By on April 3, 2012

For about 15 years, the Civic and the Accord were untouchable in the American marketplace; Honda sold all they could build here plus as many as they could import under the limitations of the Voluntary Export Restraint agreement of 1981. Then… well, Soichiro Honda died and Honda sort of lost its way. Sure, their cars were still good, but the competition had caught up and the Honda magic had worn off for American car buyers. Honda car sales in Japan had never been so great, so what kept Honda going through the lean times? Two-wheelers! I spent two weeks in Vietnam last month and came away with a new appreciation for Honda’s utter dominance of the Asian motorbike market.
Scooters and motorcycles are central to the culture of Vietnam; farmers ride them to their fields, parents use them to drop the kids off at school, furniture stores use them to deliver bedroom sets, and so on. Saigon and Hanoi are boiling maelstroms of bikes everywhere. Want to ride on the wrong side of the street? Go for it! On the sidewalk? Sure! Traffic signals? What traffic signals? Most of the bikes are sub-200cc machines, most are clutchless, and most are Hondas. The Honda Wave is one of the most popular, with the newer Air Blade a big seller as well. Those shiny new bikes were kind of interesting, but nothing approaches the majesty of the most-produced motor vehicle in history: the Honda Super Cub.
If you see a motorcycle piled high with an outlandish quantity of weird stuff in Vietnam, there’s about a 90% chance that it will one of the 60+ million Super Cubs built since 1958.
Hauling 150 kilos of soybeans to your restaurant in Danang? You know what to do!
As James May says in the Top Gear Vietnam Special, after selecting a Super Cub for his Saigon-to-Hanoi steed, this is the machine that put Asia on wheels.
You see a lot of completely beat early Super Cubs in Vietnam, no doubt pieced together from bits of several junked bikes. The Vietnamese I spoke to about the Super Cub were a little puzzled by my interest; to them, the old Super Cub seems to be your entry-level bike, something you sell as soon as you can afford to move up to a Wave or Vespa.
Which isn’t to say that you don’t see early Super Cubs in cherry condition. The owner of this one, parked in front of the Saigon tailor shop where I had some custom shirts made, protects the seat from sun and grime with a plastic stool while parked.
The Super Cub is the real business workhorse of the country. While Toyota Innova minivans are getting more popular for deliveries, the venerable Honda motorbike still rules the narrow streets of Vietnam. Here’s a trailer-equipped Super Cub serving as a beer truck in Hoi An.
It’s good to know that my frosty Biere Larue was brought to this excellent restaurant on a Super Cub. Vietnam is still a regional-beer place, with Danang-brewed Larue the top beer in the central part of the country.
Adding a trailer to your Super Cub makes it tougher to negotiate traffic, but saves time tying stuff down and makes it easier to balance while riding.
It’s easy to find parts for your ailing Super Cub in Saigon and Hanoi; little hole-in-the-wall shops sell every component imaginable. I asked several semi-English-speaking street-corner mechanics (more on them later) about motorbike junkyards, but nobody seemed to understand my question.
You can still buy new Super Cubs, and many do. The Little Cub seems especially popular among young women with office jobs.
The Super Cub was sold in the United States, but the Piper Super Cub airplane meant that Honda had to use a different name on these shores. So, Americans bought Honda Passports.
I’ve never owned a motorcycle in my life, but I’m now shopping for an old Passport. If I find a good one, I’ll head over to eBay and buy some Super Cub badges for it.

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62 Comments on “How Honda Survived the Vigor, the Del Sol, and the Lawsuits: Super Cub!...”


  • avatar
    GS650G

    It’s amazing how tough those bikes are, maintenance is unheard of over there.

    • 0 avatar
      Hung Nguyen

      Yeah, Nowadays, most of Vietnamese people tend to own an old/ ancient bike… Let’s enjoy my boy: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=115718208633480&set=gm.295096237292073&type=1&theater

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    I see a lot of face masks, is the smog that bad?

  • avatar
    dts187

    A guy I grew up with had a Honda Passport handed down to him from his grandmother when she could no longer use it to get around the neighborhood. I think I was 11 or 12 at the time and we used to flog that little Honda all over the place. It stood up to trail riding, jumps off homemade ramps, and general preteen hooligan hijinks.

    These things are simple and built to last.

    • 0 avatar
      chrishs2000

      Yeah, that was rebadged Isuzu garbage. And it also completely destroyed Honda’s reputation for quality and reliability for the vast majority of its owners.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Scooter or SUV?

