From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages. The monkey bike was broadcast on the 27th August 2022. You can listen to the audio here.*
Small-scale versions of most things have enchanted people for centuries, from dolls houses to Shetland ponies. And in 1961 there was the surprisingly small motorbike called the Honda Z100. Commonly known as the monkey bike, it started life as a novelty and quickly became an international sensation.
It was designed to be used by children at Tama Tech, an amusement park in Tokyo that opened in 1961 and which was owned by the Honda Motor Company to showcase its latest ideas. The little motorbike with its jaunty red frame had tiny 5 inch wheels, no suspension and a miniscule engine. It proved to be one of the park’s most popular attractions, and not just for children, so Honda decided to put it into production. With minimal modifications, it was launched on the Japanese market and became an instant hit, cheap to run and light enough to be loaded in the back of a car. The 50cc engine was zippy, too, giving an experience that found fans elsewhere. In 1967 it was released in Europe, with proper suspension, collapsible handlebars and an adjustable seat. An American version followed a year later.
The bizarre sight of an adult hunched over the motorbike’s tiny frame reminded some of a chimp on a bicycle at the circus and it quickly gained its monkey nickname. Actual monkeys had become especially popular at the time, with greater awareness of chimpanzee welfare, thanks to Jane Goodall, and our behavioural connection documented in zoologist Desmond Morris’s bestselling book The Naked Ape. There was also the huge popularity of American boy band, The Monkees. And if the 1969 film Easy Rider had beefed up the popularity of powerful Harley Davidson motorbikes, the tiny Honda threw a monkey spanner in the works, showing fun could be pint-sized.
Japanese culture is famous for its love of the micro, from intricately carved netsuke to the miniature perfection of bonsai; the monkey bike tapped into something else, too. After the devastation of the Second World War, the Japanese government set up a scheme to make vehicles of a limited size and with engines no larger than 150cc. These were taxed and insured at a lower rate than normal cars, enabling a greater number of the population to move about again. Known as kei cars, the idea has continued, and tiny cars and trucks are still popular, offering affordable and economical transport that can be parked in the smallest spaces.
Honda was famous for its motorcycles, including the bestselling SuperCub scooter launched in 1958, which often provided precarious transport for an entire family on its elongated seat. The monkey bike embraced the kei spirit but Honda also made its first foray into car making at the same moment, launching a tiny sportscar in 1963, the S500, which had the cuteness of an Italian roadster, just smaller. In Europe at that time, the Mini and the Fiat 500 were bestsellers, showing that cheap and small could also be stylish. With the oil crisis of the 1970s, city cars became a force in car design, eventually leading to vehicles like the Smart car of 1998, which was so short it could be parked facing into the kerb, and the more recent Citroen Ami of 2020, which can be driven by anyone with a moped license. No longer objects of derision, the low emissions and small footprint of these vehicles make them desirable. The monkey bike was a pioneer, then, even if started out as simple fun. It’s a demonstration that small doesn’t mean insignificant. It’s almost as if it was the monkey not the organ grinder that was setting the tune.