It’s not often that I get to ride on motorcycle royalty. The Super Cub may not seem particularly impressive based on the spec sheet, and bikes like this don’t sell like hotcakes in the US – but worldwide, this is one of the most important motorcycle models of all time.
Photos by Drew Ruiz.
Honda introduced the Super Cub in 1958, and within 4 years they had sold over a million units. In 2006 alone, Honda pumped out 5.3 million of them! Two years ago, number 100 million rolled off the line. It is, by far, the best-selling motor vehicle in history. The Super Cub might be small, but a full revamp of such a crucial model is a big deal. To understand how this bike became a little giant, we’ve got to rewind 60 years:
HISTORY LESSONI covered a little bit about Honda’s history in my review of the Monkey, but it’s especially important with the Super Cub so we’re going to go back to school. Let’s go back to before Honda was a household name in the US…in 1956, Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa (Honda’s Managing Director) took a field trip to Europe to validate an idea they had for a new model. The duo identified a wide variety of use cases as they explored different countries, but certain consistencies led to three product design goals:
1. 4 hp motor – not a big number, but it was twice what competing bikes offered at the time.
2. Rugged and reliable – it had to be manageable even on beat up road surfaces.
3. Easy to ride – with a particular focus on the needs of women.
Honda wanted their new product to lead the advance into a new market, but they were on the fence about going to Southeast Asia (in particular, Malaysia) or the United States. The general sentiment was that America was the “land of the automobile” and that the few Americans who were interested in riding wanted big bikes. Sound familiar?
Still, Mr. Fujisawa wanted to go to the US: “To take up the challenge of the American market may be the most difficult thing to do, but it’s a critical step in expanding the export of our products.” Honda decided to create their own American subsidiary, and put a 39-year-old Kihachiro Kawashima in charge of it. They budgeted $1 million to make the venture happen, but the Japanese Ministry of Finance (which regulated how much money could leave the country at the time) only allowed them a quarter of the request because they thought it was going to be wasted. On top of that, Honda was only allowed to take half the money in cash, meaning they had to establish themselves in the US with just $125,000 – roughly $1,040,000 today.
September 11, 1959: American Honda officially opens with eight employees and a new office at 4077 Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Of the $125,000 in cash that the US subsidiary started with, they spent $100,000 on the building!
At the start of the enterprise, Honda had three models – the Dream, the Benly, and the 50 (what Japan called the Super Cub). Initial sales were just 15% of Honda’s estimates, and it only got worse when some examples of the early Dreams and Benlys had bad motors. Honda’s corporate office recalled the bikes back to Japan for fixes, leaving American Honda with just one model to sell: the nifty fifty. This was not a recipe for success, but Honda gambled $120,000 on a 2 page advertisement in Life magazine for eleven states in the West. It worked, and Honda followed up with a new model in 1962 that was specifically for the US. It was called the CA100, and the minor changes from the rest of the world included the removal of the turn signals and the addition of a dual seat.
When Honda first entered the US motorcycle market in 1959, the entire US motorcycle market was approximately 50,000 units a year. By December of 1962, Honda was selling over 40,000 units/year by themselves. The Super Cub changed what motorcycling meant in America, and that was even before Honda released the famous “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” marketing campaign in 1963!
American Honda started with just 8 employees and 3 models of motorcycles (but really just the 50 at first). The success of the Super Cub helped Honda grow into the behemoth it is today. Just in the US, Honda employs over 31,000 people. They sell motorcycles, cars, generators, outboard motors, lawnmowers, even jets! It’s pretty incredible that so much of that success is owed to such a little motorcycle.
While all of that is very cool (at least to me), it doesn’t tell you anything about if the new Super Cub is any good. So, let’s get into it!
MODERN TIMESHonda’s “miniMOTO lineup” currently includes the Monkey and the Grom. The Super Cub will complete the tiny trifecta when it arrives at your local dealership in early March.
The common thread between all three bikes is the 124.9cc air-cooled four-stroke single, but I want to focus on what makes the Super Cub unique. The biggest difference is the lack of a lever of the left side of the handlebars, as the Cub has a semi-automatic clutch. You’ll still have a shifter pedal to contend with – it gives you neutral on the bottom and you make your way up for gears 1 through 4.