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        SUV ~ the Honda Cub is the largets production Moto in history , the Chinese both make them under license and copy them , Lifan etc.

        -Nate

        • 0 avatar
          AKADriver

          You can find licensed versions in every Asian country. In South Korea, Daelim calls theirs the CityAce. In Taiwan, SYM makes one that they sell in the US as the Symba, and Kymco makes versions that they don’t offer here.

          Despite South Korea’s massive soaring economy in recent decades, Daelim CityAces are still a workhorse of urban delivery, used by everyone from the postal service to Dominos Pizza. Really cool to see.

  • avatar
    Hank

    Those remind me of so many scenes next door in Cambodia last summer. Honda flat owns that moto market. I’m not sure what this bike is, but it seemed to be the F350 of Phnom Penh.
    http://flic.kr/p/ak6JUX

  • avatar
    blowfish

    riding any bike in N America= Death wish.
    Simply car drivers just cant see u.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      It’s not that they “can’t see you”, it’s that they aren’t looking and don’t give a damn. It’s possible with proper technique to account for this, at least partially.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        If they can’t see you, make sure your motorcycle is insanely loud so they can hear you. Near as I can tell motorcycles get away with running straight pipes with no mufflers here in Texas.

        Muffler: No acoustical criteria

        Decibels/Maximum Sound: No acoustical criteria

        source: http://www.bikernation.net/motorcyclelaws.htm#Texas

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        If the reason for having a loud exhaust was safety then the exhaust would be pointed forward. I don’t hear even the loudest bikes coming toward me when I have the windows up and am being subjected to other traffic noise, road noise, and the radio; until they’re already past. I’ll believe that excuse for being a dickhead to everyone else when I see a bike with a 2011 Renault-Lotus F1 exhaust layout!

    • 0 avatar

      If I get one, it will mostly be for pit-bike use at race tracks.

      • 0 avatar
        B.C.

        getting run over by an American race car driver who isn’t looking and still doesn’t give a damn = win.

        … or fail. I can’t decide.

      • 0 avatar
        V572625694

        Or you could get one of these:

        http://braceyfamilytravels.com/images/page/cyclosinhue.jpg

        In the good bad old days, the passenger “cabins” were made of wicker. Riding two-up in one of these through insane Ho Chi Minh City traffic was a remarkable thrill.

        But if you must have IC power, the venerable hop tac is also a war-era classic remembered by all:

        http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4074/4891819894_fa9f83c415.jpg

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve been borrowing scooters, trail bikes, bicycles, ATVs, etc. for use as pit transportation at race tracks for quite a while, and I figure I’m just as likely to get flattened by some red-mist-challenged racer on a bike as I am while standing in alleged safety shooting photos.

    • 0 avatar
      st1100boy

      I don’t know about that, blowfish. I’ve ridden about 200,000 miles on the street in the last 25 years and whether it’s luck, good equipment, good riding on my part, or divine intervention, I’ve never had a collision w/ another vehicle.

      I’ve had vehicles pull out on me, or move into my lane on the freeway, but I’ve always been able to find a way out.

      That’s not to say I haven’t been down. Twice, I’ve hit the pavement and have only myself to blame both times:

      1. At 2 mph when I was being ignorant and doing a stoppie on an old Honda XR650L dual purpose bike. Broke a mirror and a blinker.

      2. At 50 mph when I was being even more ignorant on the same bike and taking exit ramps at outlandish speeds and using poor quality pavement on the shoulder. Scraped up a numberplate and tore my new pair of 501s. Bummer.

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        I’m running about the same experience. I’ve been riding since 1976, and have had exactly two accidents in that time: In April ’98 I got a little too eager merging thru an intersection on my ’69 Bonnie. Result, broken collarbone. Then in July ’98 (yeah, three months later) I’m hit and run from behind while waiting at a red traffic light. Knocked cold, still have no memories of the accident. Otherwise uninjured.

        Otherwise, in the 22 years prior and the 14 years following, I’ve had to put up with the normal idiot drivers with no ill effect – because I’ve developed a set of reflexes well beyond what I ever expect out of a car-only driver.

        I normally can notice a mouse crossing the road 100 meters ahead of me, usually watch the tail lights on the car six cars ahead of me in traffic, and think it second nature to watch myself when the color of the road surface changes and – all habits that would be totally alien to the usual car-only driver.

