced in 1961, two years after the establishment of American Honda. Its wholly owned local subsidiary, European Honda, was established in West Germany, marking the start of Honda’s challenge for a place in the ‘home’ of motorcycles, which boasted a market demand of over 2 million bikes per year.
In 1961, Honda achieved overwhelming racing victories in the 125cc and 250cc classes of the Isle of Man TT, and was also champion in both classes in the Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix. However, seen from the viewpoint of the traditional European motorcycle makers who had invented and led motorcycle development until then, Honda was no more than a newcomer, despite already being the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles.
Europe at the time was already a ‘mature’ market where mopeds roamed freely through every town. Its many manufacturers offered a solid lineup of large motorcycles, as motorcycles had long been a familiar part of European life, from production to retail. It was no exaggeration to say that there was no more room for Honda to make inroads.
However, Honda’s thinking at the time was that Europe should be challenged precisely because it was the home of motorcycles, and that there was value in rubbing shoulders and co-existing with the more traditional European motorcycle manufacturers.
Accordingly, from its base at European Honda in West Germany, Honda conducted detailed market surveys in each European country. With the countries of Europe each being their own distinct ethnic states having their own respective dynamic and complex histories, this was no easy task.
In 1963, the first machine to come off the line at Honda’s new Belgium factory was the Super Cub
Following the Super Cub, Honda’s Belgian plant commenced production of the C310, Honda’s first local spec overseas production model.
After spending two years establishing a network of branch offices in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, Honda constructed its Belgium plant 1963 and started manufacturing operations in. Rather than exporting to Europe, it chose to commence local production from the start. Since, in line with local laws and customs, it was necessary to launch a plant from scratch in order to conduct local production, this entailed a lot of difficulty. However, Honda was prepared to push through with local production in order to work together with the local populace, gradually build relationships of trust with local suppliers and retail agents, blend into European society and become accepted by the traditional European manufacturers.
The first product manufactured at Honda’s Belgium factory was the Super Cub C100.
However, as to whether the Super Cub might appeal to Europeans who were long familiar with scooters and mopeds equipped with bicycle-like pedals and powered by 2-stroke engines, although it eventually come to be viewed as just another moped at its Belgium plant, it never really became a popular model. Since mopeds were already an integral element of European culture and a part of everyday life, even though the higher performance of the Super Cub, with its four-stroke engine, was recognized in Japan, it did not become an overnight hit in Europe.
Rather, Honda produced a pedal-equipped moped, at its Belgium plant called the C310, which was based on the Port Cub C240. This was Honda’s first overseas production model, and it was just one of the ways that it strived to blend into the European motorcycle market. This experience led to the development of the P25 Little Honda, which truly was Honda’s first original moped.
Today, Honda’s local production in Europe continues in the areas of general-purpose products, motorcycles and automobiles. Honda’s motorcycles have attracted many Honda fans, and exist shoulder-to-shoulder with the traditional European makers. And all this started with the first Super Cub to roll off the line at its Belgium factory in 1963.
Onward to Southeast Asia – ‘The Sleeping Giant’
The Super Cub shows its true value, with an explosion of popularity
This modern ‘Super Cub Paradise’ is closely associated with Southeast Asia, and to a lesser degree Latin America. From morning to night, countless Super Cubs provide mobility for people’s daily lives. It’s easy to imagine this trend eventually spreading to the Middle East and from there on to Africa.
However, Takeo Fujisawa, who conceived of this worldwide expansion from before the birth of the Super Cub, initially planned to first conquer America, then Europe, and finally Southeast Asia. American Honda was established in 1959, followed by European Honda in 1961, and finally Asian Honda Motor Company was established in 1964.
This was a well thought out strategy. Top priority was given to the American market, which was indispensable to Honda achieving its biggest initial growth. Following this, the company would work hard to gain recognition in the motorcycle strongholds of Europe. And finally, when the time was ripe, it would advance into the promising future markets of Southeast Asia.
As in the case in Europe, Honda’s advance into Southeast Asia was conducted with the utmost care. Like Europe, the countries of Southeast Asia cannot be lumped together; they each have their own individuality; and no business success can be achieved unless their distinct characteristics are properly understood.
Even in Southeast Asia, the Super Cub created exciting new demand
In 1962, two years before establishing Asian Honda, the company opened a representative office in Singapore, and commenced survey studies. Following two years of intensive analysis, Honda provided 100% funding for the establishment of a local corporation, Asian Honda, in Thailand, conditions were relatively stable.
Needless to say, expansion in Southeast Asia centered around sales of the inexpensive Super Cub. However, it also required a steady hand and continuous long-term effort. This was because the pace of economic development in the countries of Southeast Asia was slow.
When Asian Honda was first established in Thailand, motorcycle ownership in the country was roughly 100,000 units, and motorcycles were not yet a viable mode of transportation for ordinary people. Even so, motorcycle ownership increased to150,000 by 1966, just two years after the start of Asian Honda’s sales activi ties. Of the additional 50,000 units sold, 70% were Hondas, and 90% of these were Super Cubs, indicating that it was enjoying skyrocketing popularity in Thailand, as well.