While there’s no clutch lever, you’ll feel the semi-automatic clutch working through your feet. As you push the lever in either direction, you’ll sense when the clutch disconnects the flow of power from the engine through the rest of the drivetrain, the physical gear change, and re-engagement of power. All the modulation is now just done with your left foot. If you flick the pedal up or down quickly, it’s the equivalent of letting a clutch lever slip out of your hand and the whole scoot will get jerked around. It took me just over 10 miles for the shifting process to become second nature. It took me much longer to get used to the N-1-2-3-4 shift pattern – I occasionally resorted to habit when at a stop sign or stoplight by clicking down a couple of extra times to make sure I was in first. On the Super Cub, that put me in neutral, so when I twisted the throttle to leave I’d be greeted by lots of noise but no movement. It’s not an inspiring sound, but no one should be expecting anything soul-stirring from this exhaust.
1.) Smart Key
This is a big “meh” from me as I don’t care much for smart keys on motorcycles whether it’s a Honda product or not. I must be getting old, as I don’t think the convenience is worth the potential hassle if it breaks. I would have much rather seen the money for the smart key system go towards some sort of power port, even if it was just a USB plug to charge a phone.
2.) Big wheels, narrow tires.
The Monkey and Grom have 12″ wheels, while the Super Cub has 17″ hoops. The increase in unsprung weight is dramatic, and when it is coupled with the semi-automatic clutch it makes the Super Cub much slower when leaving from a stop. On the flip side, the steering is more stable (though the narrow tires don’t help) and it’s less of an issue when you encounter a pothole. I’ve kept a Super Cub with me since the launch last week and in the interest of science, I went on a top speed run. With 190 pounds of me on top of it, the C125 was able to hold a speedo-indicated 62 miles per hour.
There’s no side stand on the Super Cub, just a centerstand. In an ideal world you’d get both, but if you can only have one I prefer the centerstand for a bike this light. It’s great for parking, chain maintenance, and when someone challenges you to lie completely flat on the solo seat:
When American Honda came up with the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” slogan, they were based on Pico Boulevard. To capture the good old days, they built a fake storefront at the original location for us to start our ride from. If I had a Ridgeline, I would find a way to replicate that paint job. Drag the slider up and down to compare old and new:
Our ride took us around city streets, and the leisurely pace emphasized how easy the Super Cub is to ride – ignoring my initial issues with neutral. I didn’t find the red seat to be as comfortable as it is beautiful: I’d feel pressure on my tailbone after about 20 miles.
The gas tank holds 1 gallon, and the warning light starts flashing with about .3 gallons left. Honda doesn’t provide an official fuel mileage number for the C125, but I’d estimate it returns around 100 if you’re not trying to cruise at 50+ mph all day. Slowing you down are 1-channel ABS brakes: 220mm disc up front (with ABS) and 110mm drum in the rear (without ABS). The front brake is strong and has sufficient feel, but I think the rear brake requires too much effort to start biting – maybe the idea is that it’ll be more difficult for a heavy-footed beginner to lock up the rear?
You might not be able to go fast in a straight line, but the Cub is fun to huck around corners. There’s ample lean angle before the pegs scrape, and the suspension is stiff enough that there’s barely a wallow from the rear end – a definite upgrade from my experience with the Monkey. The compromise is that you’ll feel bumps through the seat with more severity than I would prefer. The narrow front wheel feels a little twitchy and saps my confidence when trying to be aggressive in a sweeper, but I don’t imagine Super Cub riders are going to care about handling at the limit.
What they will care about more are the things that make day-to-day living more convenient, and unfortunately I don’t have much to share on that front. Honda’s sole accessory for the Cub will be a rear rack that should have been standard equipment. It’s not, so every owner should budget an additional $72.95 to add one.
My main gripe with the Super Cub is the lack of a passenger seat, but the consolation prize is that it’s going to be very easy for the aftermarket to fix that problem. The rear subframe is ready to take a lot of weight, so all a company has to do is build a seat that will mount into the existing holes that are setup to mount the accessory rear rack (or design something that will mount to the rack itself). In addition, the swingarm already has holes drilled out to mount passenger pegs as they are standard equipment for the rest of the world. With that said, I experimented briefly with going 2-up sans seat and it felt like the weight of a passenger was overwhelming when accelerating from a stop. Maybe the lack of a passenger seat is for the best.