        Commuting on two wheels is not a death sentence, assuming you’ve got enough brains to develop the skills to drive alongside the idiots who have never piloted anything but a car/light truck. In fact, I’ve always believed that, in a perfect world, nobody would be able to get a car license until they’ve put a minimum of two years in on two wheels. It’d change their attitude immeasurably.

      • 0 avatar
        ringomon

        Even though I’ve never piloted a motorcycle in my life- I agree with this. More 2 wheel experience would really help people learn the realities of the road.

        As a bicyclist I have learned this same heightened situational awareness of the road- (I know you cycle too Syke)
        Never trust anyone. Never assume you know what another driver is going to do. Just because someone is looking straight at you doesn’t mean that they see you. Pay attention to the pavement quality. Plan your route in advance to avoid as much traffic as possible. Scan multiple cars ahead…

        …and I apply it to my car driving as well. I am one of the few drivers I know that slows almost completely behind stop signs because I know someone on a bike could be flying down that sidewalk. I’ve seen multiple people almost get killed from cars nosing out past the sidewalk path forcing the rider into the traffic to avoid the car. (Which is one reason you’re not supposed to ride bikes on sidewalks- of course when the sidewalk is a “multi-use” path.)

      • 0 avatar
        jeffzekas

        Glad you’ve been lucky… but it has been just that: luck. According to NHTSA, you are 17 times more likely to be killed or injured on a motorcycle. I speak from personal experience: my 19 year old son was killed on his Honda ten years ago this month. If you love your family, don’t ride a motorcycle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWJNcvfiyg8

      • 0 avatar
        onyxtape

        Some cities are just worse for cycling / motorcycling. I used to work in downtown Seattle in a company with a lot of avid cyclists and motorcyclists. Every single one of them (out of a group of 15) has spent several days in a hospital from a traffic collision within a span of 5 years. I guess it’s all the rain and dreariness that lowers overall visibility, esp. for the bikes.

  • avatar
    detroit1701

    Murilee, before looking at an old Passport (which qualify in every state as a motorcycle), old 70s-80s pedal-style mopeds (Puch, Sachs, Piaggio, Honda, etc.) are just as fun and do not require a motorcycle endorsement. You can even “kit” them to go as fast as you feel safe to do so. Easy to work on, parts still available, and 100mpg.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      That’s overrated – don’t bother. Yeah, you can kit them, but then they run overstressed, peaky, and the end result is tiring to run. The huge selling point of the Passport/Super Cub is that they’re relaxed at 45mph.

      And so what if it’s classified as a motorcycle? You get the permit, drive for a couple of weeks to get used to the vehicle, then drop over to the DMV to take their disgustingly simple ‘road’ test. Pass it, and you’re now legal for a 150hp Honda CBR1000RR (which scares the hell out of me). Seriously, at the end of not a lot of effort, you’ve got another endorsement on your license allowing you a heck of a lot of freedom in what you can ride in the future.

      Having ridden more than a few under 49cc/under 35mph/license-less legal mopeds (this includes the scooters) I’d rather just stick with my bicycle. Riding on the side of the lane so you don’t get run over and still having to pay for gas reeks.

      • 0 avatar
        kilgoretrout

        Agree with you Syke. Got an 81 Passport a few years back to get back on 2 wheels after a long absence. Traded up to a 550cc Yamaha Seca within 6 months. That throttle is an important safety device in traffic.

      • 0 avatar
        Xeranar

        I don’t know about other states but Pennsylvania runs a fairly competent program for Motorcycles. You can roll out on your own and do it the complicated way or you can show up and go through a free driver’s ed training course with a motorcycle they supply to you (and it will match your weight/style for the most part). I kind of wish the regular automobile licensing program worked that way. It would give idiots less excuse for poor behavior.

        As for the super cub, nothing wrong with it but I’ve never ridden anything that small. It actually makes me want to hunt one down because if a craptacular Vietnam model can handle 300+ lbs with ease I imagine it can handle my beefy frame.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Your pictures take me back to the sixties. Sometimes that’s not so good.

  • avatar

    Anyone know the difference between the Honda 50/90 models that were sold in the US and the Super Cub? I had a Honda 90 when I was a freshman in college. I had to take back roads to ride from Ann Arbor to Detroit because the top speed was something like 45 mph – and it felt kinda squirrelly at that speed.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Same family of motor, in fact the aftermarket manuals cover the entire gamut in one book. Did you have the Trail 90 (step thru with automatic) or the Super 90 (real motorcycle with manual transmission)? The latter will do 55 flat out and not get too squirrely, although I don’t take mine over 45 anymore because the transmission was beaten to hell by the first two owners (some guy, then my wife – we’re talking early ’70′s here).

