Little bikes make big laughs, as the UK custom Honda Cub scene proves in spades.
The Honda Super Cub is the world’s most popular motor vehicle yet conceived—a global icon of personal transportation, comparable only to the Model T Ford, Volkswagen Beetle, Land Rover and Jeep.
Introduced in 1958, Honda Motor’s 10th year of existence, it was created by Soichiro Honda to “provide the joy of playing a useful part in people’s lives.” The profits from doing so underwrote Honda’s subsequent development into today’s automotive giant, as well as its dominant entry into all forms of motorcycle sport. The creation of all Honda’s various world champion bikes on and off-road came about thanks to the profits from building those tens of millions of Super Cubs.
Photography by Kyoichi Nakamura
With total volume surpassing 100 million units in 2017, more Super Cubs have been produced than any other motor vehicle in history. Supposedly, laid nose-to-tail, the number sold so far would circumnavigate the globe five times. The bike is so instantly recognizable it was the first vehicle in Japan to be granted a three-dimensional trademark, and in the 1960s became the centerpiece of Honda America’s famed marketing campaign proclaiming that: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”
And to commemorate that 100 millionth Super Cub being produced in October 2017, last year Honda began producing an all-new C125 version. This retains the original’s trademark step-through underbone format and styling, still with the trademark plastic leg guards, but with a larger, more powerful fuel-injected engine, a front disc brake with ABS, a digital dash, LED lighting and a keyless ignition.
But as well as being the most-produced motor vehicle yet conceived, the Super Cub has now also become the basis for an improbable craze that’s exploding worldwide. The cult for creating Custom Cubs took off in Japan 10 years ago, and then spread like wildfire around Asia. Now it’s hitting Europe—as a chance conversation on a Triumph press riding launch with one of their test riders led me to discover.
No, John Bloor hasn’t begun manufacturing a step-thru Triumph—but it transpires that two of his high-mileage test riders have a secret passion for Cub-stom Cubs—and the fact they’re married to one another inevitably means that Lee and Hayley Vigor have His and Hers models in their garage, so each can chill out aboard something completely different after a day of clocking up further mileage aboard whatever will soon be the latest and greatest from Triumph.
“I do around 100,000 miles a year, and Hayley probably about 80,000 miles,” says Lee, 47. “We both do at least 350 miles a day when we’re out on the road, and we ride together whenever we can. But when we come home we go out and ride together again, but this time on the Custom Cubs!”
So how did this hobby get started out? “I was just browsing on Facebook, and came across a local guy named James Gibson,” says Lee. “He’s the UK guru for Custom Cubs, the man who started the whole scene in the UK, and he lives around the corner from us. I went to look at his bikes, and instantly got addicted. Like lots of people, I had a couple of Super Cubs in my life—one I learned to ride on as a child going round a field in circles, and then another one in my 20s, which I used to get to work on. It was a hand-painted C90, which was just utterly dependable cheap transportation. But then I started working for Triumph and totally forgot about Super Cubs, until I fell in love with them again. Gibbo’s taken them to a different level, but it’s pure fun. Fun to dream up ways to personalize them, fun to do the work yourself with pretty basic tools, and fun to ride the result down to the pub or out for a meal, and have people looking at you with a smile on their faces. Anytime you’re riding something with two wheels and an engine that little old ladies come up and ask you about, you know you’re meeting the nicest people by riding a Honda!”
Quite so—but how did Lee and Hayley create His and Hers Custom Cubs? Lee built both bikes himself in 2015 over eight weeks of after-hours and weekend work, using a pair of standard C90 Super Cubs. Hayley’s pink one came in bits, while Lee’s own orange bike came off eBay complete and in running order, costing $575. Seems that’s a bargain, since prices are rising all the time, and you’d need to spend $1275 to get something comparable today—for a 25-year old 90cc runabout! Mind you, either of the customized Vigor bikes would fetch upwards of $2550 in today’s booming market for such creations. Back to the build.
“Anyhow, after completing the eBay purchase I decided to ride the C90 home,” says Lee. “It was so funny riding a Super Cub again after 20 years, but they just make you smile all day long. I keep up a good speed on the roads in my day job, but this pair are just about tootling along with the wind in your face at 30 mph, and you feel so cool and chilled out, even if our two bikes with the bigger engines will do about 70 mph flat out.”
Having got the bike home, it was time to start work. “I decided to build two bikes simultaneously, because all the mistakes I made on mine made it easier for building hers,” Lee says. “I started with mine because it was the complete one, and I basically disassembled it so I was left looking at the frame, then shot-blasted the paint off it, and decided what I wanted to replace. However, even though it was a runner, I changed everything in the end. You start off thinking ‘Well, I’ll just do this,’ but before you know it you’re replacing everything!”
