What’s the world’s most numerous motor vehicle? Honda produced 60 million Super Cubs in the fifty years from 1958 to 2008, and with worldwide production still running at well over four million a year since 2004, the total is likely over 80 million as of the end of 2013. For comparison, Ford produced 15 million of the Model T from 1908 to 1927, Volkswagen produced 21 million Beetles from 1938 to 2003, and Toyota had made 40 million Corollas as of 2013, but in 11 distinct design generations.
The Super Cub has introduced tens of millions of people in numerous countries to motorized transportation. One of those countries is Vietnam, where the Super Cub arrived during the 1960s and continues to be a national institution as the do-everything vehicle. The streets abound with Super Cubs of all ages, hard at work every day for their owners who pilot them without nostalgia or consideration of their status. They are true living classics.
Americans have seen the Super Cub before, but not in substantial numbers since the 1960s. First imported in 1959 as the Honda 50 (Piper Aircraft owned the rights to the Super Cub name in the U.S.), it was the subject of the legendary “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertising campaign. Honda designed it to serve as the most basic transportation, with a four stroke 50cc single cylinder engine producing a mere 4.5 horsepower and a top speed of some 43 miles per hour. It delivered over 100 miles per gallon gas mileage along with unprecedented reliability and durability.
A horizontally mounted cylinder and pressed-steel backbone frame with a low structural member, often called an “underbone” frame, gave the Super Cub a convenient step-through configuration and a very low center of gravity that made it easy for beginners to handle. The Honda 50 faded in the U.S. market as Honda emphasized its increasingly large displacement sports machines, last selling in the U.S. in 1984 as the C70 Passport with an enlarged 72cc engine.
In Vietnam, on the other hand, the Super Cub started a dynasty of single cylinder Honda motorcycles that has ruled the country’s motor vehicle market since the 1960s. An example of the original Super Cub is on the right, its underbone frame fully visible with the bike’s leg shield removed. To its left are two examples of the Honda Dream, a 1980s evolution of the Super Cub design with an enlarged 100cc engine and a telescopic fork in place of the Super Cub’s leading link fork. On the far left are two of the Honda Wave, a further development of the Super Cub concept from 1996, with a new tubular steel underbone frame, plastic bodywork, and 100cc, 110cc, and 125cc engine options, with the 125cc version the first to be externally enlarged and incompatible with the original Super Cub engine mounts.
All three are in production simultaneously, and together they make up the vast majority of the motor vehicles in Vietnam and continue to dominate sales in what has become the fourth largest market for motorcycles in the world, with 2.69 million new motorcycles sold in 2010.
The Super Cub lineage also includes blatant copies produced in China. This Chinese-made Loncin directly copies the horizontal single cylinder engine, underbone frame, and overall layout of the Super Cub, with a telescopic fork making it similar to a Dream. Lower-priced Chinese copies of the Super Cub grew in popularity in Vietnam during the 2000s, but the genuine Honda product remains universally preferred. (Note that the owner of this Loncin felt the need to put H-O-N-D-A stickers on his front fork, in an attempt not to look like someone who could not afford a real Honda.)
Part of the reason for Honda’s ongoing domination of the market in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia is that since the late 1960s, the company has been offshoring manufacturing of its small motorcycles to the low-wage countries of their end users. Honda started producing the Super Cub in Vietnam in 1997, and in 2011, Honda expanded its manufacturing in Vietnam to three plants with a total capacity of 2.5 million motorcycles per year.
The Super Cub first arrived in Vietnam during the 1960s in the middle of the Vietnam War, and it immediately became a mark of prosperity in what was then an agrarian society. Many Super Cubs in the streets look like they date back to this era, such as these three parked across the street from Ben Thanh Market in Saigon. They are rusty, dented, casually spray painted, and missing parts all over, but they continue to serve their owners as faithful everyday transportation.
The vast majority of Super Cubs and their descendants are from the 1990s onward, after Vietnam moved away from socialism and began to experience rapid economic growth. They include these two shiny Waves parked with their uniformed owners, slightly down the street from the bikes in the previous photo. Next to them are two Waves painted in the style of sport bikes all over the world, in Repsol colors.