Asian Honda adopted a basic policy of establishing a retail network and offering outstanding after sales service. It also put extra effort into advertising by launching a Thai version of the ‘Nicest People’ campaign. Development was so rapid that by 1967 Honda commenced local production of the Super Cub.
From its base at Asian Honda, sales expanded into Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. In each case, Honda’s operations were most intensive from the late 1960s to the 1970s. Today, Super Cubs can be seen being ridden all over Southeast Asia, but this has been the result of steady, continuous efforts conducted over a 10-year time span in line with the measured economic growth of these blossoming Southeast Asian countries.
Asian Honda, located in a 10-story building on one of Bangkok's main thorough fares. (photo from in-house Honda publication ‘Flying’).
The C70/90 produced by Thai Honda Manufacturing in the 1980s. Famed Thai singer Nantida Kaewbuasai starred in ads that made popular the nickname ‘Rot Pooyin Nantida’ (ladies’ bike Nantida).
The Super Cub’s famed reliability becomes legendary in Vietnam
There was one country, however, that witnessed an entirely unexpected turn of events. This was Vietnam.
Vietnam has long been known as a ‘Super Cub Paradise.’ However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Super Cub began to be seen in significant numbers. The United States’ military, which was supporting the government of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War at the time, purchased 20,000 Super Cubs as part of its economic support for the South.
Massive quantities of Super Cubs crossed the ocean to wartime South Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s. Its excellent durability and reliability laid the foundations for Vietnam becoming a ‘Super Cub Heaven.’ (photo from in-house Honda publication ‘Pole Position’).
It’s easy to imagine why the Americans selected the Super Cub. Many American soldiers belonged to the generation that had grown up with the Super Cub boom in America. It was also easy to see that the Super Cub was the most convenient choice for city commuters in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the tropical capital of South Vietnam.
However, as a former colony of France, Vietnam was also a country with many European 2-stroke mopeds and scooters, and numerous troubles occurred when the 4-stroke Super Cubs were refueled using a 2-stroke’s standard mixture of gasoline and oil.
Honda responded to these troubles by opening a representative office in Saigon in 1967. Sending personnel to war-torn Saigon in order to maintain the quality of the Super Cub for customers was typical of Honda’s determination at the time to put its customers first.
Moreover, the five or so resident officers of the Honda Saigon office not only worked diligently on service activities, they also extended the retail network and directed advertising and promotion. They even went so far as to launch a Vietnamese version of the ‘Nicest People’ campaign.
As a result, it was no surprise that approximately 750,000 Honda motorcycles were exported to South Vietnam over the three years between 1967 and 1969. Almost all of these were Super Cubs. One of Honda’s resident officers of the time recalled: “Some days we received orders totaling more than 10,000 machines, and our head office in Japan had to check to make sure that we had the right number of zeros.
The Super Cub’s famed reliability becomes legendary in Vietnam
As an integral part of daily life, Super Cubs old and new can be seen still going strong as they travel urban streets and country highways all over the world.
Doubts arose concerning whether South Vietnam had the economic capacity to absorb 750,000 motorcycles over three short years. However, South Vietnam at this time was playing host to up to 550,000 American soldiers at any one time. A total of 2.6 million American military personnel were sent to South Vietnam over the period of 10 years starting from 1965.
Figuring in both military and civilian personnel—who were being paid salaries in American dollars, then the strongest currency in the world—just how many Americans were in South Vietnam at this time? Needless to say, at a cost of around US$300, the Super Cub represented a cheap and convenient way to get around the country. The economic context behind the sales of 750,000 Super Cubs can be found here.
However, the story behind these 750,000 Super Cubs had one more historical twist.
When Saigon finally fell and the South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975, the defeated American military was forced to withdraw entirely from Vietnam.
As a result, a massive number of Super Cubs were left behind for the local populace in the newly unified country of Vietnam. This was the start of Vietnam assuming its position as a ‘Super Cub Paradise.’
In 1979, the United States government imposed an economic embargo on Vietnam, and demanded that its allies fall in line. This embargo was to last for approximately 16 years. Naturally, as a result, Vietnam was unable to import either Super Cubs or its service parts.
However, over this 16-year period, the Vietnamese people came to experience the rugged durability and steadfast reliability of the Super Cub over an extended period of time. That is to say, the Super Cub got a chance to demonstrate its excellent fuel economy and resistance to breakdowns over these long 16 years. It is said that several small manufacturers sprouted up locally to make parts for the Super Cub at this time. Another story claims that around 20,000 Super Cubs per year entered the country through obscure means during the embargo.
Thus the people of Vietnam came to be convinced of the Super Cub’s value as a dependable mode of transport in their everyday lives. The Super Cub became an irreplaceable and trustworthy form of mobility for everyone.
And this is how Southeast Asia’s ‘Super Cub Paradise’ was born.