Both Vigor bikes had an engine transplant, with 150cc Motosyko Hybrid engines manufactured by Zong Ho in China but assembled in the Isle of Man installed in each bike, sourced from the Manx one-stop shop for Super Cub tuning.
Their YX 150 engine measuring 56 x 60mm for 148cc via an aluminum cylinder produces 15 horsepower, so exactly twice the power of the original C90 engine, with the help of a great-sounding race exhaust with an internal silencer, and comes with a four-speed gearbox, 26mm Molkt carburetor, a Digital CDI with wiring loom and Race coil pack, a dual core foam air filter, Hydro vane oil cooler with braided lines, Banjo bolts and washers, etc. Fatter Continental KKS10 WW whitewall tires sit on 17-inch Race Boy Wheels from Malaysia, incorporating the stock 150mm SLS drum brakes. Due to his extra weight, Lee’s fitted Chinese-made higher-spec RFY shocks on his bike, which are three-way adjustable for spring preload, but new stock Super Cub shocks on Hayley’s. Adorn the result with a host of accessories and stickers—I liked the “Built not Bought” one on Lee’s bike—and the result is two pieces of practical and affordable motorcycle art just like the other tens of thousands of such bikes now being concocted worldwide.
“I did think Lee was going through a mid-life crisis when he went down the garage for eight weeks solid after we’d get back from work, and I didn’t see much of him off the bikes,” says Hayley with a smile. “He didn’t like me going there to see how he was getting along, but then—voila, he’s made me my very own pink Custom Cub. It’s definitely a ‘Hey, look-at-me bike’ and people can see you’re having fun riding it—we get a lot of looks! But riding it after spending a day aboard a proper motorcycle is strangely therapeutic—it’s really relaxing just to putter along, and put the smiles in the miles rather than worry about the miles in the hour. Actually, I stole that line off Gibbo!”
James Gibson, aka Gibbo, is the man who inspired this fast-growing Custom craze in the UK. Camp Hill Customs has a shop stuffed full of Honda Super Cubs in various stages of undress.
“I had a standard C90 Super Cub sitting in my garage doing nothing,” explains Gibbo, 36. “I thought I’d clean it up to sell it, so I went on to Facebook to look for parts, and somebody shared a Malaysian Street Cub group on there. I was stunned at what they had—big wheels, big engines, heaps of accessories, nothing I’d ever seen before. They’re creating two-wheeled works of art more or less freehand, with a grinder in one hand and a welder in the other, seemingly making it up as they go along. How cool is that?!
“I thought, there’s nobody in the UK doing this, despite so many being sold here. I started chopping my C90 myself, doing nothing very radical because I didn’t have any tools—just a socket set, a welder and a grinder, that was it. I put some fatter tires on it, sourced a larger engine, a handlebar conversion, a bigger exhaust and suchlike. I got it back on the road and took it down to my mate’s, and he had a brand new KTM Duke 125—a big wheelie machine, and a good firm bike. He said, ‘Oh, give us a go on that Honda,’ and when he came back, he went, ‘This KTM’s going on eBay.’ He sold it the day after, and bought my Cub off me. Then he comes round a week later and says he’s just bought another one, and then other mates all wanted one—it spread like wildfire.”
“So, I jacked in my job and set up Camp Hill Chop Shop, and that was it. People from all over Britain got hold of me saying, can you build me a bike? Since then I’ve been going non-stop. I started doing Custom shows, and showing our bikes alongside all the Harleys, and everywhere we go, we get mobbed. Because they’re getting so popular, all the UK Custom shows do a special Cub category because there’s that many of us. I’ve got five builds on the go, and there’s a good queue of future ones. I get somebody ask me every day to do a build for them, and I have to say look, I can build you one, but you’ve got to wait your turn. Get in line! If someone brings me a complete donor bike, the prices for doing a build start at $1900, but twice that is what some people are spending on them now.”
“The thing is this is so accessible to everybody,” says Lee. “I ride motorcycles all day every day, but I’m not the most mechanically minded person in terms of putting them together, but I found it really good to build the bikes myself, and have the pride of knowing I did that.”
Now for the big question: has Lee Vigor taken his Custom Cub into the Triumph factory, yet? “Not yet, but I must do soon, because my boss wants to see it, and he’ll probably want to have a ride on it, too. He better watch out, though—these things are so infectious, he’ll probably end up wanting to build one himself!”
Don’t be surprised if the Cub-stom craze hits America. Don’t say we didn’t warn you! CN