Super Cubs, Dreams, and Waves all are seen on the streets carrying prodigious loads. An entire family of four riding on one is nothing unusual, seen many times each minute on any busy street, with the children riding on the laps of their parents. Equally common are these motorbikes carrying cargoes that defy belief. Bags hanging from handlebars, baskets strapped to the back, boxes and buckets balanced on the seat and between the rider’s legs, huge bundles of rice bags or plants – riders in Vietnam do it all, every day.
Often, riders do not bother using straps or other tie-downs and simply rely on gravity and occasional use of their left hands to keep their cargoes secure. All normal, with not worth a moment’s attention from anyone.
A stack of water bottles taller than the rider’s head is not enough, when all of that additional space between the rider’s lap and the handlebars is also available.
Need propane for cooking or heating? A Super Cub will handle your large cylinders with ease.
Propane home delivery service? No problem for the Super Cub!
Three wheelers made from the rear halves of Super Cubs routinely accomplish feats of strength that one would believe to be impossible using only 50cc. Delivering two plate glass windows, complete with their entire frame assemblies, is a job for a full size pickup or van back in the U.S. In Vietnam, it is just another everyday job – albeit a very slow moving one, probably spent entirely in first gear – for a Super Cub three wheeler.
You are probably getting the impression that Super Cubs are like the UPS trucks of Vietnam. You would be only partly right, because the Super Cub and its derivatives are the actual UPS trucks of Vietnam. Big Brown Trucks are nowhere to be seen, but there are Small Brown Motorbikes. The top boxes of the delivery bikes give more security than the simple tie-down straps (or gravity and hands) used by most people, but never having seen anyone in Vietnam lose their cargo, I think that the top boxes make UPS’ delivery riders look like amateurs.
I would prefer to have my deliveries made by these guys. In case you can’t identify what they are carrying, it’s a full length mirror approximately six feet/two meters tall. Carrying this awkward and un-aerodynamic cargo clearly was of no great concern, as I could see them smiling and casually chatting at stoplights. Other favorite outlandish cargoes spotted but not photographed were a four wheeled hotel luggage cart (the passenger sits on the frame loops, easy!), stepladders, and a pole at least 8 feet long in a solo rider’s left hand, making him look like he was heading to a Super Cub Joust tournament.
Keeping Super Cubs running is an easy task given their reliability and ease of repair, and numerous well-equipped garages see to it. Major work being easy on these simple machines, though, the sidewalk often suffices as a workshop for most jobs. This sidewalk repair shop appeared to be permanently in business at a busy street corner, with pedestrians constantly walking through it. The Wave on the right, next to the blue chair, had its engine completely disassembled, cylinder and crankcase broken down into parts on the sidewalk for a complete engine rebuild.
Vietnam’s rising prosperity under its increasingly free market economic system has allowed some Vietnamese riders to go beyond the old Super Cub and its derivatives. Bigger-displacement Japanese machines are sometimes seen, such as these three Honda sport bikes wearing many of the usual accessories seen on such machines in the developed world, including carbon fiber exhaust cans and remote reservoir shock absorbers. A few Ducatis appear on the streets, with the normally diminutive Monster actually looking monstrously large amid the Super Cubs, and Vietnam’s first Harley-Davidson dealership opened in late 2013. The Super Cub and its descendants will continue to abound in Vietnam for many decades to come, though.
Many years from now, the Super Cub may achieve the status of a coveted classic in Vietnam as a newly affluent generation, driving BMWs and minivans, stops using them as everyday transportation but decides to collect the machines of their youth. Honda regards the Super Cub as one of its foundational products, part of the soul of the company, so much so that it made an electric EV-Cub one of its featured concept vehicles in 2009.
In Western countries where its time as a mainstream vehicle was short, it has been widely acclaimed, featured in the Guggenheim Museum’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit and declared the greatest motorcycle of all time in the Discovery Channel’s The Greatest Ever series. In Vietnam, where the Super Cub and its derivatives have been the main motor vehicle for several decades and have had great economic and cultural impact, the Super Cub’s place in history and in people’s memories is assured. With the Super Cub already in production for 55 years, the design will be a senior citizen in human years by then, with many people in Vietnam in their family’s third generation of Super Cub ownership. It is a remarkable chapter in the story of motor vehicles that is still being written.