Common Tread

One in 100 million: Me and the Honda Super Cub

Oct 24, 2017

Last week, the 100 millionth Honda Super Cub rolled off the assembly line. That means more than 100 million stories. One of them is mine.

The numbers alone make a strong case that the Super Cub is the most influential vehicle ever on this planet. The Ford Model T changed the landscape for cars and manufacturing, but only 15 million or so were produced. It was just nine years ago that I wrote about Honda Super Cub production hitting 60 million, so it's not like the little 50 cc step-through scooter with the big wheels is slowing down, even 60 years after its debut.

But really, I'd argue that its significance has less to do with numbers than with the way it has affected the vehicular landscape worldwide. In many Asian cities, it makes up a significant percentage of traffic, giving working people affordable and reliable transportation. In the United States, it gave Honda a foothold and helped change the image of motorcycling. The Honda 50, as the Super Cub was commonly known here, was the image of the "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" ad campaign created by Grey Advertising.

In 1959, when Honda entered the U.S. market, motorcycling was seen even more than today as the territory of daredevils and outlaws. Big, hulking, vibrating, oil-leaking American and British bikes dominated, at least until they broke down on the side of the road and the riders stopped to poke at the points and try to get them fired again. Kihachiro Kawashima, who was sent to the United States to launch Honda, had no illusions of luring Harley riders away from their iron-cylinder Hogs. Instead, he did something much more important. He created a new market.

The Honda 50 was inexpensive and easy to ride. The centrifugal clutch meant you could shift through the three-speed transmission without any learning curve. The bigger wheels, compared to the Italian scooters, made for better handling but it still copied the scooters' plastic leg guards for weather protection. Honda said it would get 200 mpg at a time when gas cost 34 cents a gallon.

Easy to ride, cheap to own, reliable to use, the Honda 50 attracted people who hadn't thought about riding a motorcycle before and created a new class of motorcyclists.

Then there was my father.

Honda advertisement
Nearing 30 and with a wife and two kids, my father didn't closely resemble the college students in the famous Honda ads. But by buying a Honda 50, he set me on a course that affected my entire life and career. Honda advertisement.
In 1967, he bought a Honda 50 for entirely practical reasons. He wasn't trying to meet nice people or work his way up to a "real" motorcycle and join biker society. Rather, he went back to grad school to finish his master's degree and my mother went to work in the one family car. He needed the cheapest possible transportation to get to classes, and in 1967 that was a $245, 200 mpg Honda 50. Naturally, my first motorcycle rides as a grade schooler were on the back seat of that Honda 50. My father rode it for a year, finished his degree and almost never threw a leg over a motorcycle the rest of his life.

But our Honda 50's influence was just beginning. The next year, we moved to Florida and my father went back to work, still in the one family car. My now stay-at-home mother looked around and decided if she didn't want to be a stuck-at-home mother she would have to learn to ride the Honda, so she did. Wasn't hard, after all. She later went on to own three other motorcycles over the years.

When we moved back to our home state of West Virginia, the Honda was rarely used. Then it was my turn. Before I was old enough to get my driver's license, I would take the little red Honda for spins out and back our rural driveway, over and over. My first motorcycle rides. Learning to ride on a rutted, two-track gravel driveway with barbed wire fences on both sides enforced a certain discipline that was a good way to start for a new rider.

Later, I would buy my own motorcycle and take the first steps down what has become a long road of a lifetime of riding. I have no reliable count of how many miles I've ridden, or how many different motorcycles (though I know it adds up to 16 brands). It's quite possible none of that would have happened if not for that humble, 50 cc scooter. If not for those first rides, my story might be very different.

And that's just one story out of 100 million.