In my “What Do You Want To Know?” post, Visian asked if the Super Cub will wheelie. This isn’t what someone might consider “useful consumer advice”, but…the solo seat makes it much harder as it’s difficult to get your weight back. I wasn’t able to get the front wheel up, but I’m sure someone more talented than me can find a way. Speaking of the seat, you can only open it if the ignition is off and the smart key is nearby. It opens to reveal the gas tank cap, helmet holder, and a lever to open the right sidecover:
VERDICTBefore we all got a chance to ride the new Super Cub, some Honda employees presented a cute skit in which they acted out what it was like working at Honda when the company first came to the USA. At one point, they made a reference to getting lunch at Marty’s Hamburger Stand – turns out that it’s still in business! So I took a trip to Marty’s to get a bite and reflect on how those American Honda employees from the 60s might evaluate the new bike against the original design parameters.
1. A 4 hp motor – not a big number, but it was twice what competing bikes offered at the time.
Horsepower is now up to about 9, but the number itself isn’t that important to me. Today’s Cub offers a power figure that’s right in line with the competition instead of being a significant improvement. Still, 9 horsepower is sufficient to get up to 60 miles per hour, so isn’t that enough?
2. Rugged and reliable – it had to be manageable even on beat up road surfaces.
Initial build quality exudes excellence. Nothing feels cheap and each component I looked at seems like it will last for a while. It even appears as if the Cub will crash well, if it comes down to it. The only vibration comes from the white plastic wind protection. The big wheels and stiff suspension make sure that bad roads (or even dirt roads) aren’t a cause for concern if you’re not going too fast.
3. Easy to ride – with a particular focus on the needs of women.
This is the biggest strength of the Super Cub. Seat height is 30.7 inches. Curb weight is 240 pounds. The step-through design means you don’t have to lift your leg all the way over the seat to get on. It’s a manageable size for nearly everyone, and the semi-automatic clutch seals the deal in terms of ease of use.
My sister visited me this weekend and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her have interest in a two-wheeler in my garage. She tried it out for all of 100 feet (which would not have been possible if it had a clutch) and she came back with a goofy smile that was contagious. This all happened in front of my mother, who hates the fact that I ride motorcycles – but she got such a kick out of my sister’s ride that she asked me to take a photo. It was a reminder that I can be close-minded about what non-motorcyclists think – I initially figured people would see this as just another two-wheeler. But as I saw with my mother and sister, the Super Cub really can change public perception about motorcycles.
However, one of the reasons why the original Cub was so successful in the US was the price. In 1962, you could buy one for $250, which equates to approximately $2,080 today. While you can get a ~125cc two-wheeler nowadays for approximately two grand, it won’t be from Honda – you’ll have to look at a company like Lance instead. For what it’s worth, both the Lance and the Honda are made in Thailand. To put a Super Cub in your garage, you’ll be giving Honda $3,599. That’s not cheap for a vehicle that, from the factory, carries one person up to ~60 miles per hour and isn’t allowed on freeways (at least in California).
The price prevents the Super Cub from being the next savior of motorcycling, which makes me sad as I’d love to live in a country where there are thousands of these things roaming the streets, getting people hooked on two wheels for life. I thought back to what I heard when I was at the launch of the Monkey last September:
“The Monkey and Super Cub are brand ambassadors.”Bill Savino, Manager - Two Wheel Market/Product Planning at American Honda
I suspect Mr. Savino’s quote sums it up. A brand ambassador isn’t about being ubiquitous, it’s about evoking emotions – whether it’s the ~10 year old girl who kept pointing out the red seat to her mother as they walked by, or my ~70 year old neighbor who flagged me down just to tell me all about the CA100 that was his first bike. There won’t be Super Cubs on every corner, redefining the American motorcycle market like it did 60 years ago, but people will notice when they see one and they’ll have a positive feeling.
Everyone associates this bike with the “nicest people” quote, but I think Soichiro Honda himself has said something much more relevant: “You don’t measure a man’s greatness by his physical size, but…by the impact he makes on human history.” The Super Cub is small, but it’s served all kinds of roles from first bikes to family SUVs for millions of people around the world. No bike has ever been more important in human history, though the new generation reminds of the Royal Enfield Himalayan in one specific way – it feels like a bike designed for other markets that we just happen to have access to.
As a way to get around, Honda’s newest creation is fine. But the Super Cub is more than just personal transportation. It’s a monument to American Honda and its six decades of success. That sounds mighty special, but is it a good reason for you to put one in your garage? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I guess we’ll find out in March when you can try one at your local dealer…
Check out the 2019 Honda Super Cub C125!