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      The Honda S90 (and S65) as well as all of their offroad-ish variants are more like real motorcycles, with clutches and 4 spd gearboxes. My brother has a ’65 S90 that we got in on running condition for free about 6-7 years ago. Fixed it up and threw a new caot of paint on it and we were all set! Hit 55 mph on level ground, and got 100 mpg give or take 10. This spring the tired engine got bored out once over, new piston/rings/wristpin and fresh valve springs, boy what a world of difference! Hits 65mph with much more low end grunt (for a 90cc 8hp engine lol). Easily more fun to ride than any of my larger motorcycles (’78 Suzuki GS1000, KLR650, etc)

      • 0 avatar
        flameded

        “Easily more fun to ride than any of my larger motorcycles (’78 Suzuki GS1000, KLR650, etc)”

        sweet..I got a 1980 Gs1000 ;) .. (not that I’m proud of it)

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    The honda step-through is in fact the best selling motor vehicle of all time.

    If you’re looking for one make sure you find one where the owner has cleaned out the sludge trap on recently when he last changed oil. If the owner has never done that task, it could well be frozen solid by now.

  • avatar
    Syke

    If you get a Passport, have a quick run over to your local Honda motorcycle dealer and do a quick run thru the parts fiche (do this on a slow day for the shop, please). As the Passport hasn’t been sold in the US for about twenty years now, mechanical parts are still available, but any kind of bodywork was fast disappearing when I transferred out of the parts department three years ago.

    That OHC motor is truly one of the modern marvels of mechanics. I’ve got a big version (’69 Honda Super 90) and that little mill is absolutely sewing machine smooth.

  • avatar

    Next you need to go to France and ride a Solex. Vachement chouette, as they say in Paris

  • avatar
    ByTheLake

    I have 5 motorcycles in my garage, and one of them is my 1965 Honda Super Cub. It was the bike I took my motorcycle road test on, and it still runs great 47 years later. Great pictures, thanks.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    Yes, it was the same story back in 1968 when I was in Vietnam courtesy of the US Army. Saigon was absolutely crazy with Honda Cubs. There were “motorcycle gangs” with these we called “Saigon Cowboys”. They’d ride two up and the guy in back would rip your watch off your wrist and speed away. Fortunately, the watches were $10.00 Rolex knock offs sold on every street corner.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Here’s a Trail 90 for $1,150 if anyone is too inspired by this article:

    http://sandiego.craigslist.org/csd/mcy/2934166421.html

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    Number of Model T’s made 1908-1927 = 15,000,000
    Number VW Beetles made 1938-2003 = 22,000,000
    Number of Honda Cubs/variants made 1958-2008 = 60,000,000

    I have a 1967 S65 that I’ll be able to keep running with eBay parts for another 100 years or so.

    • 0 avatar

      If you count unlicensed Super Cub knockoffs and near-copies, the number is probably much higher. There’s no telling how many of the bikes I saw in Vietnam were “Hondas” instead of Hondas. I heard there was some new brand called Handa that makes a 99.99% similar copy of the Honda Dream.

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Momma

        The Saucy Minx digs the Honda Dream eh? I jumped for joy when I read your Handa Dream statement, but the reality is probably this: http://youtu.be/ZbOsdZUsMIs – a revisioned for the ’10s modern Dream. Nothing like the ’67 Dream sitting in my garage, alas. If you find out otherwise, please reply. I couldn’t be more hopeful.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    CjinSD Yes the trail 90 had a 3 speed trans. with a centrifugal clutch and by moving a small lever on the gear case you shifted into the (trail) mode which doubled the gear ratio. My 10 year old son was sure he could pull the house off the foundation with this gearing.

  • avatar
    hakata

    If you can’t find a decent price on an original (they can be pricey in good condition), these Taiwanese guys are making a clone for sale in NA: http://www.teamsymba.com/

    The internet says the same company produced Super Cubs under license for Honda for 40 years, and all the descriptions and reviews make it sound practically identical. $2400.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Completely coincidentally, I walked into a classic car and RV dealer yesterday while my car was next door getting its tires rotated and they had some surplus motorbikes for sale. A couple of them were conventional scooters, but one of them was a Fly Scout; a complete knockoff of a Cub that was sold in the US until a year or two ago. The bikes had from 4 to 8 miles, but were being sold as used with no warranties, which I didn’t find encouraging.

