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#303 The Honda Cub that keeps on giving

Take the Parking Lot Test. Can you identify a particular model by its silhouette?

The Cub that keeps on giving.

As you will read in ‘Circuit’ this issue, Honda applied for and received a patent from the Japanese Patent Office for the shape of its iconic Honda Cub, a motorcycle assembled around the world and now the longest running of any Honda model. Though the Cub is no longer as popular here as elsewhere, it was a very significant model in North America during the 1960s.
There are all kinds of fine print to overcome to register a patent—there would be no purpose for patent lawyers if that were not the case—but two criteria seem to be uniqueness and utility. The Cub is different because the patent is on its three-dimensional shape. How do you determine when to make a patent application on the shape of a motorcycle? Would you design a motorcycle today and then patent the shape tomorrow? Would you have to wait to see if anyone copied your design? Will Honda patent the shape of the MN4 that we introduced in the June issue? The shape is unique but whether there will be a rush to copy it is still an open question.
For fun let’s come up with a test: call it the Parking Lot test. It would involve going to the largest parking lot you can find, minimum of say, 1,000m across. Can you stand on one side of the lot and identify by shape a bike parked on the opposite side? If the answer is yes, maybe the bike is worthy of a shape patent. There are extremely distinctive shapes in motorcycling but who the individuals or companies are that created them can be tough to say because the seeds of creation are blurred as the years roll by. What was the real beginning? Style and design, almost by definition, evolve.
If an object has a distinctive shape, and is successful, many will try to copy it but the design will still change in time. When did the modern iteration of the sportbike first appear? Was it the original Ninja (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year) or was it the first Suzuki GSX-R? Can BMW, with its GS line, be credited for the design of todays’ big-bore adventure-tourers? What if Harley had patented the shape of the heavyweight American-style cruiser back in 1965? They were the only company still building such bikes and by extension the most successful. But while they have defined the American-style cruiser, did they invent what we now consider the heavyweight cruiser? The answer to that would go back a lot further than 1965 and the line might get very fuzzy.
But the concept of patenting a shape isn’t such a strange idea. It only takes a glance at any auto dealership to realize that most cars look much the same today. There are a few that stand out but they are on the fringes. How many cars do you recognize instantly on shape alone? The original Volkswagen Beetle, of course. But how many others would you be able to identify from a kilometre away? There aren’t many compared to the total number of car designs out there.
From far across a field what motorcycle is going to make you say “Yeah, that’s a Honda Cub?” An Ultra Classic, Gold Wing, or 1986 GSX-R? At that distance it is going to be the outline, the shape alone that gives you the answer, not the details.
The Honda Cub is unique but the 3-D patent may be more of a confirmation of the model’s significance to the company and popularity around the world. More than any other product, the Cub opened the North American market for Japanese brands to enjoy mainstream success on these shores. The shape represents an impressive blend of both form and function, with neither prevailing. It could be far more utilitarian or far more stylish but it likely wouldn’t have lasted so long then, or been so popular.

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