Family Heirloom: 1962 Honda CA100 Super Cub

An old Cub, passed along from one generation to the next, sparks a Honda CA100 restoration project.

Super Cub

1962 Honda CA100 Super Cub.

Photo by Nick Cedar

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1962 Honda CA100
Engine:
49cc air-cooled OHV single, 40mm x 39mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio, 4.5hp @ 9,500rpm
Top speed:
43.5mph (claimed)
Carburetion:
Single Keihin DP13HOV
Transmission:
3-speed, enclosed chain final drive
Electrics:
6v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Pressed steel step-through frame/46.5in (1,181mm)
Suspension:
Leading-link forks front, dual shocks rear
Brakes:
4.3in (110mm) SLS drums front and rear
Tires:
2.25 x 17in front and rear
Weight (dry):
143lb (65kg)
Seat height:
29.1in (739mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
0.8gal (3ltr)/100mpg (estimated)/254mpg at 18.6mph (claimed)
Price then/now:
$245/$900-$3,000

A lot of people have family heirlooms. One family cherishes the Niagara Falls plate that Great-Grandma Letitia stole from a restaurant in 1907, while another esteems the knight’s casque, saved for generations, that hides an awful, bloody secret that no one actually remembers. Dane Berens’ family heirloom is much more mundane. It’s a Honda Super Cub.

A Honda Super Cub may not be the most beautiful or powerful or imposing motorcycle ever built, but it is an important part of transportation history, all the same.

The Honda Super Cub is probably the most successful motor vehicle ever produced. Introduced in 1958, it is still being sold in many countries and is the most produced motor vehicle in history. Production hit 87 million in 2014. There’s nothing at all special about Dane’s family Cub to distinguish it from the millions of Cubs that Honda has churned out over the last 50-plus years — except the good memories it represents.

Meter reader

In the early Sixties, Dane’s aunt and uncle had five kids and a 1951 Buick Special to tote them around in. To make a little extra money to keep the refrigerator stocked and the Buick filled with gas, Uncle got a part-time job reading water meters for his citizen-owned utility. He bought a Honda Cub to save fuel (and have some fun) while out reading meters. The Cub cost $245 and got about 100 miles to the gallon, although the ads said the Cub could get 200 miles to the gallon; you have to allow ad agencies a little artistic license. At any rate, it beat the Buick hands down in both the economy department and in the fun department. The automatic clutch made the frequent stopping and starting while holding a clip board for meter reading easy, and apparently Uncle got so skilled at Cub riding he could read meters without even dismounting.

The five kids grew up and had kids of their own. Uncle retired from the meter reading job. The Cub stuck around, and it eventually went into the care of one of the sons of one of Dane’s cousins. Dane, who enjoys restoring old motorcycles, never thought much about it until one summer vacation when he learned that Kevin, the young lad who was now primarily in charge of the Cub, was reluctant to ride it until an oil leak was fixed. Could Dane help with the leak?

Dane looked at the Cub — obviously cared for, but showing more than a few knocks and bruises from its years with the extended family — and explained to its worried young caretaker that the engine has an oil seal where the gearshift spindle exits the right crankcase. After 50 years, the original rubber seal had hardened and needed to be replaced. The part is available and costs just $3.50. Replacing the seal was an easy evening’s work, and Kevin is now a happy camper and back on the road with the Cub.

Working on Kevin’s Cub sparked something. Dane decided he wanted to restore his own little Honda. “I got Cub fever,” he says. He called a friend in the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club to discuss this new and sudden passion, and it turned out that the friend had a Cub project he wanted to unload. “You can have it for what I put into it,” said the friend, which turned out to be $200. As a bonus, the basket case fit into a large car trunk.