      • 0 avatar
        hakata

        Yeah, looks like those Fly guys were real fly-by-nights. At least Symba is backed by an established Taiwanese company that will probably still be making parts even if they do pull out of the US. But for $2400, I’d buy a Ruckus and let someone else take a chance on retro style from an unproven brand.

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    In addition to the Top Gear Vietnam special, the only thing I can think of when I see this is the scene in Full Metal Jacket when the hooker jumps off the back of the ARVN guy’s Super Cub after the first battle of Hue looking for ‘fares’.

    Nice article, as always…:)

  • avatar
    namstrap

    I too remember these little bikes. A friend of mine in high school won one in a Heads Up contest. Heads Up made hair grease, sort of like Brylcreem.
    Here’s a good site if you want to check out just how hardy they are/were.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    Getting made-to-measure clothing is a dream in Saigon or Hong Kong, but there’s always a few things to watch out for. Number one is making sure you have enough time to do a third fitting. I’m convinced the entire difference between bespoke and made-to-measure is the 3rd fitting where corrections can be made. Second, know what you want before going there. I have a tough time finding what I want off the shelf, so custom makes sense. And finally, there’s a huge difference in price between the tailor shops in the tourist areas versus the outlying areas (whom are sometimes the sub-contractors who make the suit for them).

    I had a couple of suits made for me for $240 in Saigon. That practically paid for my airfare and hotel versus what it would cost me to have it done here in Canada. I had to get a tailor to make adjustments when I came back because I didn’t have time for a 3rd fitting, but the workmanship was good. I’ve since learned that Super 160 wool is not durable enough for daily wear, but that’s more a limitation of the chosen fabric. Next time I’ll grab a bunch of dress shirts.

  • avatar
    Campisi

    When I was preparing for my move to Korea, my plan was to buy an old Cub for transportation with some cash I had saved up for that purpose. However, my internet research before coming wasn’t encouraging, and having been here over a month now I haven’t seen a single genuine Cub of any vintage. I guess they haven’t sold any Cubs here in a long time, if ever.

    What I have seen is about seventeen billion Daelim Citi Ace 110s, a Korean copy of the early Honda Waves. It’s not the same as a Cub, but it’s a Honda-designed engine, and apparently the odometer tends to fail on them before anything else does.

  • avatar
    Ben

    When I was in Ho Chi Minh City last year I did a tour http://xotours.vn – you can see a photo of the classic Honda that the owner of the company restored on their website.

    The bike tour was so much fun we did a second one a few days later, riding a bike around Vietnam is insane.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    Wow, just about everyone on a bikes in those pictures is wearing a helmet. Are they really that ubiquitous in Vietnam? For some reason I though hardly anyone there wore them

    • 0 avatar
      Ben

      Everyone “wears” one, the reason for the quotation marks is that it quite common to see people wearing them without the chin strap or even wearing helmets which look like the would provide very little crash protection. The police enforce helmet wearing quite vigorously, and since you rarely do more than 40km/h due to the traffic I found riding there quite safe.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Anyone in the USA moving a pile of cargo like that would claim to “need” a big pickup truck. In Italy when I lived there these kinds of tasks were done with Piaggio Apes (say Ah-pays).

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Honda step through Motos with autoclutches are still very good Motos (they’re _NOT_ “Scooters”) , the verable CT90′s & 110′s were about the best .

    Many of us still own and ride them for regular transport , I do in Los Angeles wild traffic plus I occasionally head out and tour to Death Valley and beyond , going 45 MPH or so ~ one of the many beauties of old Honda Tiddlers is : once you’re in top gear (older models only have three speeds) it’s fine to pin the throttle and ride it WFO as long as your bum and the fuel supply holds out .

    The ’66 > CT90 Tail Models all had a four speed autoclutch tranny and the wonderful two speed sub tranny that allows you to go up any slope no matter how steep , the Moto will flip ovdr before it fails to pull up any slope in low range .

    Riding , just like waiting for the bus , is dangerous . I’ve been riding since 1971 and survived a fatal Moto Collision in 2008 when a gypsy cab ran me over at a red light . I mostly only can ride my beloved Honda Tiddlers now , began riding on one and have come full circle .

    Surely more fun than any other Moto I’ve ever ridden and I’ve ridden more thn most here .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    carr1on

    My wife has a 2010 Honda SH150i scooter. It is a blast around town. Easy to ride. Quick onoff for errands, versus my much bigger moto. And rated at 91 MPG. The thing is super reliable.


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