Honda’s 50 “step-thru” is quite possibly the most important powered vehicle of all time, and it is well known as the most produced motor vehicle ever. Total sales since the late 1950s have come to around 100 million, making it the most popular bike in the world no matter how you look at it. They are assembled in 15 different countries, and can be seen buzzing around all over the globe. All around Southeast Asia, the word Honda is synonymous with a motorcycle taxi in the same way that people in the States say Kleenex when they mean a tissue.
The secret to the Super Cub’s success (the Cub name was dropped in the U.S. due to the Piper aircraft and in the UK to the Triumph motorcycle) was its extreme reliability, ease of maintenance, 225 mpg fuel economy, and the polyethylene leg shields that wrapped around the frame to form the engine cover. That last feature was a market first. The engine was a 5 bhp, 49 cc overhead valve unit. The Super Cub had a low step-through steel spine frame, so it could be ridden in a skirt, and could take two people at 45 mph.
The three-speed transmission was a semi-automatic unit, and the small engine could be kick-started easily or even bump-started. Wheels were large at 17 inches to cope with the poor roads found in much of the world. The fuel tank was under the seat and the bike was equipped with lights. Most 50s were also fitted with a dual seat. Its cheap price made it even more appeal, and it was true personal transport for the masses.
In finding inspiration for the bikes, Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa toured Europe in 1956, studying the mopeds and scooters that were popular there in the postwar years. Honda had been making a 148 cc motorcycle since 1948 but was looking to expand production through a wider appeal. American Honda came about in 1959, followed by Germany (1961), UK and Belgium (1962), and France (1964.)
The famous 1963 advertising slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” is considered the first example of a lifestyle campaign, and promoted these little motorcycles. It ran for 12 years and and attracted millions of people, many of whom hadn’t even considered riding a motorcycle before. Popular songs like the Beach Boys “Little Honda” didn’t exactly hurt, either.
The Super Cub production line was based on another icon of mass production, the VW Beetle, and the bike has gone through a dizzying number of variations over the years. It has been sold as the 50, Passport, C70 and C90, and enhancements have included an optional overhead cam motor on the C65 in 1965 and the C90 in 1966. Telescopic forks came in 1967, and the C70 was renamed the Passport in 1980. Capacitive discharge ignition and 12 volts electrics followed in 1982.
A 1984 restyle offered a square headlight, while a 100 cc version was offered in South East Asia in 1986 with a four-speed gearbox to accommodate the very heavy loads that these bikes are known for carrying in that part of the world. Front disc brakes finally came in the late 1990s along with 100 cc, 110 cc and 125 cc engines. Fuel-injection was offered on Japanese market examples in 2007 to meet stricter emissions. Honda 100 cc Cubs are also built under license today in both China and Korea.
Other versions of the Honda 50 include the C110 Sport, which was more like a conventional motorcycle with a spine frame and conventional fuel tank. The biggest hits were the Trail 50 and later Trail 90. Developed by a dealer in Boise, Idaho in 1960, they had knobbly tires, an engine skid plate and a larger rear sprocket. The dealer’s 1960 sales matched the top six dealers on the West Coast, which encouraged Honda to offer a factory Trail version from 1961.
The Honda 50 remains a best bet for a first motorcycle, and even good examples remain very affordable. As one would expect, Honda 50s are bulletproof and easy to live with, but they are also easy to ride, economical to keep running, and parts are plentiful. And you still do meet the nicest people on one as well.