History of the Cub

The idea for the Honda Super Cub was sparked by a trip Soichiro Honda and partner Takeo Fujisawa took to Germany in 1956. At the time, Honda was running the engineering and production end of the company and Fujisawa was in charge of marketing and finances. The two were intrigued by the popularity of scooters, but thought that the scooter model would have limited utility in the developing countries where Honda sold many of its products. Fujisawa wanted a small, simple, but relatively powerful machine that would be quiet and reliable. It also had to be easy to operate — Fujisawa specified a bike that could be ridden with one hand while carrying a tray of Japanese noodles. As the story goes, he said to Honda, “If you can design a small motorcycle, say 50cc with a cover to hide the engine and hoses and wires inside, I can sell it. I don’t know how many noodle shops there are in Japan, but I bet you that every shop will want one for deliveries.”

The Honda company has always favored 4-stroke engines, and although a 2-stroke would have been cheaper and simpler, a 4-stroke engine would produce the low-speed torque needed to negotiate unpaved roads, so Soichiro Honda insisted on a 4-stroke.

The marketing plan was that the new machine would be sold in foreign countries by a subsidiary of Honda instead of an importer, which would give the parent company much more control over parts and service. The American Honda Motor Company was set up in June 1959 in a small storefront on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. In addition to the C100 Super Cub, the new importer showcased the CB92 Benly Super Sport 125, the CA95 Benly Touring 150, the Honda Dream 250 in two states of tune, and a 300cc touring Dream.

The Cub was the best seller of the lineup. Bore and stroke of the single cylinder 49cc engine was 40mm x 39mm. With a compression ratio of 8.5:1, the cheerful little critter produced 4.5 horsepower and was claimed to achieve 43.5mph (probably downhill, with a tailwind). The engine was built to close tolerances and had a large, effective muffler, resulting in a machine that could barely be heard when running.

The fairing and front fender were polyethylene — one of the first uses of plastic for motorcycle parts — and the frame was a step-through, sometimes called an “underbone.” The frame design permitted the use of 17-inch wheels, which would be immensely more functional on the bad roads of Third World countries than the smaller wheels of the typical scooter. Some American dealers replaced the tires with knobbies and sold the bikes as cow trailers. The 4.3-inch diameter single-leading-shoe brakes stopped the bike in a reasonable amount of time, but then it was quite light, weighing only 143 pounds dry.

The Cub’s relative silence allied with its easy kickstarting (the C102 version of the Cub sported an electric start) and oil-tight powertrain made it easy for the Cub to make friends, and the Cub made a lot of friends. Between 1959 and 1968, Honda sold 101,106 C100 and CA100s in the U.S. alone. In 1960, Honda opened a state of the art assembly line at Suzuka in Japan, with much of the plant’s floor space in the early years devoted to C100s.

Now in her 90s and still working at the family dealership, Musselman Honda in Tucson, Arizona, Helen Musselman was an early Honda dealer. She remembers going on a tour at the Suzuka plant in the early Sixties with other American dealers and being impressed with how automated it was. “We toured the Harley factory and they were still pushing carts around,” she says.

Despite fairly good sales, Honda was concerned its offerings were not completely accepted in the developed nations of Europe and the U.S. Prejudice against Japanese products was common, and most Europeans and Americans then thought that Japanese exports were cheap and badly made. For another, motorcycles were fighting for social acceptance — especially in the United States, where many people thought that only hoodlums rode motorcycles. With typical energy and outside the box thinking, Honda launched an advertising program that is still studied by marketing analysts today: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

The marketing campaign was designed by Grey Advertising. The first ad, which used bright colors and depicted everyday people doing everyday but enjoyable things, was placed in general interest magazines in 1963. It was wildly successful. American Honda went so far as to buy advertising space in the 1964 Academy Awards show, spending most of the year’s advertising budget in one night. Those ads put Honda — and the Super Cub — firmly on the map. Honda had arrived.

