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CG125: The other unkillable Honda

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By AZLAN RAMLI

THEY are quite a familiar sight in this country, especially to those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.

Attached to sidecars, they haul vegetables, seafood, fruits and other foods and beverages, for their operators to sell. Most of the ones used for business are not in good exterior condition, to say the least.

However, they are the mechanical version of the cockroach – tough, super-reliable and unkillable! If the Honda Cub (moped) series is unanimously voted as the toughest bikes in the world, I dare say the CG125 is even tougher. It’s just that they lose out to the Cubs in terms of price and practicality, hence the Cub’s No. 1 world-record sales figure.

This one in these photos here is almost a daily weekday fixture outside of an office building in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Selling soybean juice and pudding (or tau fu fa… or douhua/doufuhua), it was already there before I started working at that office in 1994 (until 2006). It is still there, usually during lunch, where office workers and nearby residents buy from from it.

It started life in 1984 and spent only a year on two wheels. The following year, it was put on sale and was purchased by its second and current operator who calls himself “Mr Bean”, who took it to a shop to have a sidecar fitted to it. From then on, it spends its life solely as a business machine.

In the mornings, it does its trade at a spot in Cheras, near its home. During lunch time, it will make its way to Bangsar, puttering along Kuala Lumpur’s mad traffic at a modest speed. Powered by its 124cc four-stroke, overhead valve, single-cylinder engine married to a four-speed manual transmission, the CG125 sometimes haul nearly 300kg of total weight (including itself).

“People go very fast nowadays. Some will even angrily honk at me the moment the traffic light turns green. They think this is a fast machine,” said the 66-year-old, who learned the trade from his parents who started the business in 1963.

“I helped them, until I turned 18 when I got a job as a machinery mechanic. But I quit that job due to the small salary and started this business.”

The Cheras resident uses about 10kg of beans a day. With the business, he managed to raise three children. He has four grandchildren now. “Number Four arrived very recently!” he proudly proclaimed.

Born out of shocking discovery

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Honda’s exports to developing countries increased dramatically during the period, consistent with the growth of Southeast Asia’s economies. Consumers in this region wanted practical motorcycles that could handle multiple passengers and overloading.

In order to meet the growing needs of this region, Honda exported 90cc, 100cc and 110cc four-stroke, overhead-valved (OHV) bikes. Its competitors, meanwhile, were exporting two-stroke, 100cc machines. Somehow, despite the Hondas’ quality and design, the company was losing ground to other manufacturers.

To solve this problem, in May 1974, two Honda executives were assigned to conduct a “thorough research in actual markets under real-world conditions”. Takeshi Inagaki, who was in charge of creating motorcycles for developing countries and Einosuke Miyachi, in charge of design, spent a month observing motorcyclists in major cities throughout Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Pakistan and Iran. They were shocked at what they saw.

“It was normal to see a child on the tank and the wife at the back, with two to four people riding together,” Inagaki recalled. “And some people loaded vegetables, chickens and pigs onto their motorcycles. I even saw motorcycles towing loaded carts.”

The dealer situation, too, was completely different from that found in Japan. At the time, the dealer’s primary responsibility was to disassemble and repair motorcycles that were not in working condition.

Customers typically brought their motorcycles in only when they had stopped running. Therefore, the concept of routine maintenance was completely foreign to the dealers and customers.

“They continued to use oil even after it had turned into goo,” Inagaki said, “and the paper filter elements in the air cleaners would become solid as a dirt wall from all the dust. The drive chains would be stretched out to their maximum adjustable lengths and were worn and torn from hitting the chain case. The examples of such abuse went on and on. One after another, we saw spectacles we’d never even imagined possible from our home base in Japan.”

It was thus apparent that due to their complex structure the four-cycle, OHC motorcycles could not perform to their true potential in developing countries, where people subjected their bikes in the harshest conditions and the dealers were unable to provide sufficient service.

Quick decision

Following such market research it was concluded that Honda should develop a motorcycle that was above all practical and durable; and that it should have an engine with a maintenance-free, four-stroke design.

Immediately on their return from abroad, Inagaki and Miyachi submitted their findings to the Honda board of directors at the research and development (R&D) centre.

To overcome those “challenges”, Honda swiftly created the CG125, to be a motorcycle that was above all practical and durable; and that it should have an engine with a maintenance-free, four-stroke design. Its lightweight, short-pushrod OHV engine features a gear-driven, single camshaft structure for both intake and exhaust. The shaft is located where one would find the cam-chain housing in a more conventional OHC engine.

Among the other criteria it had to meet were:

  • A lightweight, four-stroke overhead valve (OHV) engine with excellent fuel mileage and rugged durability.

  • The exterior design must be sporty and fun (it’s the 1970s, mind you).

  • It must be designed with an emphasis on practical, daily use, with easy maintenance being a key feature.

