Asia’s Lasting Love Affair with Honda Super Cub

Honda is the engine that has moved Asia since it made its debut in 1958. Today, it continues to dominate roads across the region. Kiripost’s Tharum Bun finds out why.
For some models, a Super Cub consumes just about 1 litre per 180km.
For some models, a Super Cub consumes just about 1 litre per 180km.

In 1958, when Japanese engineer Soichiro Honda designed the first 49cc Super Cub, he told his colleagues, “This is a bike that a soba noodle delivery man can ride with one hand and a stack of noodle trays balanced on his shoulder.”

The Honda co-founder and inventor, whose company was on the brink of bankruptcy several times, never stopped experimenting until his genius work resulted in the world’s best-selling motorcycle.

As he said, “Success represents the 1% of your work, which results from the 99% that is called failure.”

In the next six decades, Honda has gone on to sell more than 100 million units. Today, Honda Super Cub models remain popular in many cosmopolitan cities across Southeast Asia.

Loved by those from this generation, the iconic bike fits far more than a noodle shop delivery boy. And it’s a love affair for even today’s generation in bustling capital cities such as Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and even Phnom Penh.

Honda Super Cub. Picture: Sam
Honda Super Cub. Picture: Sam

Compact, sturdy, durable, and affordable, it’s the commuter motorcycle of choice for young and old populations in Southeast Asia. It’s also the world’s friendliest motorcycle. Surprisingly, it even changed the perception of motorbikes among people in Europe and the US, with production factories operating there.

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” advertisement campaign surrounding the Super Cub has been a huge hit. Even today, it is treasured for its grand yet personal message that resonates with most Cub owners.

The Ad campaign by Honda that changed public perceptions of motorcycling
The Ad campaign by Honda that changed public perceptions of motorcycling

In countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, having a Super Cub is also a personal prestige and pride. Cambodia is no exception. Ownership of a classic that is one or a few decades old, the super-quality bike made in Japan is an asset transfer from one generation to another.

Clutchless, it’s a bike designed for everyone. Both young and old can take on the Cub. It’s also versatile - lightweight yet rugged for unpaved, rough road. It also boasts unbeatable reliability. Many 40- and 50-year-old Cubs are still running today as an express way to get to a coffee shop.

Small motorcycles are also ideal for urban and rural transportation.

“Over 80 percent of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, for example, own motorcycles,” according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Picture: Sam
Picture: Sam

Honda Super Cub in Asia: The Love Affairs that Span from One Generation to Another

‘Cub Paradise’: Vietnam and Indonesia

In 1967, Honda’s first exports of Super Cubs to Vietnam from Japan was the beginning of the love affair. With Vietnam’s total population of more than 90 million, there is almost one motorcycle per adult (excluding children and the elderly). According to Honda Global, “of these, 73% (2.38 million) are Hondas, including 902,000 from the Super Cub series”.

Honda is the most popular motorcycle brand in Vietnam. With two motorcycle factories in Vinh Phuc, Honda Vietnam has made this Asian nation the world’s Super Cub paradise. Only behind China, India, and Indonesia, where motorbikes are an indispensable part of life, Vietnam is the fourth nation consuming the most motorcycles in the world.

In short, to the Vietnamese, the Super Cub is legendary.

There is actually a dark history behind why Vietnam harbours an affection for Japanese motorbikes. It’s a legacy of the Vietnam war. The story started when “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.

“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.”

Honda Saigon representative office at the time also took extra miles by launching a Vietnamese version of the, "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” advertising campaign. The result was a hit. Between 1967 and 1969, approximately 750,000 Honda motorcycles were exported to South Vietnam. It’s also marked the beginning of a breakthrough in Southeast Asia.

The legacy is literally a love story.

In Vietnam, Giang Nguyen (or Jan) is a Honda Cub lover and collector:
In Vietnam, Giang Nguyen (or Jan) is a Honda Cub lover and collector:

Cute Cubs in the Land of Smiles: Thailand

Unfading in popularity, the Super Cub got a new facelift with advanced technologies in 2017, made in a Honda Thailand factory. It’s a statement of reliving the history by marrying traditional styles with new engineering. Despite this, there are also efforts to restore and refurnish the old models from more than 50 years ago. Thanks to their low maintenance costs, the bikes are built for easy fixing and customization.

Honda C70 in Thailand
Honda C70 in Thailand

There are workshops in a city such as Bangkok that offer to bring back the old memories for those willing to spend the money. For some, it’s nostalgic to be able to ride on a bike from back in the day.

Soichiro Honda’s timeless bodywork, with air-cooled four-stroke engine, can frequently be spotted roaming Asia’s cosmopolitan cities and rural roads.

In Bangkok, Tomlamphun Classic workshop (runs by an owner nicknamed Tom) has a range of completely restored classic bikes like the Cub. While repainting is common, restoring dead four-stroke single-cylinder engines is based on years of experiences.

In Love with Japanese Made Motorbikes: Cambodia

In this painting by Chifumi Krohom, a French artist who founded Cambodia Urban Art, it’s a quite common to see a Cub motodop driver taking more than one passenger from one place to another. Selected by Honda Japan for the World of Cub’s Make_Honda volume 1, the painting is on display along with the work by global artists on the Super Cub’s fan site.

Every month, containers loaded with thousands of used Super Cubs are shipped from Japan to Cambodia. At Phnom Penh’s Khlaing Rum Sev market in Tuol Kork district, nearly all Super Cub models are on sale. There is an exception. Those made in the early 1960s are rare. They’re like an antique. Because it’s hard to come by, the price is decided by the scarcity.