The Super Cub today

The bike that had made it all possible, the C100 Super Cub, has not gotten a lot of attention from collectors. It’s not rare. It didn’t win important races or break land speed records. Movie stars didn’t ride Cubs. Yet the C100 — Honda marketed it simply as the Honda 50 starting with the CA100 in 1962 — changed the face of motorcycling in America and put Honda on the worldwide map. The success of the C100 made the Kawasaki H1, the Honda CB750 and the Suzuki GT750 Water Buffalo possible. The C100 is a milestone motorcycle, and just as importantly, it’s one of the few bikes that can be restored in limited space and on a budget.

Dane brought his little project home and started carefully going over it. His plan was to do a concourse restoration — the family already had one CA100 rider. The engine had a significant oil leak, so he took it apart and found that someone had installed the cylinder head with a hammer. “It was leaking through divots on the sealing surface where the rocker box gasket mates with the cylinder head,” Dane says. The wheels were rusty and the hubs corroded, but the bike came with a set of new wheels and spokes. The seat was new and a good quality reproduction, but its shape and color was wrong for a black 1962 CA100. The bike needed a new headlight enclosure, as the one that came with the bike was red plastic with cracking black paint. The bottom of the plastic front fender was broken and cracked.

As with any restoration project, Dane spent some time finding replacement parts. Honda specialists Ohio Cycle and David Silver Spares were good sources, and there are a few Taiwanese suppliers on eBay like Vintage Avenue, which sells good-quality reproductions, like the brand-new carburetor Dane bought for $70.

Other eBay vendors supplied things like decals, fasteners and gaskets, while Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club members stepped up with hard-to-find items. Allen Siekman had an engine with a good cylinder head that matched Dane’s engine, while Tony Silveira had a set of grungy wheels with good hubs that he swapped with Dane. Tony would use Dane’s decent old set with original tubes and tires for his “rider” Cub and Dane would refinish Tony’s hubs, attaching them to new chrome rims with fresh spokes and shoe them with a new set of Kings Tires, an exact replica of the original tires. Dane had never laced wheels before, but decided to try doing it himself. He found a how-to video, and studied it. “I borrowed a neighbor’s bicycle spoke torque wrench, which was very helpful. The holes in the new rear rim weren’t big enough to use the spokes that also came with the bike, so I had to drill them out. I did the wheels all myself and they came out right. It was a fun project.”

Replacing the cylinder head, Dane lapped in and installed the new valves and valve springs from the old damaged head. He installed new gaskets, and also replaced the damaged lower studs holding down the cylinder and reset the cylinder rings. “They weren’t staggered correctly.”

Dane’s do-it-yourself bug stopped at the seat. “I had a custom seat made. After two tries, it’s really close now. I had a template of the Honda logo made and sprayed it on the seat.”

Now that the CA100 is finished and running, Dane is taking it to shows. “It’s not going to win Best of Show or anything because of what it is, but people like it. I enjoy showing the bike and having people come up to me and tell me their stories about the Cub they used to have. It’s not too practical to ride in modern traffic, and it’s not great going up steep hills, but the leading-link front axles aren’t bad and the bike will stop, even with those tiny front brakes. The 6-volt, 15-watt headlight could be brighter. On the other hand, it is easy to start, and you can still get a lot of parts for it, including a puny little AGM (absorbed glass mat) battery. It’s quiet as a whisper and you can keep it anywhere — I keep mine in the family’s home office.”

Dane also likes that maintenance is easy. “There’s not much to do on it, basically check the tire pressure,” Dane says. “The chain is enclosed, so you rarely have to lube it. You check the spark plug and change the 1.4 pints of oil at least every 600 miles.”

The C100 Super Cub has been called the Model T of motorcycles. From the first, it was economical, reliable and fun transportation for the masses. Just as important, perhaps, it also upgraded the status of American motorcyclists. In the late 1950s, thanks in no small part to films like The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, the public saw bikers as rebels, criminals and hell-raisers. By the mid-Sixties, thanks to the efforts of Honda, motorcycling — at least on small bikes and scooters — had become socially acceptable. Not a bad set of achievements for a 50cc machine! MC