  • It was to be developed exclusively for developing countries in which knockdown (CKD) production was also possible.

Creating a useful bike for developing countries

In March 1974, with the basic concept of the engine established, the development team got down to the real task of making the project work. The challenge was to develop a model exclusively for developing countries in which knockdown (CKD) production was also possible.

Inagaki recalled: “I wanted to revive Honda’s image as a maker of sporty motorcycles. But at that time, the purchase of a motorcycle would have been only a dream for most people in developing countries; a real status symbol for the common citizen. A motorcycle was a treasured possession that one could finally acquire after having saved enough money. So, of course it would have to last a long time.”

The OHV engine successfully answered the question of durability, employing a lightweight, short pushrod for higher performance and easier maintenance. It would also enhance productivity by sharing the same processing line with the OHC engine.

Two types of motorcycle frames and bodies were developed for the project: a steel plate press specification suitable for mass production at Kumamoto Factory and a pipe specification for knockdown production in various countries.

The pipe specification did not require large, expensive presses or dies, facilitating production with only a minimal investment. Moreover, it complied with the golden rule of overseas factory development; that to borrow a time-honoured Japanese saying the company could “give birth to a small child and raise it to be a big grown up.” To ensure that the bike could handle the anticipated load placed on it by two to four riders, its diamond frame would be enhanced considerably.

Two types of gas tanks were developed, making the top flat so that a child could sit on it. To ensure successful sales in each of these countries, during the previous stage of planning several colours and stripes were prepared. Further, two seat designs had been developed simultaneously: a long seat for multiple riders and a seat with a cargo carrier that would accommodate the expected degree of overloading.

The air-cleaner element was changed to washable styrofoam urethane, to withstand repeated cleanings. This design employed Honda’s first dual-element structure. The outer cylinder featured a large-mesh grid, acting as a primary filter, while the inner cylinder completely filtered out dust particles greater than 20 microns in diameter. Moreover, any dust smaller than 20 microns would be completely removed by the oil impregnated within the element. This would prolong engine life and significantly improve its reliability.

Several other innovations in mechanical design, specification, and manufacturing technology were incorporated into the new motorcycle, each with the goal of making it maintenance-free, durable, and easy to produce. A great deal of consideration went into developing a motorcycle that people in developing countries would find easy to use and easy to own.

Fulfilling the expectations of a growing region

Development was thus complete and the motorcycle went on to a favourable reception among the representatives of several developing countries who attended a December 1974 dealers’ meeting and test ride in Thailand.

During that meeting, Honda officials demonstrated the motorcycle’s easy maintenance and assembly at a dealership, where local mechanics were asked to disassemble, reassemble and inspect the motorcycle without the benefit of prior instruction.

The results were incredible; within a mere 20 minutes, they were able to reassemble the portion of the engine above the cylinder, including the new OHV mechanism. The engine started on their very first attempt!

The test ride was conducted using a measuring device that had been brought from Japan to Thailand. High-speed driving in the intense summer heat, along with high temperature testing, were conducted on the Asia Highway, which was nearly complete.

Driving overloaded in Bangkok, conducting “knocking tests” using local petrol, riding under intense heat and amid thick, choking clouds of dust were all part of the process.

Inagaki said: “Test rides of every imaginable situation were done repeatedly and soon we were confident that this motorcycle would meet the demands of the region.”

The CG125 (and also a CG110 version) was now ready for their first destination – the Thai market debuted on March 1975.

The “CG” nomenclature, by the way, stands for “Cash Guarantee”.

Long-life guarantee

Amazingly, the CG125 is still in production 45 years after its launch, in a Pakistani operations. Its 124cc four-stroke, overhead valve, single-cylinder engine has changed little over the years. By now, it is quite a desirable machine in Malaysia’s classic bike scene, where they fetch quite good prices, no matter the conditions they are in.

I did ask Mr Bean a few times to sell his CG125 to me, over the years; I even offered him a replacement bike on top of some cash. He politely turned my offer down each time.

“There’s no bike that can replace it. The new bikes don’t have that ‘bone’ down their frames to attach a sidecar to. Mopeds aren’t strong enough to carry me and the heavy liquid load I sell. I’ll stick with it, until one of us can’t do this anymore.”

Amazingly, the CG125 is still in production 45 years after its launch, in a Pakistani operations. Its 124cc four-stroke, overhead valve, single-cylinder engine has changed little over the years. By now, it is quite a desirable machine in Malaysia’s classic bike scene, where they fetch quite good prices, no matter the conditions they are in.

I did ask Mr Bean a few times to sell his CG125 to me, over the years; I even offered him a replacement bike on top of some cash. He politely turned my offer down each time.

“There’s no bike that can replace it. The new bikes don’t have that ‘bone’ down their frames to attach a sidecar to. Mopeds aren’t strong enough to carry me and the heavy liquid load I sell. I’ll stick with it, until one of us can’t do this anymore.”

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