Despite growing demands from the Vietnamese, Phnom Penh is the market to source classic-looking motorcycles to bring to the Cub Paradise country.

A repainted Super Cub at a repair workshop in Phnom Penh
A repainted Super Cub at a repair workshop in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is not really a city for bicycles. For a motorcycle? Certainly. It’s less sweaty and exhausting to press the electric starter or kick-start and weave through the city’s jammed streets. It’s also faster than a bicycle and riders spend little on gasoline thanks to the fuel economic engine - the genius design by then young engineer Mr. Honda. For some models, a Super Cub consumes just about 1 litre per 180km.

By changing the engine oil regularly, it can run for decades. Once in a while, cleaning the carburetor keeps it running well and is low maintenance care that most owners can do by themselves.

Peou Sari, a Phnom Penh resident
Peou Sari, a Phnom Penh resident

Peou Sari, a Phnom Penh resident, told me his parents once owned a Super Cub. He showed me an old photograph of a red C70 Cub made in the 1970s, imported from neighboring Thailand to Cambodia.

The father of three has two Honda Super Cubs, both made in the early 1980s. He added that unlike most automatic scooters, the Super Cub’s body design makes the riders look “so handsome” when riding.

He fondly recalled a memory of his parents, who had a Cub in their youthful years.

Made in Japan is a synonym of super-good quality products.

For most Super Cub fans in Southeast Asia, the perception and love for the brand Honda, especially from Kumamoto as well as Suzuka Factory, is strong. Despite there being Honda factories outside Japan, including Tianjin and Jiangsu in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, most buyers’ personal preference is it’s always better to get a Cub made in Japan.

In 2012, the Japanese automaker moved its production of motorcycles to China. But after five years, Honda Motor shifted production back to its Kumamoto Factory in Japan. It cited tightened environmental regulations in Asia and cost reduction as reasons.

In this less than two-minute video advertisement for the US model Honda C70 Passport, “it’s the power of nice.” Why? As the rider says “no self-driving, self-parking, Bluetooth infotainment circuit. Just the motor, a seat, and a bar to steer her with.”

In fact, a Super Cub is more than just an underbone motorcycle. In “Super Cub” anime novel series, Koguma has no parents, hobbies, friends, or even goals. Her world is more open with endless possibilities after receiving a pre-owned Honda Super Cub. She eventually makes friends with Reiko (who owns a Super Cub MD and a Cross Cub) and Eniwa (switched from a bike to a Super Cub). The 12-episode series ends with, “There’s a lot to love here, folks."

I don't have anything. That's what I thought. Koguma, a girl who goes to a highschool in Hokuto, Yamanashi perfecture.

The Emergence of Electrification of Motorcycles

Although Vespa has come along way from their 1950s incarnations, the Italian scooter is not a big hit by any margin for modern classic commuters. Sexy and stylish, only more than 16 million Vespa motor scooters have been made to date. That’s not to mention Honda’s domestic rivals, such as Yamaha and Suzuki. However, no rivals come close to how Honda makes the world move on a Super Cub.

According to Honda when it marked its 60th anniversary in 2017, at least 7.4 billion people have ridden a Super Cub.

It’s more than 60 years since the first Super Cub C100 made its debut. It features an automatic centrifugal clutch three-speed transmission and air-cooled 4-stroke OHV engine. Since then, there have been many developments and transformations.

Will the Revolution Be Electric Scooters to Move Asia?

The rise of rechargeable battery-powered scooters is unstoppable.

As Tesla has popularized the Electric Vehicles (EV), is the same thing happening to electric scooters and motorcycles?

There are key factors contributing to this. First of all, lithium ion battery costs are decreasing. Spearheaded by food and grocery delivery startups, adoption of the EV scooters is now starting to take off. App-shared electric scooters are growing in cities around the world. Eco-friendliness and green cities are also a driving force.

In Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, the introduction of electric two-wheelers by companies such as Miku, Thada, Voltra, and Oyika are an example of the trend sweeping across many cities worldwide.

Singapore-based Grab, listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in late 2021, also launched JustGrab Green for a ride on a hybrid or electric car (though not yet motorcycle). To accelerate EV adoption in Southeast Asia, the firm this year partnered with South Korean Hyundai Motor Company.

Paving the way in Singapore, the country aims to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040.

In a business-as-usual scenario, UNEP’s models reveal, “1.5 billion motorized two- and three-wheelers will be plying global roads by 2050”.

Will Honda reinvent its Super Cub to spur EV innovation and adoption?

Unveiled at the Tokyo Motor show in 2009, an EV-Cub prototype still remains a blurb. Over a decade later, Honda has yet to make an official announcement on putting it into mass production. If it did, Honda would undoubtedly revolutionize the way commuters ride electric scooters.

A marriage of classic lightweight body design with the latest advanced eco-friendly technology is a dream for most Cub superfans.

This would drive innovation in the emerging market of EV motorbikes.

Popular in the U.S. in the 1960s, Honda made a surprise comeback with its modern 2019 Super Cub of 125 cc. So, it’s hard to rule out how and when Honda will take on the modern time with its EV Super Cub. Honda’s unfulfilled dreams are to unfold boundlessly, including this time.

A fully restored Super Cub in Phnom Penh
A fully restored Super Cub in Phnom Penh

No matter what, the vision of the great engineer Honda and his business partner Takeo Fujisawa hold true, as they want “to provide the joy of playing a useful part in people’s lives” in more than 160 countries.