Fifty Years of Honda in America

Don Sherman

Fifty years ago, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, the Army promoted Elvis to Spec 4, and Alaska and Hawaii gained statehood. The music died when a light plane crashed with the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens on board. Hula hoops were hot; Edsels were not. An American Honda Motor Co. Inc. sign was quietly erected above a Los Angeles storefront.

Tail fins reached their apogee in 1959, the Volkswagen Beetle fought the Renault Dauphine for import-car supremacy, and Honda began stitching new wrinkles into America's cultural fabric.

Barely a decade after Honda started hanging war-surplus engines on bicycles (see time line on page 5), Japan's restless tiger was on the prowl. Planning division chief Kihachiro Kawashima toured both the Asian mainland and the United States in search of export opportunities. The Asian mainland countries' rising prosperity and close cultural kinship with Japan made them the obvious choice, but Honda's sales strategist Takeo Fujisawa believed otherwise, citing the company's policy of facing the toughest challenges first. "We must attempt to penetrate the difficult U.S. market before we go elsewhere," Fujisawa insisted.

A small expeditionary force headed by Kawashima arrived on the West Coast in June 1959. To save expenses, the Honda gang shared a one-bedroom apartment and stacked motorcycle crates by hand in the company's Pico Boulevard warehouse. Frustration set in when the first Honda Dream motorcycles proved to be too fragile for the sustained speeds and long distances it would need to cover to be successful in America, but there was a lucky fallback: the 50-cc Honda Super Cub cycle used by the team for errands roused unexpected interest. Since Piper Aircraft was already using the Super Cub trademark, Honda's pioneering product wore an unassuming Honda 50 moniker.

Were it not for the 50's sheer brilliance, Honda would surely have burned through the $1 million it borrowed from Japan's Ministry of Finance to gain a foothold here and gone home licking its wounds. Neither a moped nor a scooter nor a conventional motorcycle, the 50 combined a female-friendly step-through chassis with a clean, quiet engine. Breakthrough features included molded-polyethylene body parts, seventeen-inch wheels and tires, and an automatic clutch to facilitate one-hand riding.

The Honda 50's single-cylinder overhead-valve engine produced 4.5 hp, enough to propel the 143-pound bike to 43 mph. Humming like a well-oiled sewing machine, this $249 ride delivered more than 200 mpg. Fifty years after it arrived here, the Honda 50 is universally regarded as the two-wheeled Model T, with more than 60 million sales to its credit. It's still manufactured in fifteen countries on three continents.

The Honda 50 was the anti-Harley. Sales brochures called it "the thrifty, nifty Honda 50." Instead of selling them through traditional back-alley motorcycle dealers, Honda recruited agents in Popular Mechanics and offered sales franchises to hardware stores, lawn-mower repair shops, and even college bookstores. By the end of 1961, Honda's network of 500 dealers reached the East Coast, and by spring 1963, $5 million was budgeted for advertising.

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