When you put your helmet on and go out for a ride or your daily commute, do you ever think about the history of the thing that you’ve just wrapped around your head? Probably not. I bought something sometime ago that does regularly make me think about the history and heritage of the motorcycle helmet. It is a UK magazine called WHICH? For those unfamiliar with WHICH?, let me explain. In 1957, Michael Young set up a consumer advice magazine from his garage that he called WHICH? and very quickly, through his annual subscription sales, his subscribers recognised the need to get good quality consumer advice on the many goods that were being marketed at the time. The 1950s was a decade that marketing, consumer lifestyle goods and the ability to manufacture quality products all came together. Wild and innovative marketing claims set out to target consumers, and even the performance of products varied regarding the promise of what they could deliver in reality, or not. WHICH? set out to identify the great and the awful. The magazine I bought was from 1968 and included a consumer test on motorcycle helmets, and this is where it gets thought provoking.
In 1968, there were few countries in the world which made wearing a helmet compulsory, even though the accident statistics showed that it was necessary. This meant that helmet technology was not developing fast because there was no imminent need. The best helmet protection was only available if you raced motorcycles, and that really wasn’t great either. Bell Helmets in the USA produced their first and famous Jet helmet in 1954 and launched the first ever full face helmet in 1968. This is interesting because the Bell Jet is still produced today, and in some great colour combinations. I have a Steve McQueen 6-Day Trials replica and it is a great modern day tribute to the original 1954 helmet. What I can’t get ‘my head around’ is that the Bell Jet was ‘the’ best protection you could get at the time to drive your F1 car, top fuel dragster, Bonneville desert racer, or a Grand Prix motorcycle. Today, it would feel insane to wear as little protection as that classic helmet.
The main thing a helmet should do is to protect the brain. Concussion is now far more understood than it used to be and helmet manufacturers recommend replacing the helmet after every crash, and/or after 3 years of use, because the lining will not provide the same level of cushioning that it should. I’ve never had a concussion. I’ve cracked 2 mountain bike helmets and only had one medium-sized ‘off’ on a motorcycle in the last century, and I naively continued to use that helmet for the next two years because it didn’t look scratched after landing in the grass on my head…….
As I’m genuinely fascinated by helmets, their construction, design and colours, I’ve managed to develop a small pile of them. My criteria to buy has been; Price (as little as possible), design, style, colour. They’ve all come from different places in the world as well.
I like to imagine the exciting and evocative stories behind an old helmet, and whilst I rarely know the story behind the owner(s) of a helmet, they do present some stereotype images. Here’s a quick walk through of some of them and with some written images about their owners……
The two helmets above were made made by the same manufacturer and portray the sports that they were made for. They’re essentially the same helmet, but you wouldn’t ever wear a snowmobile helmet whilst desert racing would you? Top marketing huh? I don’t know any of the history of these two helmets and they both came from different sides of the USA. The desert racer one did come from close to Mexico, so I have images of its first owner dodging bushes in the desert on a 360 Husky or a 250 Penton. An owner who thought through his or her helmet fashion carefully and it probably matched the rest of the riders kit as well. It is in great condition and doesn’t bear any crash scars, so maybe the rider was just really good, lucky or both. 1970s Metallic or glitter paint jobs were ace in the day and I predict a returning fashion to this style, particularly as we now have the ability to to do even better paint finishes today. In summary, they are both eye candy and an early evolution of Moto-brain protection.
The helmet above is also American and early 1970s. It’s been re-lined, and whilst it hasn’t been re-approved, I feel safe and lucky enough to wear it on a little bike. Compare this helmet to a modern day open face equivalent size and the shell is a lot smaller because a modern day shell needs to be bigger to contain all of the extra cushioning. A helmet evolutionary fact. Boring but true. I think it scores very high on the cool-ometer. The advice in this edition of WHICH? magazine is pretty good as well.
This helmet design was classic marketing at its best. In the early 1970s, Yamaha needed brand identity in the USA and this helmet was one of the earliest Yamaha branded products with the classic speed block design. The first time this design was used, it was the yellow, white and black design, and this evolved. What’s interesting about this brand identity is that whilst it is nearly 50 years old, it’s unmistakably Yamaha. The same way that a lime green and white motorcycle is going to be a Kawasaki. The brand design took hold quickly and it was proven by ‘King’ Kenny Roberts on the race track and ‘Hurricane’ Bob Hannah on the Moto-X tracks. Looking at the early 1970s motorcycle model range that this helmet was sold with, the bike would have been a 2-stroke screamer. Whilst the other helmets featured here are mostly painted, the speed block design on this helmet is adhesive decals (called stickers where I come from) and really well applied. They’ve lasted the test of time too. I’ve yet to find the yellow, white and black version of this helmet, so far. Another example of marketing driving safety and style, or style with added safety.
Picture the person who bought this helmet; long hair, 30” waist, high waist leather jacket, flared jeans which completely cover the riders shoes, aged early 20s, just left college and bought this helmet to go with the used bike found in a local ad’, and which was paid for by a loan from a supportive parent who didn’t also want to spoil their kid. This helmet probably had a bubble visor on it as well. It’s my favourite metal flake and glittery finish. No brand marketing on this helmet. People bought it because of its coolness in the McDonalds car park.
I first saw the French made and designed GPA helmet worn by continental Grand Prix racers in the very early 1980s. It was when one of them crashed and the rider pressed both buttons on either side of the helmet, that the lower front and rear halves split open like magic, and allowed the rider to remove it. Very cool. No chin strap required either. Unfortunately, I never saw one of these for sale in the UK For some reason. Maybe it was too expensive or didn’t pass the British Standards Institute test. It also had a visor mechanism that went inside the helmet. Very cool. I found this helmet in France and it does fit me. Putting it on is a normal experience until you hinge up the front and rear parts and it feels like NASA mission control have just shut and locked the door of the space craft that your tightly strapped into. It’s an exciting experience. The white one is a modern day version that I’ve made into a Mick Grant replica. Interestingly……..the visors are exactly the same and fit either helmet, so GPA, now more famous for horse riding helmets, have been true to the original design concept. The new version has a chin strap though.
Imagine yourself as Captain America and straight out of Easy Rider, riding a long-forked, rigid rear end, small petrol tank (zero range!), unreliable, Triumph or Harley engined chopper, and with the weather either cooking or freezing your face. Sounds cool and looks good on the poster, but actually, this is a super-thin, polycarbonate helmet that flexes more then an empty washing-up liquid bottle. No thanks, but I had to have one on the shelf anyway.
So, WHICH? magazine recommended always wearing a helmet, even if it wasn’t compulsory. The marketeers were at their creative best in a fast emerging consumer sector and people had the cash to buy. The perfect conditions. Sadly, helmet technology developed fast, and mostly to deal with accident situations that had already occurred. We’re a bit luckier today in that helmet manufacturers are designing for the future and predicting what might happen. Importantly, it’s all science driven technology and working arm in arm with the medical world. The helmet brand is still important today, and partly for historical heritage, sponsorship of famous people and quality. Bizarrely, I ride a motorcycle in a relatively safe environment and wear the best protection that money can buy. There are millions of people today that are riding motorcycles daily in very dangerous motoring environments, who either can’t afford a helmet or can’t pay the premium for quality protection. It’s a reverse-economy logic, but our heads are the same and should have the same level of protection. The foundation ‘Helmets for India’ are going some way to change this and with the creativity of top artists. You can check them out here https://www.helmetsforindia.com/
All of the above photos by the Author
Oh yeah!…….and another thing below