From vintage leather football-style helmets, to modern-day masterpieces of carbon fiber and Kevlar, the motorcycle helmet has developed a lot in its 80-year journey to become the awesome piece of gear it is today. Check out how helmets have developed over the decades, and the advanced technology at work keeping you safe in 2016 and beyond.
Without a doubt, the most significant development in motorcycle safety since the introduction of the motorcycle itself has been the motorcycle helmet. It’s the single most essential piece of safety gear for motorcycle riders, dramatically reducing the odds of injury and improving the odds of survival in a motorcycle crash, not to mention protecting them from wind, rain, bugs, and debris while riding. For many riders these days, the idea of motorcycles and motorcycle helmets are inseparable.
But it hasn’t always been that way – the history of the motorcycle helmet has been a struggle, as the very idea of wearing a helmet has long been opposed by many riders, and the development of helmets has been slow as a result.
In this article, we trace the development of the helmet from the early days of leather skullcaps and shellacked canvas shells, to the highly advanced equipment made of space age materials that protect our heads today!
The Roots of the Motorcycle Helmet
The first motorcycles weren’t even motorcycles – they were “motorized bicycles” that were built for convenient transportation and not performance, and the very notion of needing any kind of protection aboard those cumbersome machines of the early 1900s was unheard of.
But it wasn’t long before motorcycles became faster, especially in racing – and with speed, of course, came injuries. The first ever head protection for motorcycle racers was introduced over 100 years ago, in 1914. A British physician named Dr. Eric Gardner, who had been attending to a patient for concussion from a motorcycle accident, and commissioned the construction of an idea to prevent it – a shellacked canvas shell to cover the top of the head.
Cyril Pullin, winner of the premier Senior class at the Isle of Man TT race in 1914, sporting an early motorcycle helmet made of shellacked canvas in the very first year the famous race required head protection.
Gardner pushed for his invention to be used by racers in the Isle of Man TT, the premier motorcycle race of the day, and was successful; organizers of the race made head protection mandatory the same year, and an immediate reduction in concussions followed. The first ever “helmet” immediately proved its worth.
But civilians still balked at the idea of wearing one of the odd-looking shells while riding; most riders used no head protection at all. Some opted to use padded leather caps similar to football helmets of the day, but these were marketed as a way to hold the hair in place and keep road grime out of it (plus, they just looked cool; then, as now, motorcyclists always want to look cool while riding!) A skullcap and goggles was about the most protection you’d see on any rider in the early 1900s.
The Death of an Icon, and the Birth of Motorcycle Safety
However, that began to change with the death of famous British military officer and diplomat T.E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1935. Having survived numerous military campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula, Lawrence was actually killed in a tragic motorcycle accident only miles from his home by a severe head injury. Lawrence was a national hero, and his untimely death brought attention to the danger of motorcycle riding – and ways to make it safer for the first time.
The death of British national hero T.E. Lawrence from a head injury sustained in a motorcycle accident in 1935 brought about the first serious push in motorcycle safety, particularly with respect to head protection.
At the forefront of that effort was Dr. Hugh Cairns, a British physician who attended to Lawrence while he was in a six-day coma before passing away. Cairns was inspired by the event and began research into the high correlation between motorcycle accidents and head injuries, publishing the first ever report on the subject in a British medical journal.
Hugh Cairns was a British military officer and one of the attending physicians to T.E. Lawrence after the motorcycle accident that ultimately killed him. Cairns became driven to improve motorcycle head protection after seeing die from had trauma, and eventually got the British Army to require helmets for dispatch riders during WWII.
His research led to him lobbying the British military aggressively for some improvements in motorcycle safety, especially since in those days, motorcycle mounted “dispatch riders” were still used widely for reconnaissance and communication. Cairns’ efforts paid off in 1941, when the Army ordered all military riders to wear head protection, a “helmet” made of rubber and cork.
British dispatch riders gearing up for rides in 1941, with their rubber and cork motorcycle helmets as part of their issued gear.
A closer look at the “pudding bowl” style helmet in use during the 1930s and 1940s; this one is a version issued to British military motorcycle couriers.
The Beginning of the Modern Motorcycle Helmet
Still, over the next decade and a half, motorcycles became faster and faster, but head protection still had yet to become adopted by civilian riders. Most helmets of the day were of the “pudding bowl” variety, simple half shells with a leather strap that provided a minimal amount of protection. But a big development came in 1953, when a professor at USC, C.F. Lombard, developed a revolutionary new form of head protection – a helmet that actually absorbed impact.
Roy Richter, former race car driver and founder of Bell Helmets. Bell has been at the forefront of motorcycle, bicycle, and automotive racing helmet innovation since the 1950s!
His design used three layers: a hard fiberglass outer shell, and impact-absorbing foam middle layer, and a padded inner liner for comfort. Lombard’s design was picked up by Bell, who created their model 500 using those safety principles along with styling cues from aviation helmets of the day. The Bell 500 was an instant hit, and that helmet marks the beginning of the era of the modern motorcycle helmet.
An early advertisement for the ground-breaking new Bell 500 motorcycle helmet from the late 1950s.
Helmets like the Bell 500 became standard equipment in racing, but still weren’t well received by street riders. In the 1960s, however, popular opinion began to change and more riders began to use helmets, and in 1963, Bell again revolutionized the market with the first ever full-face motorcycle helmet the Bell Star. The Star was high-end and expensive, but offered more protection than anything else on the market in those days, using the same technology and materials as were found in the U.S. military’s flight helmets and NASA’s astronaut helmets at the time.
Motorcycle road racers in the 1960s, many of them using Bell Star helmets, the first ever full-faced helmets.
The Star hit the market at the right time too; only a year later, in 1964, the USDOT created the first-ever safety standards by which motorcycle helmets had to adhere to in order to be “street legal.” But the big boon to helmet makers was in 1966, when the US Highway Safety Act was passed by Congress, which specified that the states would be required to have helmet laws in place to get federal funds for highway development.
One of the most famous Bell Helmet users was legendary motorcycle stunt rider Evil Kneivel, who always wore a full-face helmet during his stunts…
…and here, you can see why. (c. 1975)
Grudgingly, most states complied, with 47 enacting helmet laws in the following years. But the law was extremely popular and considered to be overreaching, and beginning with Michigan in 1968, a number of states actually rescinded their helmet laws in spite of the federal government. A new Congress repealed the law in 1975, and more than half of the participating states repealed their helmet laws too.
But by that time, helmets had increased in popularity and were far more commonplace, and helmet technology continued to move forward. In the 1970s and 1980s, full-face helmets came into their own, with improvements in rider comfort like flip-up and tinted visors, later followed by the introduction of modular helmets, which combined the convenience of ¾ helmets with the safety of a full-face.