Design icons: The monkey bike


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.

Categories: Design, Icons, Other, radioTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

La petite musique des vendredis

Le blog culturel d'Hélène Cascaro- arts visuels, cinéma, patrimoine, artisanat d'art, architecture,...

annabellabraydotcom

This WordPress.com site is the bee's knees

Avisha Rasminda

Hi, I'm Avisha Rasminda Twenty One years old, Introduce Myself As A Author , Painter , A Poet.

Ananda Only

an empty space between silence & stillness

A r e w e t h e r e y e t ?

Diversions, detours and discoveries

Nick Alexander

Author of Perfectly Ordinary People, From Something Old, The Road to Zoe, You Then Me Now, Things We Never Said, The Bottle of Tears, The Other Son, The Photographer's Wife, The Half-Life of Hannah, the 50 Reasons Series. And more...

Dr David T Evans, OBE NTF PFHEA RN(T)

Sexual health matters! It really does!

Dr. Eric Perry’s Blog

Motivate | Inspire | Uplift

Cole Moreton

Award-winning writer and broadcaster

Wildonline.blog

British Wildlife & Photography

Place, Plots and Plans

The PlaceMatt Blog

viewer site

Barbara Heath & Malcolm Enright - our viewer site blog

Museum Travelers

Cultural travel for curious minds

kirilson photography

the stories behind the pictures, and vice versa

Not-So-Modern Girl

Thoughts of a twenty-something girl navigating her way one blog post at a time

Anthony Hillin

Training, Facilitation and Policy development

Notes from the U.K.

Exploring the spidery corners of a culture and the weird stuff that tourist brochures ignore.

MOVIE-WARDEN

T.V/Movie News & Reviews

SAVING OUR TREES - Marrickville municipality

Community Tree Watch - working to protect healthy public trees in Marrickville municipality from inappropriate removal

MOVIE MUSIC UK

Film Score Reviews by Jonathan Broxton since 1997

A life in books

Book news, reviews and recommendations

150 great things about the Underground

An unofficial birthday salute to a public transport titan

Mistakes & Adventures

What I've always wanted

Expedictionary

Literary Geography

UNSW Built Environment's Blog

Information from students and staff at Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.

joe moran's words

on the everyday, the banal and other important matters

The Back Road Chronicles

Curious soul...and it makes me wanna take the back roads!

Francofoolery

My occasionally weird life in France

Wee Notions

Notes on a napkin

Philip Butler Photography

Architecture & Observations

Susie Trexler

Secret Knowledge of Spaces

Rebecca Renner

Welcome to Gator Country

kidlat habagat

Portraits of Urban life

DynamicStasis

DynamicStasis is basically an attempt to think about and discuss integrity, beauty, and delight - in architecture and elsewhere.

%d bloggers like this: